June 23, 2010

Jim Moody, jmoody77@soc.duke.edu

Visual representations of social networks are integral to our field (Freeman, 2000).  This has been true for graph theory since Euler’s (1741) first puzzling over an efficient route over the seven bridges of Konigsberg, and Moreno was certainly clear about his goal of making the invisible fabric of social life visible (see his 1933  interview in the NY Times, for example).  Since then, we have seen images of “social atoms” depicting the star-like character of leading families in small towns, many images of connections among youth, links between nations’ trade volume, or ties among the power elite, to mention just a sprinkling of the total (see Freeman, 2000 for citations and review).

The ubiquity of visual images for social networks is something of a sociology of science puzzle: surely, if we find a consistent phenomena spanning nearly 90 years, its value must be integral to the scientific endeavor.  But what is it about network images that we seem so wedded to?  Clear answers in the literature are few, though some have made good first steps (Freeman 2000, Krempel 2005).  For me, good network images help build our intuition about all those things that make networks special: the ability to see local detail embedded in macro structures, to distinguish intuitively those at the heart of a social system from those at the periphery, or to make clear the unstated schisms that divide social life.   It is this ability to provide a richly contextualized micro-macro view that can span multiple dimensions that makes network visualizations worth the space.

And yet, for all beautiful and informative visualizations, we can cite many goopy messes that fail to inform in any meaningful way.  As scientists, we can perhaps ignore such poor work, since we can judge the measures calculated to describe the system without the image.  Such cases represent merely(!) a lost opportunity for depth and richness. But network images have fled the safe covers of academic journals, and now appear regularly in prominent venues such as the cover of the NY Times. While some of these are interesting and informative, others are clearly not.  But graphic artists, journalists and web designers are simply doing the best they can in the absence of good guidance.  For statistical graphics, we can chide poor USA Today chart-junk and send their creators off to read Tufte (2001) or Few (2004) (among a host of others).  But where do we send them to improve their work in network visualization?

The field of social network research needs such exemplars, both to help inform our own work and to provide guides to the reading public. The goal of the JoSS visualization symposium is to provide a forum for such work. JoSS has consistently been at the forefront of exemplary visualization work, from our first article (Freeman 2000), we have published work dedicated to understanding how to best represent social networks with images.  The web-based format of JoSS has obvious advantages here, as we can include images in full color or with moving and interactive elements in ways that are simply impossible in the printed page.

In keeping with the on-line advantages of a web-based journal, we are making the visualization symposium interactive; so that we can engage an ongoing conversation about techniques and visualization practice, using the symposium submissions as exemplars. This is an experiment in interactive science, which we hope all will find informative and rewarding.

Using the theme of this year’s INSNA Sunbelt conference, “Visualization in the Service of Understanding,” we sought general submissions across the range of social network research, and the resulting range was indeed large. The works cover one-mode and two-mode networks, networks of people, places, organizations, texts, and symptoms.  The works range in style from print ready to interactive.  We hope you enjoy this wide variety of images, as the quality differences and range of styles provide a rich array to help us think about building network images.


Euler, Leonhard. 1741. “Solutio Problematis ad geometriam situ pertinentis” Commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolitanae 8, 1741, pp. 128-140 (http://math.dartmouth.edu/~euler/docs/originals/E053.pdf )

Few, Stephen. 2004. Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. Oakland. Analytics Press.

Freeman, Linton.  2000.  “Visualizing Social Networks” Journal of Social Structure, Vol 1(1). (http://www.cmu.edu/joss/content/articles/volume1/Freeman.html)

Krempel, Lothar. 2005. Visualisierung komplexer strukturen: Grundlagen der darstellung mehrdimensionaler Netzwerke (http://www.campus.de/isbn/3593378132)

New York Times.  1933.  “Emotions Mapped by New Geography”  Apr 3, pg. 17. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times (1851-2004).

Tufte, Edward R. 2001. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition. Cheshire, CT. Graphics Press.


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