Networked

When I first grew self-conscious that friends come and go–breakups, fights, forgotten phone calls a part of life–I found Nietzsche’s short aphorism in The Gay Science called “Star Friendship” helpful. In it, possibly alluding to his rift with Wagner, Nietzsche describes, “We were friends and have become estranged.” Even more, they are now “earth enemies.”

Yet, as Nietzsche also writes, “There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path — let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.”

So it’s a question of scale. At the one level, chance meetings, fights, or enduring partnerships exist in a certain way. We experience and name them with a certain vocabulary. But further up, in some “invisible stellar orbit,” these connections gain a different timbre or pattern. Like looking at a character map of Middlemarch, certain once-tangled relationships and social shifts emerge  with network forces affecting broader social cohesion.

For example, a meeting may bring together two distinct groups that were independent before, forming a “huge component” to use the language of Easley and Kleinberg. Or, as Merton describes, the “Matthew effect” might shift the circulation of a text, with a well-known scientist getting more coverage than a newbie simply through his or her tug in a network.

And with current technology, both in terms of data mining and visualization, we can get a better sense of that “stellar” perspective. I think the question remains, however, with what to do with it and how we understand it. In particular, I think it should shift the way we look at agency, moving it from an egosystem to an ecosystem, i.e. thinking of ways that we fit into broader networks and can influence them in a networked way and not in a purely self-based way.

I guess a way you could phrase it is this: how much agency do I have as a node and a collection of nodes?

First of all, I think that Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” provides a helpful model for the way it describes weak ties, absent ties, and strong ties as a way to bridge macro and micro perspectives. For one, having a strong tie linking two nodes together increases the chance that the same two people with have more weak ties in common. But more importantly, these weak ties often act as “bridges” connecting other nodes that may be connected to strong ties, as this figure highlights from the piece:

Dotted lines are weak ties and solid lines are strong ties.
Dotted lines are weak ties and solid lines are strong ties (pg. 1365)

Granovetter gives the example of an individual who changes jobs. Moving from one “dense” network to another, the individual forms a bridge, expanding the network in general. The perpetuation of these weak ties gives a certain power to them, with strong ties being hard to cultivate and maintain, but with weak ties acting at the wefts and warps of a social model, the little stitches that help keep it close. I can’t help but think of van der Waal forces, the little repulsions and magnetisms that thread our molecular universe.

Tracing paths through acquaintances, chance-meetings, colleagues, and friends, one can build a comprehensive web and find surprising connections. From a distance, one sees the connections that bind people in Milgram and Traver’s “small world” experiment or the vast networks cultivated from Google and other databases.

But what if we turned the scale the other way? In other words, what if we looked at localized scales at the level of self–an extension and diffusion of self–within an small setting.

Here, I am considering the ever-increasing reality for many people that the avenues, networks, windows, locations, and forms of self expression have changed, including different networks and modes of expression, or causing the networks from one world to trail into another.

For example, at any given physical proximity, I have a network of close ties and weak ties, people like friends or colleagues. Many of these ties may also be “friends” with me on Facebook. Some may follow me on Twitter–and I may follow them. A few could connect with me on Tumblr. We may Snapchat or text.

But interacting with the same people in different ways is further complicated by the interactions I have with other people in these different spaces and the different “selves” I may express in different settings. Just as we may not act as the same person with different people or in different settings, we do not act as the same person within the different networks housed by media portals. Here, the distance may be even more marked, with different media cultures or constraints. Tumblr tends to abound in .gifs, for example, or Twitter has its 140-character limit.

I see a deep exchange between the “self” expresses in these different settings and the variables in each setting that lead to different self expressions. I suppose one could look at different settings or portals, both physical and digital, as different “clearings,” to use Heidegger’s word, different backdrops for the expression of beings. Without the different fabric and means of expression, without language, we have the “poverty of the shepherd,” requiring the clearing to express being.

But it’s this plurality of clearings, this plurality of networks, that complicates matters, as each network contextualizes the node in a different way, though they may share the node in common. The node has different “ethos,” if you will, while being the same person. My Facebook ethos differs from my Twitter ethos, which differs from the ethos I have as a teacher. The “same” person differs considerably across spaces, resulting in a sort of Theseus’ boat paradox: as I continually change, what about me stays the same?

Here, we get into sticky metaphysical and ontological territory, like Locke’s critique of substance and Levi Bryant’s concept of “virtual proper. ” While I don’t think I have the space to expand, I do think one thing is important: one may get contextualized and determined by different networks, but one also is a force within networks as well. Such a force may arise from other sources or smaller networks within, but still, depending on scale, one can likely point to a node as an origin point or as a channel of forces. Much like the Nickelodeon show Avatar, we are “benders,” but instead of air benders we are network benders.

But we need the tools and scale to make sense of this, using networked or in-common tools and channels to advance agency. And this is what makes networks so interesting: our actions can get co-opted, extended, frustrated, etc., in the workings and exchanges of the space. I suppose this is where I’m at, trying to better understand how all this works and what it might mean. Or if I just wanted to make an Avatar reference.

[Image: Network (in glorious Helvetica), by Alexander Baxevanis]

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