Vertical and horizontal networks

I'm proposing a distinction between vertical and horizontal networks to clarify our discussions of networks and communities. Vertical networks are confining, imposed and physical. Horizontal networks are expansive, self controlled and non-physical. This distinction replaces the two meanings of "groups" used by Jon Dron and Stephen Downes. It replaces the concept of a network being "contained by a community" as Ray Sims suggests or "within an ecology" as George Siemens proposes.

I finished reading John Naisbitt's (Megatrends) latest book last night: Mind Set! He forecasts a change from tracking the Gross National Product of each country to monitoring the Gross Domain Product for each global industry sector. Automobiles are assembled in one country using components manufactured in dozens of other countries. When a country adds the finished automobile to its GNP, it misrepresents and shortchanges the contributions from other countries. It makes more sense to cut across the borders to account for the health of the global auto industry.

This gives us a way to better understand "learning networks" that Ray Sims explored yesterday. Each of us work in a physical location where other people are present that we did not choose and do not control. This vertical community is imposed on us and establishes artificial borders. The vertical community may silence dissent, as Stephen Downes explains in his rant against small groups. This imposed gathering is not fully open, as Ray explores in his distinction between learning networks and communities.

Inspired by Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat", Dave Gray (CEO and Founder of XPLANE) pictures the blogosphere as a horizontal city. Dave sees similarities to the process of meeting new people, making new friends and frequenting new places. The people who find us online and link to our blog postings share similar passions. These connections are made regardless of locations and schedules. This horizontal access cuts across vertical locations, differences and restrictions.

Horizontal networks also cut across the lines of vertical networks in workplaces (teams, groups, reporting relationships, memberships, etc.). Etienne Wenger defines communities of practice this way. He distinguishes them from matrix organizations where an individual wears two hats and reports to two different supervisors. Communities of practice cut across project or job-assignment lines to confab with peers who have similar technical expertise. Wenger suggests that the community of practice may prove to be more stable and continuous than the changing job assignments, reporting relationships and accountability structures.

Inside a vertical network, we are limited in what we can learn, who we can relate to and how we will grow. Inside a horizontal network we are unlimited and free to explore, choose and change our minds.

Note: I wrote a followup to this post the next day: 4.07.2007

Perceiving networks subjectively

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  1. Defining vertical networks in negative terms and horizontal ones in positive terms is biased and arbitrary. Sociocultural norms and constraints work on the horizontal level as well as on the vertical.

  2. Can a vertical network be a network if it is confining, imposed and physical? I see the differentiation, but I'm not sure if "vertical" warrants network status. Isn't it just a hierarchy?

  3. Thanks for your insights, Charles. I agree this post makes a biased presentation. The horizontal network can induce disorientation, even an existential crisis, for someone who has a low tolerance of ambiguity. I suspect the freedom in it only functions effectively when the vertical network provides context and contrast. A similar point was made in my exploration of design constraints improving creativity.

    Likewise the vertical network is where we confront the contrary, learn to relate to other viewpoints, and expand our insightful acceptance of diversity. In the context of the value of the vertical network, the horizontal seems escapist and irresponsible, promoting elitism, aristocratic control of the powerless and stereotyping of differences.

    Please feel free to add more to what you've said here.

  4. Thanks for the question Harold. I think of hierarchies as networks because they are comprised of nodes with linkages. Those linkages sometimes loop around so the nodes receive feedback on their outputs. There are high levels of interdependency, shared fate and waves of repercussions within the structure. The system maintains itself by self regulating and self policing as well as setting up boundaries to exclude problematic participants. It could only "not be a network" if the nodes functioned in isolation, received no feedback and survived without support from the system,

    I hope this helps clarify my use of the "network" concept.

  5. No. But I have to applaud the effort.

    To explain, let me cite what was said about 'horizontal networks': "The people who find us online and link to our blog postings share similar passions" and "Communities of practice cut across project or job-assignment lines to confab with peers who have similar technical expertise."

    Now in my terminology, you're just defining another kind of group.


    Groups are defined by the nature of their members. This is what makes it possible to define a line dividing people who are members of the group and people who are not. When you define a 'network' as people who 'share similar passions' or 'have similar technical expertise' you are focusing on the properties of the members.

    Networks are defined by the *connections* between the members. It doesn't matter whether they share similar passions or work for the same company or whatever. As I've argued before, networks don't have boundaries. There's no way to describe who's in and who's out - other than by enumerating connections.

    I think that the distinction between vertical groups and horizontal groups has merit (well, at least as much merit as the analogous distinction between vertical and horizontal markets). But it does not shed light on what is a very important distinction in the *nature* of ways people can associate with each other.