Waxing theoretical: rhizomes, networks, and hives

How is it that a meme on Facebook (say, posted by George Takei) exhibits rhetorical dynamics?  It’s a fascinating scenario, particularly given how awful most memes that get posted on Facebook are.

There’s something really interesting at play in the rhetorical circulation of a Facebook meme.  Deleuze and Guattari might describe some of this dispersion as rhizomatic (I’ll return in a moment to this, so don’t worry), but I’m not sure I see it quite that way.

I’ve been doing plenty of thinking lately about the structures of information dissemination and rhetoric on the web.  I’m particularly inspired after hearing a recent talk by a Penn State grad student in English, who is looking at inventional processes in the information age.  I’m still just digging into some of this stuff, so take my analysis with a grain of salt.

Rhizomes are structures or shapes in which every point (let’s call them nodes for a moment) can connect to every other node.  It’s kind of a chaotic, every-which-way model of communication or movement.  It’d be akin to saying there’s no single center of something–say, a tree without a trunk, just branching off in every which way from its root system.  Not sure if the visual-type metaphors are working here, but I’ll keep rolling.

Networks seemingly work as rhizomes.  Everybody can connect to everybody.  So, on Facebook, memes spread from person to person in seemingly random(ish) order.  But what happens when you get a central figure like a George Takei?  Suddenly, there’s a tree trunk again.  Maybe everything around it is rhizomatic, or maybe everything is still rhizomatic but the central node (Takei) is just hyper-connected.

I’ve been thinking a bit about hives, though.  Bees swarm, sure, but they’re somewhat organized in their little hives.  Outside the hive–outside the dominant structures of digital discourse–they’re just plain chaotic.  But in those hives, in particular networks, they’re more organized, maybe not in exactly a honeycomb, but they’re much more bounded at the very least.

What I’m thinking is that particular sets of networks shape the spread of discourse on the web.  Everything does not move simultaneously to everything else.  The Tor network, for example, is outside of many Internet structures and hierarchies.  The power, then, of a search engine or social networking site is in its centrality to the network.  When people, ideas, and rhetoric cross those networks, there’s an intersection, often through very specific nodes (say, the clear structure of a Google search results page allows a group of liberal bloggers to network and interact with conservative news sites when they search for particular terms).

I’m still developing these ideas, but it seems to me that the rhizome doesn’t fully characterize the situation.  There is more structure to the web than many would give it credit for.  And information is certainly bounded, constrained, and circulated through those structures.  Welcome to the web (or is it really the hive?)

Posted by Jeremy Johnson