People’s social net­works can be quite exten­sive, often bigger than they realize. So Brooke Fou­cault Welles, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, says it’s not sur­prising that past research indi­cates people can’t always recall everyone in their net­work and every­thing they know about them.

For her part, Fou­cault Welles is pur­suing a new line of research she describes as helping people “acti­vate their net­works.” She says people’s social groups, par­tic­u­larly in the work­place and other pro­fes­sional set­tings, con­tain valu­able con­nec­tions and resources that are under­uti­lized. For instance, a col­league could be a useful resource on a work project or someone in your pro­fes­sional net­work could be the ideal con­nec­tion for a new job. Often, the people who are most rel­e­vant to an individual’s needs are those at the edge of his or her net­work, she explained.

I like to think of these net­works as resources that are hidden in plain sight,” said Fou­cault Welles, whose research focuses on how social net­works shape and con­strain human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “If you don’t have a good sense of who is in your net­work then you can’t leverage what people have to offer.”

Brooke Welles

Brooke Fou­cault Welles, assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies. Photo by Brooks Canaday

Mea­suring and iden­ti­fying the con­se­quences of an individual’s ability to accu­rately acti­vate his or her net­works is a social psy­cho­log­ical con­struct that Fou­cault Welles calls “net­work thinking.” This approach, she says, can be par­tic­u­larly valu­able for the U.S. mil­i­tary, which relies on effi­cient and effec­tive networks.

This fall, Fou­cault Welles received a U.S. Army Research Lab­o­ra­tory young inves­ti­gator grant, with which she will spend the next three years mea­suring and iden­ti­fying “net­work thinking.”

Learning how well someone knows his or her net­work and detecting errors in the person’s rec­ol­lec­tions has tra­di­tion­ally been time-​​consuming and labor-​​intensive, she says. That’s why Fou­cault Welles, with her new grant, will develop a self-​​reporting scale for mea­suring “net­work thinking.”

Over the next year, she will survey North­eastern under­grad­u­ates with ques­tions about their social net­works and then com­pare those responses to what she per­ceives and observes from data gath­ered from their Face­book accounts.

For this project Fou­cault Welles has teamed up with Christo Wilson, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, who will develop a method­ology for col­lecting this Face­book data. Wilson’s research focuses on online social net­works, secu­rity and pri­vacy, and algo­rithmic society.

Once about 200 North­eastern stu­dents have been sur­veyed, Fou­cault Welles will use the scale to deter­mine how “net­work thinking” affects indi­vidual and team performance.

Fou­cault Welles said this research could have tremen­dous trans­la­tional poten­tial for mil­i­tary prac­tices. She also views the scale as a tool to mea­sure how quickly people adapt to new sit­u­a­tions, such as col­lege life. “Stu­dents who are quicker to rec­og­nize a col­lege sup­port net­work are more likely to have an easier tran­si­tion,” she said.

Col­lab­o­rating with Wilson will also create an oppor­tu­nity to set the social sci­ences stan­dards for col­lecting data from social net­works such as Face­book, Fou­cault Welles said. “Right now there are few eth­ical guide­lines for col­lecting data from Face­book,” she said. “We want to estab­lish a track record of researchers doing this eth­i­cally to gen­erate social sci­en­tific insights.”