What does it mean to model networks?

There are a lot of issues surrounding network fiction that I’m not sure we really got to in the presentation today (especially since we didn’t spend much time talking through the formal elements of the genre the way we’ve done in other presentations). So I wanted to ask a question that didn’t quite come up during my and Ellen’s presentation today, in terms of what, exactly, constitutes network fiction (not one I necessarily have the answer to).

Most of the examples of network fiction we discussed – The Wire, films like Syriana or Cloud Atlas, etc., all try to tell (relatively) coherent stories that model or compress massive, realistic networks into (again relatively) organized, structured narratives. So The Wire manages to tell a story about Baltimore without actually capturing the totality of the networks that constitute the city (the institutions, economic trade, etc.), which would be impossible structurally (for example, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time, even though all 200-odd characters are acting at the same time). We already discussed the distinction between complex storytelling with multiple plots or character arcs and something that captures and aims to mimic the rhythms of networks, but I’m interested in another possible grey area: What sorts of networks in network fiction are merely models of networks, and which are networks unto themselves?

I’m not sure if there’s an actual answer to this question for all network fiction, but I’m especially interested in its application in the context of games. Lots of games model or create networks, especially in genres like Massively Multiplayer Online games (Second LifeWorld Of Warcraft, etc.). In bigger games you can find whole networks that are facsimiles of “real” networks, or ones that take on individual structure and purpose within the world of the game. Other games like Animal Crossing (I think, I’ve never played that game) seem to mimic networks for single players, who then interact with those networks but not with any other “real people.” In general, it seems like games create a vastly more complex array of ways that networks can be modeled or represented in art than in relatively linear narratives like film or television. So are the networks created by say, a Warcraft guild any less “real” than a similar group of individuals with common goals?

My inclination is that those networks aren’t any less “real,” especially if they’re formed between different players all interacting in a virtual environment (which raises a host of other questions about games that aren’t MMOs or create these networks with NPCs), but that seems to make the question of what networks are or how they’re represented even more confusing. To some extent, most networks aren’t “real” (social networks, etc. are all virtual). But if those networks are virtual, what distinguishes them from the virtual representations of other networks (within a game, say)? Do networks somehow model themselves? I’m not sure.

5 thoughts on “What does it mean to model networks?

  1. Part of what you seem to be getting at here, Eric, is the distinction between representing a network (e.g., through an information visualization or network graph or perhaps a linear narrative) and channeling a network (e.g., through the feelings or affects experienced in online interactions that are part of a networked game).

    If you’re interested in a bibliography of texts on this question, my PhD seminar on Network Aesthetics | Network Cultures this quarter is looking at both network representations and networked experiences across literature, games, virtual worlds, and more.

  2. When you say, “most networks aren’t ‘real’ (social networks, etc. are all virtual)” do you mean to say that social networks like Facebook and your internet “friends” don’t accurately replicate what goes on in network/multi-narraitive fiction? Because I would definitely disagree.
    I definitely get that online social networks can be stupid and poorly representative of a real world network, e.g., “holy shit these two people I go to college with are also friends?!?!? no way!!!” But sometimes by exploring my Facebook friends’ profiles and their mutual friends, I’ve often come to find really bizarre linkings between people that I never would have thought knew each other, or met under weird circumstances, much like what happens in a multi-narrative network fiction. Just last night through Facebook, I found out that a girl I went to elementary school with transferred to a new college and now knows another girl I went to high school with as well as an old co-worker. (It should be noted that my elem. school is not a feeder for my HS and they’re in vastly different towns. All these three people live in different towns.) Or just last week, even outside of Facebook, I met a friend of a friend who knew a girl I went to middle school with. This friend of a friend was from a small town in Iowa, the girl was from Honolulu. By any rational means, these people should never have met, but the world turns out to be a really bizarrely small place in ways that are sometimes beyond our imaginations. Maybe not in such an esoteric way like Cloud Atlas, but perhaps more like in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. And in my case, this is very much spurred on by the globalization of society. But in learning about these connections, I can definitely start to picture the larger-scale global significance of my relationships with people, much like in the way that we emulated that in class today with the stress balls.

    Then again this whole dumb post might just be all for naught and I might just be misinterpreting your question because my understanding of video games is severely limited.

    • Tori, the stories about how you met people who were friends of friends and people from different circles of your life happened to know each other reminded me of that theory about six degrees of separation, which suggests that every single person in the world is connected to everyone else by at most six degrees of separation. So if you connect to the right chain of people, you can find anyone in the world in six steps or less. It’s a really interesting thing to think about because it makes it seem like all of our connections are densely woven (and they are) but at the same time it’s really hard to find those connections because you would have to find exactly the right six people to lead you to the person you want.

      Network fiction seems to deal with only a couple degrees of separation at most (although I haven’t read too many examples of it, so maybe I’m just missing the ones that do). One thing that makes them interesting, though, is that they deal with connections that you might not find represented on any documented or virtually represented network like Facebook or an MMO. For example, your postman is your postman even if you’ve never talked to him, and it’s a connection in your life that probably isn’t formally recorded, so you might not ever make the connection, but something which fiction can inform and remind you about. The exercise in class with the stress balls also definitely reminded me of this point, because some of the “connections” were literally “We ran into each other at the cafe!” or other such transient, fleeting moments. It’s a very different kind of connection than the ones that leave a paper trail, which a computer could trawl through and calculate the degrees of separation.

      I guess basically I’m just thinking about how much more connected it would turn out we all were if we considered the types of connections that network fiction reminds us of, like the jogger who runs past your house each day, or the guy who held open the door for you when you were carrying too much to do it yourself.

  3. I’m curious what you think is at stake in the difference between the two! It seems to me that to model a network is to create a network, but then I’ve always been a bit of a Deleuzian in terms of viewing representation as a form of production.

  4. In my opinion, we need to have a framework to define a “real” network first. If the condition for the formation of a “real network” is that “real” people must be involved, then I believe we are leaving a grey area in the definition. Almost every “real” network has some sense of the “virtual” in it, be it the mode, connections, entities or representation possibilities.
    Also, I don’t think network model themselves (unless we look at it in the terms that colinwyc aptly describes it). Representation of network, production mode of network and constituting entities of the network are three very distinct entities and arguments could be made, according to me, for the real or virtual aspect of a network on these three basic parameters (besides others).

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