Jeff. "Networks and New Media." College English 69.2 (Nov. 2006):
Jeff. "Networks and New Media." College English 69.2 (Nov. 2006):
Last week, when I ran across Henry Farrell’s
Crooked Timber entry on flogrolling, I was also reading from Watts’
Six Degrees and Barabasi’s
Linked. Flogrolling, as I understand it from the
places I could find it in recent circulation, names the aggressive efforts
to publicize or promote links, thereby elevating the rate of emergence of newer
bloggers. From Farrell’s entry and the comments following it, the
discussion seems to center on the problem of spamming entries to
Technorati and the resulting skew altering an entry’s popularity or
"interestingness" (a term which Farrell acknowledges as "ugly").
Flogrolling potentially circumvents more authentic geneses of interest in
small-world networks, such as those networks constituting the blogosphere. It
assumes, with links as a basic unit of exchange, rank is sharable; it can be
passed from one high-ranking blog to another through simple linking, even if
such linking is profit-motivated. Consequently, the new weblog stands on
the shoulders and enjoys a fleeting, deceptive mobility. Yes?
Although Barabasi doesn’t write directly
about weblogs, a few principles from his research seem to apply. Foremost, Barabasi suggests that scale-free networks
(as distinguished from random networks) should be understood in terms of growth and preferential attachment. Their busy edges and volatile topologies present us with just a few defining premises–premises which, as I understand them, may or may not apply neatly to the blogosphere or, more specifically, the network(s) of politically-interested blogs and bloggers. In a scale-free network (which is a theoretical abstraction, Watts tells us…no network can be both an object of study and purely scale-free), we might guess that the earliest-established nodes (some turned hubs) occupy a privileged position, near the tall margin of the power law graph (in fairness, Farrell and Drezner speculate that the politically-interested blogosphere follows a
lognormal distribution, rather than a power law). But when we factor
in competitiveness–the ongoing "up-for-grabs" nature of links–network fitness intervenes, bucking the assumption that the first-comers hold a protected position of privilege in the network. Fitness addresses the consequence of newly adjoining nodes, latecomers who inject new energy to the network, often with the potential of cascading beyond the proximal nodes and, thereby, imparting other effects. Barabasi
discusses this phenomenon in terms of Einstein-Bose condensations and Bose
gases, and although my few notes here are mostly just a summary of Barabasi’s
middle chapters, some of his physics references are more scientific than I can
write through with confidence just yet.
I’d like to return to the idea of "authentic geneses of interest." How
do we find weblogs we’re interested in or, more specifically, entries we’re
interested in? If we accept that ordinary links (rather than trackbacks)
are the dominant currency unit in the blogosphere, then I suppose it follows
reasonably that futzing with the genuine link as a gesture of interest and
replacing it, instead, with the flogrolled link–a paid-for gesture meant to
by-pass the economic order, results in economic disturbance. And although this
quasi-counterfeiting might initially appear in the form of robust new
accelerations in traffic for newcomers exploiting such a system, I tend to think
that the net effect will be negligible. Maybe that’s too strong a way to put it.
But as I read it alongside Watts’ discussion of tulip economies (196)–the
high-hopes bubbles bursting over The Netherlands following the spark-fizzle of
bulb sales, I had the impression that flogrolling will settle out as one of the
lesser disturbances in the blogosphere. Just how great is the disturbance?
How long will it elevate low-interest (or artificially trafficked) sites into
lofty standing before those sites must self-sustain or before the network’s
fitness coefficient stabilizes again? It’s just a hypothesis, really, but
the selective paths of specific readers who follow links according to interest
or reputation will restore the regular patterns. Granted, much of this
does little to account for the different ways we trace paths of interest across
the various small-world networks of the blogosphere. Whether by RSS,
Technorati searches, trackbacks, chains of blogrolls, conventional links and so
on–distinctions in how our interestedness is enacted when reading across the
blogosphere most definitely bears on these tentative few ideas.
I’m still grogging through a hyper-invasive head cold. ‘Snot easy to
read and write through the sinus pressure, drainage and trips to the kettle for
another hot tea. I’ve gotten on with reading Robert Connors, Hayden White
and a couple of chapters from Barabasi’s Linked for tomorrow in addition
to a project overview for comp history and a trip to the tax prep office to sign
the proper filing forms. This was only the second time I’ve sought an
accountant’s assistance with taxes; with the move, bi-state filing, and limited
opportunities for sorting through tax forms, we turned over to the pros.
And today when we were at their office nodding our heads to the double-check of
name-spellings and socials, the friendly accountant showed us an itemization
asking nearly twice what they’d initially quoted. I’m too ashamed to share
the number; I’ll just say that I’m ordering the software next year and doing it
myself again. The $70 worksheet pushed me off the edge (of chair, cliff,
reason). In the late
age of computer-spun accounting, no single worksheet prep should cost seventy
So we signed all the forms and came back home. I was too head-coldy to give
the guy hell for puffing up the tax prep bill.
Once home, about hot tea, I learned this: Peppermint will re-steep for a
second good cup. Raspberry zinger will not.
Renormalization is a term credited to physics (perhaps other fields, too). According to Barabasi, it comes
from the work of Cornell professor and 1982 Nobel prize winner Kenneth Wilson
who assigned the term to the event following a physical phase transition.
Renormalization (granted, read second hand) accounts for the paradoxical flux
and structural stiffening of real networks–the shift from chaos to complexity, from
disorder to system:
By giving a rigorous mathematical foundation to scale invariance,
theory spat out power laws each time he approached the critical point, the
place where disorder makes room for order. Wilson’s renormalization
group not only called for power laws but for the first time could predict the
values of two missing critical exponents as well. (77)
We had finally learned that when giving birth to order, complex systems
divest themselves of their unique features and display a universal behavior
that has similar characteristics in a wide range of systems. (78)
It’s quite possible, even likely, that I’m misunderstanding or misapplying
this concept. Even so, I find something catchy–sticky–in renormalization, and I
wanted to put it on the table, set it out there for other possible
connections (even if only my own, later on). Barabasi goes on to explain
two basic features of scale-free networks that complicate earlier theories that
treat such structures as static and random. To detail the importance of
hubs, he names the characteristics of growth and preferential attachment.
And although his notion of growth seems teleologically biased, allowing for
decay or detritus only briefly in a discussion of aging, I continue to be struck by the application of
concepts from physics to social patterns. At least for tonight (no telling
how much credit to my head cold or tax fiasco), renormalization seems an
especially interesting idea.
[Added: Renormalization is the same as order-disorder-order in story
When I read
Chuck’s entry this morning, I turned to the 123rd page of four different
books, three of which I had slated to read from throughout the day today (yah,
bring on the meme police bc I didn’t follow the rules). Well, that’s
one way to get to the 123rd page: start there. Fifth sentences of each
went like this:
No. 1: "In other words, over the course of ages or over the course of an
individual’s biography, the ‘life’ of the work resides in the history of
individual reading-events, lived-through experiences, which may have a
continuity, but which may also be discontinuous with only a varying ‘family’
No. 2: "He generously agreed" (123).
No. 3: "So we analyzed the discourse itself, finding the revealing words, the
signature expressions, the tell-tale grammatical forms" (123).
No. 4: "Lately, however, he had been avoiding the popular discos and the hottest
The books, differently ordered: Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, Barabasi’s
Linked, Watts’ Six Degrees, and Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader,
The Text, the Poem.
And nicely enough, the juxtapositions got me thinking about a few things. Now
that I’ve read all day long, I’ll leave notes here about two of them.
Watts and Barabasi open their books on network theory with anecdotes about
vulnerability. Watts starts with the "cascading failure" of the power grid
in the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1996; Barabasi begins with the
upheaval of Mafiaboy’s efforts to incapacitate Yahoo with a hack-load of "ghost"
queries. Watts shifts into a narrative on the formative days of his
research project at Cornell; Barabasi gives us an example of network robustness
in the dissemination of early Christianity a la the apostle Paul. Watts:
emergence and "How does individual behavior aggregate to collective behavior?"
Konigsberg Bridges. And then, together, Erdos and Euler, Milgram,
graphs, as if surfing tandem on scroll waves. Almost.
Notably absent from Watts’ accounting for the premise of six degrees is
Karinthy’s short story from 1929, "Chains" or "Lancszemek." Last night,
after my first class session involving Linked with 205ers, I was rooting
around the web for way to get my hands on a copy of "Chains." Didn’t find
much. I mean there are plenty of references to it, but I didn’t find much
of anything beyond references, mentions. Barabasi’s notes tell us that he
doesn’t think it’s ever been translated from Hungarian into English. I’m
just curious whether, as Barabasi speculates, the degrees of separation idea
stemmed from the fiction of Karinthy. He evens supposes that Erdos and
Renyi might have read the story and found, in it, a sufficiently sticky
premise to stimulate their later mathematical work. I wouldn’t say it
diminishes Watts’ project or points to a gap in his research, but
it does leave me wondering about "Chains."
This morning, I thought I’d have time for three blog entries. I told
myself that today would be the day I posted thrice. Hmph. Never
written thrice before. I’m having a bit of "dogfish in the
dissection pan" with hyper-consciousness about post-literacy, studying the
network, tweening the EWM-style blogging I know and love with more academicky
smelting–dutifully dumping into whatever contrivance, as assigned. Of
course it is my own sense of what happens that flattens all of this out, rolls
over it again and again. Scalpel, glassine envelope….