Networks, Affect, and Change

So I got back Saturday night from the Affect Conference in Lancaster. I suspect I’ll post more on it later. But for now, I’ve been thinking about networks, affect, and change.

Zizi Papacharissi spoke as part of a plenary on Friday night about the role of what she called “affective publics” and the Jan. 25 Egyptian Revolution, a talk based on Twitter data that she and her team scraped in the midst of it. As she noted, “affective publics” are publics that are sustained or separated by affect. In other words, they are networks that tend to push and pull based on affect, rather than other gatekeeping or network-shaping models.

Things may get clearer when looking at the data itself and the larger paterns Papacharissi and her team observed. For one, she noticed the Tweets valued instantaneous sharing, rising quickly from event after event. Next, certain “crowdsourcing elites” tended to garner the most support, with figures like Wa’el Ghonim and Andy Carvin getting retweeted more than others. They also existed in an ambient environment, an always-on news.

Getting to the more affective side, many of these tweets were powered by affective statements, goading action or pushing outlooks in groups that clung together through mutual sentiment. this supported a connected, but not necessarily collaborative story-telling of woven-together perspectives, observations, and calls for action. The array was no single story with a focus, but a collective tapestry of affective tides, forming collective stories, that built from different events but expressed different sentiments and approaches.

To me, Papacharissi’s talk provided a clear real-life example of some of the functions that Barabasi discusses in Linked and that many others present in network theory.  In particular, Egypt captures the role of hubs, like Ghonim and Carvin. With all of the diffusion created by networked revolts and social change, a potential taken to task by Malcom Gladwell in “Small Change,” the ability for strong hubs makes these affective publics powerful tools.

Drawing from sociologist Doug McAdam, Gladwell distinguishes between “strong-ties” and “weak-ties,” describing that weak ties, as the name suggest, refers to ties of little contact or connection. In Facebook terms, they’re the person you decided to “friend” who sat in your writing class but you rarely talked with. Strong ties are the opposite: palpable connections with meaning, depth, and time. Gladwell argues that most civil rights movements were moved by strong ties, not weak ties, while weak ties tend to dominate these new social media movements.

However, as Granovetter argues in “The Strength of Weak Ties,” often weak ties tend to strengthen the network. As I noted in my last blog post, weak ties often link what would be separate components of a network. They are the bridges and ferries that connect islands. Doing so, they construct larger networks.

Moreover, as Barabasi argues, many of the “rich” nodes turn into hubs that can exert a profound influence on the network. Such hubs are both the go-to sources for instructions or trends, and the collectors and retweeters of their weak-tied networks. Here, Wa’el Ghonim and the other core figures of the Revolution provided key examples, giving structure to the web of masterless nodes.

But as many of the other Egyptians I met argued, even now, long after these hubs have faded and the affective publics they organized have weakened, the links remain. The network remains. But it has turned more toward communication and localized action, not widespread, hub-orchestrated movement.

So I think another thing worth noting is the role of the larger affective atmosphere where the network finds itself.

And here I consider the talk by Jeremy Gilbert from the day before Papacharissi. He did not talk about networks or Egypt, but set his eyes on the recent election of the British Left of Jeremy Corbyn to the Opposition Leader. Trying to trace the sources for this major upset, Gilbert’s speculation focused on two main points: a changed law and a changed national sentiment. The changed law, created by the last opposition leader, allows any party members willing to pay the right to vote and not limit voting to the official or established party leaders, as the former law required.

Pointing to the larger affective atmosphere, however, Gilbert’s speculation proved interesting. He argued, based on his observations of student writing and outlooks, that a sense of powerless had diminished. As he argued, people will not move straight from oppression to change; first, they need a sense that they can do something, that change is possible.

While Gilbert’s argument went on from there, I want to rest here and speculate briefly about the role of larger affective and material constraints. Drawing from considerable data, Barabasi, for example, argues that “fitness” provides a key regulator of what tends to dominate a network as a hub. For example, as he notes, the Apple Newton was the first hand-held computing hardware, but the Palm Pilot quickly supplanted it because it was more “fit,” more suited to the needs of the network and the context of the moment. I suppose one could draw from Johnson’s notion of the “adjacent possible” here: “fit” products tend to be more successful based on the material and social possibilities of the time, pushing innovation in new directions, but needing a certain something there first.

More complexities exist, as Barabasi argues, but I think this level of fitness proves interesting when looking at Papacharissi and Gilbert’s presentations. In other words, “What turns a node into a hub?” How does a Tween by Ghonim or Egyptian liberals help ignite a revolution? How does an out-there political Leftist suddenly become a hub, like Corbyn? Or, in the U.S., how does Bernie Sanders, who was running an almost blackout campaign in terms of traditional legacy media, suddenly raise so much money and gain record-level searches and trend after a debate that most mainstream media sources said Hillary won?

I guess I want to contextualize this fitness in more affective terms and in less utilitarian terms. In other words, when it comes to politics, I think affect tends to be the main definer of fitness, of the actions that the networks take and the hubs that get recognized and “rich.” Different affective trends and potentials, depending on the situation, can steer the network in different ways by producing conditions that certain nodes may or may not thrive through.

Because of where my head is at, I’m more concerned with connections and speculations at the moment and less with solid answers–or directions. For one, I’m struck by affect’s instances on the “slow” and the “long”: “slow protest,” “slow scholarship,” the “longue durée,” “slow trauma,” and dwelling in a particular affective moment, no matter how painful, before trying to force or fabricate a hope that may not actually be there. Giving a long, sensitive stare at the present and the possible.

I’m also struck by a possible connection with Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project,” where Benjamin collected, observed, and speculated on the odds and ends of the Parisian “arcades,” large commercial galleries, in order to get a better sense for future forecasts. In an age of vast data-mining, we have an interesting ability to collect the metadata of odds and ends. This may not lead to a forecast, but it may give an interesting perspective to the trends and affect of daily life. In time, one can speculate, these trends may filter into the larger sphere through networks, with hubs acting as guiding principles.

But here, I stop, trying to leave a door open for future speculation, aware of this messy post–but excited for some of the thoughts it has inspired.

[Image: Tehrir 2011 by Dennis Bocquet]

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