Just a funny coincidence or something about society?

Everybody knows that there is no real coherence between the venue of storks and the birth of babies eventhough there is a German old wives‘ tale telling us so (the tale matches the Englisch proverb of being born in a cabbage field). Eventhough, I am not really sure, if it could be again a fairy tale saying that there was indeed a statistic showing a positive correlation between increasing numbers of storks and babies, my experience with statistics let me think this misinterpretation is indeed very probable. To cut it short, I stumbled upon a similarity between two visualizations having nothing to do with each other and yet planting the idea in my head, that they could give us at least some hints about a cultural phenomenon. One of the visualizations is made by a facebook staff member who visualized all the friendship relations in the network. The other one is my own visualization of places named in 11 novels from Hamburg (which is, by the way, my new header to this blog). It is up to you now to decide, wether this is a stork-and-babies like misinterpretation or at least an interesting way of putting together different kind of media in our western culture.

Central, peripher and not-named places

What I did to visualize places named in German novels from my hometown Hamburg was, to extract place names with named entity recognition (I used the Stanford NER explained here), then to upload the tagged text into Catma in order to create a keyword in context table and finally import the place names into the Dariah Geobrowser. If you are interested in doing similar experiments, don’t worry there will be Howtos on this blog for all of the tools used. So what you see in the visualisation are about 70% of the concrete places named in the 11 novels (that is because NER for German is not yet very precise).

No surprise that Hamburg is clearly the centre, because these are all novels set in Hamburg. But it gets more intersting when taking a closer look at the surroundings. Inside Germany the west is clearly more present than the eastern part, eventhough only one novel is set during the time of the GDR. When it comes to the outreach to other contries, the most frequently named are England, the scandinavian countries, Holland, France and Italy. No real surprise there, but it is interesting nevertheless that spain is less frequently named than the other southern european countries. It is also striking that eastern Europe is much less present than the western parts. One very intersting thing is that Israel / Palestine and especially Jerusalem are not only frequently named but also appear in quite many of the novels, which you can assume by the many different colours. Finally what strikes me is the much stronger tendency to name places in the West than places in the east. According to this tendency America is also very frequently named.

In addition to this purely quantitative perspective looking back into some of the texts one will notice that places in the far east are more frequently used as metaphores for distance ore otherness than places in the west which are often bound to actual character movements inside the diegesis.

Finally, what I found interesting are the less frequently or not at all named places. Australia is only mentioned once, meaning only one time in the whole corpus of 11 novels. Same is true for Canada. New Zealand is not mentioned at all. I have no other explanation for this as the cultural bindings might be less strong.

Visualized friendship

Then, as I already said, I stumbled upon the facebook visualization mentioned before. At first, I was just puzzled that it strangely reminded me of my own map. I even started to forget about it, when I read the analysis of the guy who made that visualization saying that it basically showed the outline of the populated parts of the world. But as I could not stop to think about it, I took a closer look and now got the impression that it more likely shows the outreach of the western culture of friendshipping or lets say connectedness:


Again, I looked at Germany first which I found to be very white because of its many connections inside the country. But again, I found the eastern part being a bit less white than the west. Then again, England, the coastal parts of Scandinavia, Holland, France and Italy seemed more connected than spain or the eastern european countries. Jerusalem has the same role as in my visualization showing a higher density of facebook friendships than the surroundings as it showed a higher tendency of being named in the novels on my own map. Russia surely is an exception because there is an alternative social network being more popular than facebook, there. But similar parts of Africa or South America show white spots as are highlighted in my own visualization. Even Canada is found to be less dense with facebook friendships than North America – again a similarity to my own findings.

Just a coincidence?

Still not being sure if this might be a simple coincidence, I started thinking about wether there could be reasons for it, if it wasn’t only my imagination playing jokes on me. In the end, I think, I found at least two of them:

1. Writing what one knows about

Writers are maybe not those asocial human beings some of us may take them for. They might write about what they have seen in life, what they know about and what they love. Friendships or lets say connections could be a source for writing and also for filling places with meaning.

2. The medium is not the message after all

In the end, I thought about facebook being a social medium and as such it might be less far away from the classical media than we think. At least both social media and books take part in a shared cultural sphere. It may well be the case that we like to connect us with people from the same places we like to read about and, if we turn it the other way round, we might like to visit and connect to places we read about in our favorite books. In the end, it may well be, that after all not the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan stated in the 1960ies, but the message is what we seek for in different media (maybe even friendship or connections being a kind of medium). So this would be a relieving interpretation for all those who do believe that new media kill old cultural traditions as writing (and reading) books, as this gives us a hint that, while media change the messages might stay the same after all.

As I said, this is more a fun interpretation and I do not have hard proves for any of my thoughts on this topic. But the less certain I am the more curious I get about what you might think about it. So, I would be very happy for any comment or idea on this.

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