‘Are formal networks pre-internet artifacts?’ – asked Gillian in her post of August 30th. For some time now, we have been dabbling in and experimenting with the ever-evolving networking technologies available online. Working with a formal membership network of over 600 people worldwide, we have been seeking ways to use online technologies to stimulate decentralized engagement and action.

In 2006 we progressed from a traditional website (in Dreamweaver) – editable only by headquarters staff – to an open-source web-portal. The portal provides all network members with the opportunity to login, edit their user profiles, search other members, and share news stories, coming events and resources. And yet already we can see that the speed at which online technologies are developing means that our portal appears a product of the past. Web2.0 social and professional networking tools have taken centre stage, offering ever-more informality, flexibility, functionality and fun. The burning question – What are the implications for our formal membership network? And yet maybe there’s a bigger question that we ought to first be answering…

For me, the question of a network’s ‘form’ (and related used of tools and technologies) cannot be separated from the question: What is the network’s function? (- For we have all heard the familiar ‘form follows function’ saying.)

The World Conservation Union has over 10’000 expert members in six formal networks (otherwise known as ‘Commissions’). What is the key, generic function of these networks? The Union’s website states that these networks ‘assess the state of the world’s natural resources and provide the Union with sound know-how and policy advice on conservation issues’. Is a formal, membership network the best form to support this function? I think this question deserves further exploration. No further exploration is necessary, however, to see clearly that the formality of these membership networks brings to the Union an essential scientific credibility without which the largest conservation organization in the world would certainly lack influence.

When addressing the issue of form following network function – and the related issue of the most appropriate technologies- how can we address (and perhaps reconcile?) these explicit and implicit network functions for greatest impact? I’m hoping that both my informal and formal networks will help me here…

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