Bruce Sterling: Social network analysis has been around since the 1930s, but only recently has it become automated. It’s still more art than science, but it’s fast becoming indispensible for nailing opinion leaders, locating hubs of influence, and tracing flows of ideas.

Social network analysis maps the connections between people or organizations to see who exchanges information with whom. The resulting pictures look like a cross between a bucket of Mardi Gras beads and an overturned bowl of fruit. It’s easy to see which nodes communicate directly with the greatest number of peers, which have ready access to the bulk of the network and which connect disparate clusters.

At Ars Electronica, these works easily upstaged the less prosaic art (especially Gerhard Dirmoser’s finicky yet explosive analysis of Ars Electronica itself). Like fractals, they’re nearly impossible to create by hand, so they strike the eye with the somber, unchallengeable authority of, say, aerial photographs.

The most impressive diagrams at the symposium came from FAS.research of Vienna, which touts its graphs as a high tech solution to the problem of funding science and, by implication, art. Allocating money for scientific research has always been highly problematic. Science just doesn’t sit still for the usual forms of cost-benefit measurement, and in any case, how are bean-counters to understand the arcane stakes of bleeding-edge research?

Social network analysis offers an ingenious answer. When it comes to scientific research, the most important gauges of success are peer review and citation. Who is citing whom, and how often? Mapping these relationships and distilling them into a single eyeful reveals which projects have the most impact.

Yet social network analysis raises troubling questions. Do these computer-rendered tangles correspond to any sort of reality? A social network map is a buffer zone between funders and fundees. It looks and feels better than gut instinct or, worse yet, pork barreling. “You see, Professor, we gave all the euros to your worst rival because he is this large blue dot here in this center of vectors! You are merely that small pink dot on the benighted periphery.” And off the professor goes, shoulders slumped.

More here.