I like to say that Social System Mapping is one genre
in a new visual language that's emerging from the intersection of interactive online data visualization
and graph theory
. And because it's new, because the media that use this language are not yet prevalent, because most people have had little exposure to it - to many people it's confusing and underwhelming.
Beyond the fun of pretty moving pictures, and the zooming in & out - it gets dull and irrelevant fast. If you can't 'read' the language.
There are other people (mostly intuitive connection-seeing types & systems-thinkers) who instantly get a sense of the potential of this new genre of the graph language. They get excited, they dig in, they want more and more. But even they often have a hard time explaining to others why these maps are important.
Which makes sense, if you think about the language of geographical maps. Both types of languages are visual abstractions, both represent relationships that can't be seen from any other perspective, both are made up of data (not things). Neither is instantly obvious. There is an evolution that happens with any new language.
We can guess or imagine that when geographical maps were first developed, most people just saw meaningless scribbles. That guy carrying around a parchment scroll, flattening it out regularly, consulting the squiggly lines there - he must have seemed like a whack-job to others around him. I've been told there are still, today, places in the world where geographical maps are meaningless to many of the people. But not to us. Our ability to parse geographical maps has evolved.
If you're reading this - you can read the language of a geographical map in your sleep. You look at google maps at least weekly. A momentary glimpse at the satellite weather map tells you everything you need to know about the weather over huge portions of the globe. And every wise decision-maker who deals with things that impact or impacted by geography (whether social, political, atmospheric, topographical, infrastructural, agricultural, mineral and so on) consults the relevant maps in depth before making decisions, investing, policy-making, committing and so on. Geographical language informs everything we do in ways that nothing else can. It's essential to society, and shapes society in deeper ways than we can ever fully know or say.
Some of us are starting to be able to read the visual language of an interactive network graph the same way. Because of repeated exposure. Because we compose information using the language. Because we dig in and are curious and discover things.
My fantasy is that someday (sooner, rather than later, I hope) far more people will be able to read and write in this language. Because with all the wicked, seemingly intractable problems we currently face - coping, adapting, solving them requires us to, collectively, have far greater insight and ability to communicate about connections - about the relationships within systems, between people, among organizations, etc. And the need for that insight and ability to communicate about those otherwise-invisible relationships is precisely what this new visual language emerged from. It's whole purpose is to increase our insight in ways nothing else can.
I'd like us all to be increasingly able to take advantage of that purpose - the way we've latched onto geographical maps.
In fact, I think it may be crucial to our survival.