“Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that ’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’t is like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or, like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.”
Yesterday I had a repeat performance of familiar disagreement with someone who loves the Network Metaphor - someone who sees the big N as the most important lens through which to build understanding how things spread.
Now, what I don't want to do is rehearse the arguments at length again (go here or here or indeed read one leading network scientist's views on the misapplication of the central ideas of network theory to human behaviour) to get your head around the detail. Nor do you need reminding that it's a whole lot more interesting and complex than the influentials models suggest - human life is not largely constructed of hubs and spokes, our connections and relationships are more fluid and flexible and of course it's often not the stickiness or other characteristics of a thing (or meme or whatever) that determines how far that thing spreads: it's the people and how they choose to interact with each other.
Suffice to say our use of the Network idea is really a Metaphor: - a comparison highlighting certain similarities - human social structures and interactions often behave very much like what we call networks elsewhere. e.g. the physical sciences or in electronics
Unfortunately we often mistake the metaphor for identity; the map for the landscape.
Wouldn't it be better to think about it as a simile (as Billy Shakes does in the quote above). No one imagines that Hamlet and Polonius are saying that the clouds are actually camels, weasels, whales or any other living thing, merely that for a moment, in certain ways, they resemble that kind of thing in certain ways.
"Like a network", indeed.