Lloyd-Jones on Centrality

In "A View from the Center," his 1977 CCCC keynote address, here’s what
Richard Lloyd-Jones said about Mrs. Peterson, "the emblem" of those in his

Some will share a memory with me–the recollection of picking up the phone,
cranking one long ring, and getting "central." You could ring various
combinations of shorts and longs and get specific subscribers directly, but if
you really wanted to know what was going on in the village you rang

The folks in bigger towns, which had numbers, had to call central in order
to be hooked up to anybody else on the system, but their central didn’t know
much except numbers, and out central had a name–Mrs. Peterson–and she knew
all sorts of things. Somehow, in the village, she knew who was at the
bank, who had gone down to the ice house, who hadn’t been feeling well.
I don’t know that she listened in on all the conversations, but we supposed
so. She just made herself central in the life of the community. In our more
urban and perhaps urbane way, we would think of her as a communication nexus,
but we’d to better to remember Mrs. Peterson as Central. (49)

Compositionist as pastoral telephone operator. A communication nexus.
This isn’t the only metaphor Lloyd-Jones invokes in the talk, but it is the
piece that resonates most with network studies. Whatever her methods
(eavesdropping? Mrs. Peterson!), she is knowing because of a high degree of
, her niche in a reasonably sized network. When network
become too large, the connector’s knowledge diminishes. Thresholds: Central
knows only numbers in densely populated areas.

Nothing to add beyond that. Just reading for exams,
posting notes,
and thinking Lloyd-Jones was talking about network centrality in his address out
in Kansas City some years ago.


  1. I wonder where that tipping-point between knowledge and mere data lies. At what point, that is, can Mrs. Peterson no longer keep up with the people in her community? It strikes me, too, that this is the opposite of the Wargames phenomenon: rather than an unintelligent operation accumulating so much differential information that it becomes intelligent, an intelligent being accumulates so much differential information that she becomes a mere operator.

  2. My best guess would be that it fluctuates quite a bit from person to person, but that we remain contrained by some kind of upper threshold, maybe something like a Dunbar number. I’ve heard Collin talk about this in relationship to the number of feeds one can reasonably follow (100-110 in Bloglines; more than that makes me dizzy). Like social ties, when they become too many, they all suffer (we can’t remember names, memory jumbles more than usual, etc.). Seems like Gladwell gets at something like this in The Tipping Point: after a certain limit, centrality can become too much. I’d say there’s grounds for reading the role of the CCCC chair and the chair’s address as the conference has grown and become, arguably, too big (this follows with the case for regionalization, I suppose).

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