Other Kinds of Maps

This is the first post in a new category/series we’re calling Thinking Out Loud. The idea is to create some space on the project blog for hashing out ideas that are still somewhat in development.

We’ve got just under a week to go in our survey of convention organizers—if you ran a comic con, comic arts festival, or related media fandom event in North America during 2017 and haven’t taken it yet, please do check it out! The plan is to use the survey results to build a geo-located data set and, eventually, an interactive map of these events. We think we can learn a lot about cons, CAFs, and media fandom events by looking at where and when they happen.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been considering some other ways we might “map” what we’re calling the organizational field of comic cons and related events. One possibility I’ve been exploring while waiting for surveys to be completed is social network analysis.

The language of social networks is, of course, so normalized as to be almost cliché in our social media age. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the rest have taught us to think of our own relationships as networks—a collection of nodes connected to one another in a diagrammatic space. But social network analysis is a long-standing approach to representing the social world, and I have a hunch that it can show us some interesting things about comic cons.

For the last week or so, I’ve been spending a couple hours here and there visiting convention web sites and noting the guests they are advertising. For certain kinds of events, at least, guests and featured creators perform an important marketing function, not only providing a reason for fans of specific celebrities and creators to come but also to some extent signalling the kind of experience that will be had at that show.

Unfortunately, unlike the relationships constructed through social media platforms, there’s no way to do this automatically. It’s a slow, laborious process. So far, I’ve identified 1776 individual guests advertised in connection with 24 individual events (in some cases, for a past iteration and in some cases, for upcoming ones) and loaded them into the social network analysis platform Gephi. Here’s one version of what that looks like:

Test network of events (green) and their advertised guests (grey) produced with Gephi.

There’s obviously still a lot more work to be done to fill this out over the coming weeks and months. But some interesting questions are already presenting themselves:

  • The questions we get most frequently about our project are definitional ones: “what’s a comic con?” and “what are the limits of events you’re including?” Can the network of guests tell us something about the kinds of events and the limits of “comiccon-ness”?
  • If pre-existing categories like “pop culture con,” “comic arts festival,” “SF con,” and “zine fest” are apparent in the network, which events and guests bridge these boundaries?
  • How discernible will event organizations be as, for example, many of the same guests appear at Informa, ReedPOP, and Wizard World events, respectively?
  • While there’s a class of big-name guests that move around the field, there are presumably many more guests who focus on local or regional events that are easier and/or more affordable for them to appear at. Will this effect be sufficient for geography to be apparent in the network?