Enron Emails Reveal What a Web of Deceit Really Looks Like

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The shape that a social network takes may be a new kind of digital smoke to spot the fires of corruption within an organization

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The social networks constructed through analysis of Enron's internal emails reveal legal and illicit projects take totally different forms. In legal projects, many people are connected to many of the other people on a project and information is widely distributed. In the illicit projects, information was concentrated in the hands, what researchers call the "hub," and pulled in from distant and isolated "spokes."

Carnegie Mellon organizational theorist Brandy Aven led the research and presented it at an MIT workshop on social networks earlier this month. It was first reported by Science News.

Aven makes two excellent points about her research. First, a hub-and-spoke setup would keep the people at the edges of the network in the dark and therefore less likely to know about (or stop) the dirty dealing. Second, while we tend to think of social networks as the preexisting "plumbing" through which information flows, her analysis makes it obvious that in some cases, the information determines what the plumbing looks like.

And, of course, there is a very important implication of this work: Some networks might be structurally suspicious, even if none of the content passing on it looks that way. This kind of analysis could be one way to diagnose bad acting within a large organization.

Note: I'm talking to Aven later today. Expect updates.

Via Zach Seward on G+.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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