Thursday, January 4, 2007

Net Morticians

It wouldn't surprise me much at all if, in the year ahead, The Lives and Deaths of Networkswe hear more about network blight or the dissolution, abandonment, and decay of once-thriving clusters of interconnected activity. Danah Boyd's entry from Wednesday started me thinking again about the nascent network cycles that have yet to show significant, extended desultory patterns and down-trends. Boyd responds to Steve O'Hear's notion of social network fatigue (via) or, basically, the idea that actors in a given system will tire, grow weary, and as such, the system on a broader scale will slow to a creep or halt altogether. Boyd at first expresses skepticism--"Users aren't going to tire of their friends but they will tire of problematic social spaces that make hanging out with friends difficult"--before working through other considerations related to the fading of social networks and speculation about YouTube, MySpace, and teens.

For now, I'm most interested in the idea of network decay or fatigue brought up in the entries by Boyd and O'Hear. I suppose I'd be guilty of painting with broad brushstrokes to suggest that interest in network vitalism has, for the most part, favored genesis rather than dissolution, abandonment, and the cadaverous husks of exhausted (adequated?) links and nodes. Heck, we've seen much more of it, much more of the early waves of enthusiasm and euphoria, I mean. And still, we have digital monuments (relics to networks, not people, in this case), but the web's clouds of data-dust cover them rapidly enough that encomia are usually brief. The web, despite the ether, deletion, and ephemera, needn't be a funereal domain.

To the degree that social networks are living, they are also dying, right? Or prone to vacillations and arrhythmias. I only want to make a couple of notes about this, and keep them here for later. The first is that this resonates with something I was skirting around two weeks ago in my take-home qualifying exam. I won't go into great detail (oughta wait until they're assessed as passing, eh?), but I was working extensively with Munster and Lovink's "Theses," in which they call for a "distributed aesthetics" that will "account for these experiences of stagnation within network formations and for coupling these networked experiences with a network's potential to transform and mutate into something not yet fully codified." Dying, living, ongoing, mutable, more or less cyclical. But because these social networks fuse together organisms and constructs (a primal puddle of entangled code), strictly organic metaphors falter, failing to account for the multiple life cycles of flocculent data and metadata, variously inscribed. Maybe Thacker's "Living Dead Networks" would help us toward a better theorized understanding of the contrails and exhaust left by networks or the network junkyards piled high with cast-asides and waste. This is what I mean about the web not being a funereal domain: there's no burial ritual for zombies, no panegyric for walking-deadworks (this/that wiki or listserv or forum or blog lived long ago!), no lasting sense of loss in abandoned heaps of information and mummified memes.

The second thing--and this is a point made both by Munster and Lovink in their discussion of mapping and by Thacker in his discussion of diagramming--is that the iconic representation of networks is, much like its counterpart in human anatomy and physiology, the anatomical chart, a momentary and (potentially) idealized slice of complexity (could the same be said for symbolic representation? for enactive?). That is, representing networks (mapping them, diagramming them; much of which I continue find intriguing and suggestive) really must constantly reassert the inherent dynamism of the thing depicted and the vitality downplayed by its static presentation. Otherwise, there comes the risk of something like dogfish in the dissection pan--the network trapped long enough to rest between two slides for magnified inspection is not quite the same as its raw form, still open to transformation and mutation. I'd locate my reservations about SNA or mathematical sociology here. How, then, can mapping and diagramming network formations proceed without merely dealing with dead things--the post-mortem networks, steel-gray in their baths of formaldehyde, describable only in their stillness?

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 4, 2007 9:45 AM to Networks

And given that these networks are moving, rather than static, how can you tell if something is truly "dead" (abandoned? taken off the web?) versus (and I don't mean to borrow from Monty Python here), "just resting." In blogging, some of us take blog breaks and don't post anything new, but others still read and link to us, so we are still part of the neuronic vitality of the network. I don't think we should try to explicate networks with static designs unless such designs are pop-up explanations for something moving on the screen. Instead, I'd like to see a map that moves, whose speed can be controlled by the viewer, and which also has an auditory narrative to help explain to the viewer what the network is and how it works. Of course, a network would need to be "discovered," or perhaps it could be created as a research project of some kind.

Posted by: joanna at January 9, 2007 5:33 PM

I think you're right, Joanna, and I really like the Monty Python "just resting" reference. It points out the same problem I was trying to come to terms with: just how explicit must we be about a network's dynamism or vitality when we are rendering representations of networked phenomena? Maps that use motion or multiple frames to account for time are certainly one good answer. I wonder if there are still other ways or if we can say, about networks, that vitality, dynamism, and periodic restfulness are understood as givens, and then map away.

Posted by: Derek at January 9, 2007 6:45 PM