EvolutionLanguages & LinguisticsSocial Interaction & Networks

Networks: Introduction

A sig­ni­fic­ant part of my cur­rent PhD research deals with net­works (in my case of human com­mu­nic­a­tion), and how these can help us under­stand the world around us. A net­work in the mod­ern sci­entific use of the word is basic­ally an abstract rep­res­ent­a­tion of rela­tion­ships between con­cepts. It often helps to make a graphic rep­res­ent­a­tion of a net­work, such as in the example below:

The Seven Bridges of Königs­berg

These images describe the clas­sical prob­lem of the Seven Bridges of Königs­berg, solved in 1735 by Leon­hard Euler; read more about it here on Wiki­pe­dia. What it boils down to is that the con­nec­tions of dif­fer­ent parts of the city by bridges can be abstrac­ted as a net­work, which allows us to ana­lyse a situ­ation more eas­ily.

What interests me most at the moment is how we can use net­works to rep­res­ent and view real world situ­ations and con­cepts. Most rel­ev­ant for me is the spe­cific­ally social kind of net­work, in which the dots (ver­tices) are people, and the lines (edges) rela­tion­ships between them. They might be friends, for example, or col­leagues, or simply have met once. As you can tell from the pre­vi­ous list, the type of con­nec­tion between people var­ies in intens­ity and fre­quency. Close friends will ‘con­nect’ often and for longer peri­ods of time, while mere acquaint­ances will do so less often. Another factor to take into account is the dir­ec­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tion. Speak­ing with someone is usu­ally a two-way street, a lit­eral inter­face, but hear­ing someone speak on tele­vi­sion is purely one-way.

Since the net­works I will be using in my research are mod­els of lan­guage user com­munit­ies, these aspects of con­nec­tions are very import­ant. Some lan­guage utter­ances pass from one per­son to just one other, whereas other lan­guage acts, such as pub­lic speeches, have many more hear­ers.  In addi­tion, there is the factor of social status. When we hear some­thing said by a friend, a fam­ily mem­ber, or a super­ior, we usu­ally attach dif­fer­ent value to what is being said than when we hear a stranger say some­thing to us. All these factors influ­ence the way inform­a­tion travels between people, and the chal­lenge is to find out in what way.

I will return to the spe­cific role of lin­guistic net­works in my own research dur­ing some later post. Let me con­clude with some gen­eral thoughts on the his­tory and nature of net­works as a concept.

The word net­work itself, in this case quite logic­ally, is made up of the ele­ments net and work. In other words, it is some­thing that is wrought into the form of a net, a sys­tem of braided/knotted lines.  The word net is of Ger­manic ori­gin (the Proto-Ger­manic root is *nat-ja, *nat-jō-) and even at that time - we’re talk­ing 2000+ years ago - the word seems to have meant what it means today: a knot­ted rope sys­tem used to catch anim­als, among other things. So,  when people star­ted to make abstract (graph­ical) rep­res­ent­a­tions of other things that were an inter­con­nec­ted sys­tem, per­haps the image of a net is the most logical one to appear. The word itself - net­work and its equi­val­ents - were first recor­ded in the 16th cen­tury (for Eng­lish and Dutch), then simply mean­ing a braid­work of some kind. The abstrac­ted mean­ing of “any com­plex, inter­lock­ing sys­tem” appears to be from the early 19th cen­tury Eng­lish [link] and late 18th cen­tury for Dutch. Only recently - the 1980s - has the term been applied to net­works of people. Think about that when you log into your social net­work­ing sites. By the way, if you want to view your Face­book friends in a nifty visual net­work search for the Touch­Graph applic­a­tion.