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Stanford course explores social networking in the 18th century – and in nature

An interdisciplinary freshman course shows students how networking predates Facebook by hundreds, even millions of years.

Tiffany Lieuw Student Vivian Kong observes ants

Student Vivian Kong observed ants on campus as part of a Thinking Matters course on networks.

It was the flock of birds that made Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French and Italian, realize that the Enlightenment and Argentine ants actually have a lot in common.

We've all seen flocks of birds subdivide and regroup and then subdivide anew as they swoop by. We've all seen lines of ants marching in the direction of our kitchen counters from wherever it is they live. We haven't seen Voltaire write letters to his associates throughout Europe, but the principle is much the same. All three are examples of networks. Each element sends signals of one sort or another (a song, a scent, a letter) to the rest, or to some of the rest. As a result, a collection of units becomes a composite, continually transforming itself.

Edelstein and Deborah Gordon, professor of biology, had the bold idea of joining forces to teach a freshman Thinking Matters course on this subject. Social networking is a concept with which students are all too familiar; the point was to explain the underlying mechanisms of networks and to show that they predate Facebook and exist both in nature and in society.

"What Deborah and I have in common is that we're interested in how networks combine," Edelstein said. "When I learned about how different bird species can flock together because they share a similar song, I said, 'That's what the Enlightenment is! It's when a scholarly network and an aristocratic network joined forces because they shared a form of communication.'"

The project won a seed grant nearly a year ago from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL), which enabled the team to construct a web visualization tool with the help of outside designers and Nicole Coleman, the academic technology specialist at the Stanford Humanities Center. The course, Networks: Ecological, Revolutionary, Digital (THINK29) is one of the options freshmen have of taking as part of the one-quarter Thinking Matters requirement. It is a lecture course, with sections led by postdoctoral scholars. The course, which was offered this quarter, will be offered again next spring.

Counting ants

Though Gordon's most recent book, Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior, was published in 2010, it presaged her collaboration with Edelstein in that she noted there that ants share the Enlightenment view that monarchy is not a natural form of society. (Ant queens, in fact, do not rule.) In her book, she explores ant colonies as living systems, as networks reacting to contingency, interacting among themselves and with other networks. Individual ants are not predictable (and not all that interesting); networks, however, follow patterns.

Gordon has a track record for reaching out to scholars in other fields. She and Balaji Prabhakar, a professor of electrical engineering and of computer science, last year published a paper showing that the ants' "anternet" algorithm follows the same rules as the protocols that regulate data traffic congestion on the Internet.

During spring quarter, students in THINK29 had two team projects over the course of the class, one involving ants, the other the Enlightenment.

The ants went first. Over a three-day period, students counted them.

"This is a research university," Edelstein reminded the students once it was over. "Research is part of the undergraduate experience, so this class is an initiation. It's not always glamorous. Sometimes you have to count ants."

The point was to learn if ants, which generally expand their networks in spring, were more likely to expand in the direction of food (which students used as bait) or of a new nest (which students constructed). The most common ant at Stanford is the Argentine ant. After three days of observing ants' paths along Stanford's sidewalks and scrub, students recorded and consolidated their data and then discussed variances, which they attributed to the weather, foot traffic and bad luck. "We had a lotta lotta ants," crowed a member of one group, which won T-shirts for the wackiest (i.e., most unusual) data.

But even small groups of ants provide useful data, Gordon reminded the students. "It's fun when the ants do what you don't expect them to do," she said, "because that's another way of learning how the colony network operates."

From sidewalks to salons

The Enlightenment project was more genteel. Groups picked one person from a list of biographies; the cast included John Adams and George Washington, the writers René Descartes, Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and the scientists Galileo and Copernicus. Those men's data and that of 100 of their contacts – nationality, gender, profession, religion, years of birth and death, etc. – were then mapped onto a spreadsheet and, using the online visualization tool, presented so that the networks among the historical figures suddenly came into view.

Networks are not merely quantitative, and that's where the VPOL grant came in, as the new tool allowed students (and, ultimately, researchers) to represent ambiguous and complex relationships between and among human groups. The "elastic lists" visualization was developed by a designer named Moritz Stefaner. It was adapted by Edelstein and Coleman, who have been working together for several years on the Mapping the Republic of Letters project.

Students were interested in finding out who wrote to whom, how much scientists spoke to religious activists and how often friendships crossed class boundaries. In their class presentations students showed they understood the multifaceted nature of networks; "no one liked Hobbes' math," for example, though his political ideas won traction. And though women were not numerous among Voltaire's correspondents, another group reported, they were disproportionately influential and helped put the philosopher in touch with other important men. (Isaac Newton, however, had just three female correspondents: the queen of England, the princess of Wales and his mother.)

Given that the networks most familiar to students (other than friends and associates) are computer-related, the class also had guest speakers and readings from that field. Students read a 1998 paper on PageRank by the future founders of Google; and they heard from representatives of Amazon and LinkedIn, from computer science and social science professors and from one of today's most vocal critics of the Internet, Evgeny Morozov.

Awardees of VPOL's next round of seed grants will be announced later this month. The Stanford Online website has news of upcoming awards and deadlines. The Mapping the Republic of Letters project, co-directed by Edelstein, Coleman and history Professor Paula Findlen, also receives funding from the Office of the Dean of Research.

R. F. MacKay is a writer for the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning.