A book chapter that I co-authored on “How to Tell Stories with Networks: Exploring the Narrative Affordances of Graphs with the Iliad” has just been published in The Datafied Society: Studying Culture Through Data (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) edited by Karin van Es and Mirko Tobias Schäfer.
The chapter was written by Tommaso Venturini (INRIA), Liliana Bounegru (University of Groningen / University of Ghent), Mathieu Jacomy (médialab, Sciences Po) and I. An excerpt from the beginning of our chapter is included below.
The whole book is available as an open access PDF which can be downloaded from OAPEN, thanks to Amsterdam University Press’s forward thinking and experimentation in this area. It also features contributions from Mercedes Bunz, Nick Couldry, Carolin Gerlitz, Lev Manovich, Evgeny Morozov, Cornelius Puschmann, Bernhard Rieder, Theo Röhle, Richard Rogers, Natalia Sánchez-Querubín and many others.
How to Tell Stories with Networks: Exploring the Narrative Affordances of Graphs with the Iliad
Tommaso Venturini, Liliana Bounegru, Mathieu Jacomy & Jonathan Gray
No doubt, networks have become indispensable mathematical tools in many aspects of life in the twenty-f irst century. They allow us to calculate all kinds of relational metrics and to quantify the properties of their nodes, clusters and global structures. These modes of calculation are increasingly prevalent in an age of digital data. But networks are more than formal analytical tools. They are also powerful metaphors of our collective life, with all of its complexity and its many dependencies. This is why, among the various strategies of data visualization, networks seem to have assumed a paradigmatic position, spreading to the most different disciplines and colonizing a growing number of digital and non-digital objects, sometimes as mere decoration. Contemplating the visual representation of a network, we don’t (always) need to compute its mathematical properties to appreciate its heuristic value – as anyone who has ever used a transit plan knows well. Networks are extraordinary calculating devices, but they are also maps, instruments of navigation and representation. Not only do they guide our steps through the territories that they represent, they invite our imagination to see and explore the world in different ways.
Over the past few decades, this visual representation of networks has seen a ‘renaissance’ thanks to the development of graphical user interfaces and network spatialisation algorithms. The analytical capabilities of graph mathematics have been written into software programs that multiply the visual representation and exploration of graph properties and extend them outside of expert circles (Pousman, Stasko & Mateas 2007). This proliferation of visual representations of networks through digital media shifts focus from the analytic capabilities of networks and raises questions about how such networks may be read narratively (Bounegru, Venturini, Gray & Jacomy 2016).
Can we think of the visual representations of networks as forms of digital storytelling (Couldry 2008; Seegel & Heer 2010)? Can we think of network analysis and visualization software packages such as Gephi, NodeXL and Pajek, as ‘authoring systems’ (Ryan 2005: 515), that hold specific affordances for the production of narratives and the construction of narrative meaning? And how might the narrative affordances of networks be relevant for those conducting research in an ‘age of big data’? It is this storytelling potential of networks that will be the focus of this chapter, not because this narrative potential is more important than the mathematical affordances of networks, but because the latter have a long tradition while the former have only recently become the subject of academic reflection.