Skip

Facebook used to suggest some myths are based in historical fact
July 26, 2012 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Scientists have mapped the social networks in Beowulf, the Iliad and the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge and compared them to networks as mapped by Facebook. The results were surprising, with all three mapping well to real-world social networks and leading scientists to believe that they are all based on real events. Harry Potter, Les Misérables, Shakespeare's Richard III, and The Fellowship of the Ring were used as controls. (Abstract and link to the paper, which is available in its entirety for 30 days, although it does require creating a free login.)
posted by stoneweaver (29 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Any chance there's a graphic someone could post with the comparison network maps?
posted by rebent at 10:18 AM on July 26, 2012


While the results are interesting, I'm uncertain about the leap of faith assumption they make, that because the social network matches/meshes/closely resembles what's found in real life means the events were based on real people/real life..
posted by k5.user at 10:19 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Surely Richard III is based on real events?
posted by Summer at 10:23 AM on July 26, 2012


Surely Richard III is based on real events?

Ish. Very ish.
posted by kmz at 10:25 AM on July 26, 2012


Surely Richard III is based on real events?

Oh right. Like someone would call their kid "Richard III"--how's that even pronounced? "Richardeeeeeeeeee"?
posted by yoink at 10:26 AM on July 26, 2012 [18 favorites]


Somebody oughta do this with the Icelandic sagas.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:30 AM on July 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


[this is geat]
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 10:33 AM on July 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


Surely Richard III is based on real events?

So is this story: A dude ran for president and won.

But my story has been rewritten enough that it doesn't have much social complexity.

I think the claim is that a particular graph will indicate it is based on real events, not that a lack of a particular graph proves anything at all.
posted by DU at 10:35 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Beowulf is a true story but the true story is that one time there was this bear and he was seen swimming in a gross swampy pond and then later a guy sang a song about the bear.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:38 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


But the modern fictions differed from the ancient myths, as well as from real social networks, in several ways. For example, in the fictional narratives, most of the minor characters link to the main character. But that wasn't true for the myths.

I hope they controlled for the the way in which these stories grew. With Harry Potter, you have a single author writing the story at a particular point in time. With a lot of these myths, you have wandering storytellers adding bits and pieces over a wide geographic and temporal area. That could definitely add little side narratives that don't directly connect to the main character but get dragged along in the final epic either because people like them or because the person who wrote it down wanted to be a completist.
posted by DU at 10:39 AM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Beowulf checked in at Heorot

Beowulf posted a photo album "Me Kicking Grendel's Ass"

Grendel not col dude

Grendel i mean not cool. typin with only 1 arm

Beowulf found a Dragon on their farm in Farmville!
posted by brain_drain at 10:48 AM on July 26, 2012 [54 favorites]


While the results are interesting, I'm uncertain about the leap of faith assumption they make, that because the social network matches/meshes/closely resembles what's found in real life means the events were based on real people/real life

While the results are interesting, I'm uncertain about the leap of faith assumption they make, that Facebook resembles real life.
posted by verstegan at 10:50 AM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Either that, or it proves that Facebook has a bunch of fake social connections.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:51 AM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope they controlled for the the way in which these stories grew.

I don't really see how they could--after all, the pool of such narratives is pretty much the same as the pool of "ancient myths and legends that we suspect might be in part based on real events."

They are also failing to control here for the possibility that ancient audiences simply liked a certain kind of social-network verisimilitude in their stories that modern audiences find less important--so ancient authors were simply giving their publics what they wanted by generating stories with realistic networks. In other words, how do you differentiate "real social networks look like this and the social networks in this story are the same, therefore it must be based on a real story" from "real hands have five fingers and the hands in this story have five fingers, therefore it must be based on a true story!" You certainly don't do it by comparing it with The Simpsons as your baseline for what "fictional story hands" look like.
posted by yoink at 10:52 AM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Either that, or it proves that Facebook has a bunch of fake social connections.

Well, I know that my Facebook account is littered with "friends" that I never talk to, haven't seen once in the 15+ years since high school, etc. My total interactions with them consist of a "Hey! I remember you! You look different! Long time no chat!" followed by further silence.
posted by antifuse at 11:27 AM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way stories were constructed and transmitted radically changed during the Renaissance. Of course character relationships would be different in the modern novel because the modern novel tends to aggressively tie those relationships to the central conflict of the work. And Richard III is in a radically different literary genre.

A key problem, I thought, with the Iliad is that although many of the places, people, and events can be identified in pre-Homeric Greece and Asia Minor, archaeological evidence suggests they didn't exist in the same century, much less as the result of a disastrous wedding party.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:44 AM on July 26, 2012


Ice Cream Socialist: [this is geat]
I think I love you.


Somewhat tangentially related, in the category of "Software I've been meaning to write", I've been kicking around an idea for a program that would make analyzing fiction (or even real life, I suppose) interesting, and make for crafting fiction- especially TV and movies- that is world's ahead of the current standard for plausible, well-crafted narratives. Someone did something a little similar a couple of years ago in writing software to create plotline graphs for stories, but the real weakness is it's still an "author's view" perspective.

So the idea is you take a graph database- like Neo4j- to store all data points: people, places, things, events, relationships, etc. You'd also add a field for the time/time-range and GPS coordinates (being flexible enough to handle fictional locations that either aren't on earth, or aren't on a spherical planet, would also be cool), and have a datastore of canon-material that could be extensively linked (i.e, noting that a particular event/place/character can be found on pages 3, 7, and 29 of book 1, etc), although the last would have some roughness due to copyright laws. Add in open source software like OpenStreetMap and various 3d visualization elements like Gephi or three.js, for visualization.

You then add in every person, event, interaction, relationship, etc, that occurs either in the book/TV show, or in your planned TV show. For fan-driven options, you could create a website for your favorite fictional universe that is shared: anyone can view (or even edit, if you had collaborative worlds like the "1632" Eric Flint series), analyze, discuss the entirety of the story. You get 10,000 pairs of editor eyeballs, looking over the sprawling story of "A Song of Ice and Fire", and realizing that there's no way the timelines allow Littlefinger to be hopping from warcamp to warcamp like that, unless he's secretly got a Jeep stashed away somewhere.


The real kicker is that unlike the "Great man of history" approach to writing, where it's all a singular plotline focusing on the one or few "important people", you can have the flexibility to review the plot and story from almost any perspective. Because you have the flexibility, you can pull up just one or two characters and show all the known events, both on a timeline and in physical space, that occur to them. You can see their fictional bio, and even add in non-canon backstory elements that flesh things out and make it more sensible. You can plot the physical movements of multiple characters at once, and realize "Wait, Bob and Ted were in the same bar just an hour apart... in real life, don't people find that kind of stuff out about each other?". That character becomes much more real: plus, you as an author (or a reader) can catch narrative mis-steps like "Wait, when I distill to just this one character, their motivation makes no sense- and how the fuck did they get halfway down the Atlantic coast by afternoon, and then back to NYC that night?!"

And if you take the time to look at your unfolding story from the "eyes" of every single character, or each place, you'd get a depth of understanding that would be almost god-like. You'd end up writing long, arcing, multi-season television shows with a "series bible" that is insanely accurate and bulletproof to even the nerdliest of nitpickers and continuity-goof hunters. Every character would have that personal touch, that specific review, that would make them more plausible, more real, and more relatable. Heck, if a smart writer got a hold of this kind of software, it would add massive clarity to what good writers can do today in planning out their series- but on steroids. For collaboritive, long-term works of fiction- namely, TV shows, but also long-running book series- you could ensure your revolving cast of writers would maintain both narrative and behavioral consistency from season to season. Fleshing out the backstory of some seemingly minor character means you'd be able to create an arc of your whole series where you do insanely clever things like set up inconsequential scenes in season 1 that end up making a world of difference, but in a plausible way in season 4, and your fans thing "My god, they've made a perfectly jeweled masterpiece of a show- so tight, so focused, so consistent, so compelling!".


If you've ever watched a shittily thought-out show where writer's make that typical mistake of just imagining a scenario that makes their protagonist look good without thinking through how all the other people would behave, this software could have fixed that. If you've ever felt like someone in a TV show was buddy-buddy with someone in one episode, and then you remember "Hey, wait- didn't he fuck your wife two seasons ago and pretty much destroy your marriage? Did the turnover in the writer's room mean someone just forgot?" If you've ever watched that shitpile of a show, "Lost", or been frustrated when shows that started out good went off the rails of plot, character motivation, or end goal 3 or 4 seasons in (looking at you, BSG!), this software could have helped. Or if you've ever just wanted to look deeply into some mythic, sprawling book or TV series- say, look at the entire life of a single character in "The Wire" laid out in a singular narrative form- then this software could do that for you.

So someday, I want to write that software. But today, I'm already late for work...
posted by hincandenza at 12:01 PM on July 26, 2012 [14 favorites]


I hope they controlled for the the way in which these stories grew. With Harry Potter, you have a single author writing the story at a particular point in time. With a lot of these myths, you have wandering storytellers adding bits and pieces over a wide geographic and temporal area.

With this in mind, a better control might have been superhero comics. Here we have a collective mythology shaped by decades of creators, all adding and trimming and reinterpreting on top of each other in this weird, hypercommercial modern version of the folkloric tradition. I wonder if the results would have been as stark? Because the Marvel Universe, say, is definitely made up of numerous small clustered groups (X-Men, Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four / Future Foundation, etc) which are connected by a few highly social individuals (Spider-Man, Wolverine, Namor, etc.) and the degrees of separation are indeed quite slim (Damn near the whole line is one degree separated from, say, NFL Superpro since Spider-Man had a guest appearance in NFL Superpro's first issue).

I really want to be reincarnated in time to see if future researchers are wondering is Secret War was based on real events, if Magneto's actions can be justified in the context of his epoch and if the Punisher's War Journals are to be considered a credible source.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:11 PM on July 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Helen of Troy's status: It's complicated.
posted by Skeptic at 12:47 PM on July 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Time for me to quote the beginning of my favorite ShrinkLit (Maurice Sagoff)...

Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.
posted by carmicha at 12:53 PM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Having studied the Táin in college, I'm actually thrilled to pieces that it might have an actual historical root.

And now that Spartacus, Game of Thrones, et al have paved the way, it's seriously time for a chariots-&-nekkid-people Celtsploitation series. Rich, powerful queen with moxie, "warp spasm" battle frenzy in an underage killing machine, cursed warriors, throw a smart screenwriter at it and the material is chock-full of epic goodness.

Roar sucked harder than a clogged vacuum cleaner in overdrive.

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:26 PM on July 26, 2012


Yup, the Táin would make for great tv/film. I've always thought that Cúchulainn would be perfect for the superhero(ish) world
posted by Fence at 2:00 PM on July 26, 2012


Here's the full paper without the required registration.
posted by Oliva Porphyria at 2:26 PM on July 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


> the Táin would make for great tv/film.

It already makes a pretty good album.
posted by sandswipe at 3:00 PM on July 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for the link to the full paper, Oliva Porphyria.

It is not very convincing.

Just to take an example: as far as I can tell, they argue as follows. Real-life social networks tend to be assortative, in the sense that the number of friends I have is positively correlated with the number of friends my friends have.

The social network they write down for the Iliad isn't assortative, so they remove all the interactions classified as "hostile," and then it is.

The social network for Beowulf isn't assortative, so they remove all the interactions classified as "hostile," and then it still isn't, so they take out Beowulf himself, and then it is, but just barely.

Conclusion: The social networks of Beowulf and the Iliad are assortative, just like real social networks!
posted by escabeche at 3:55 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Surely Richard III is based on real events?

Sssssort of. The source material for Shakespeare's play is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a book published in 1587. So you've got an author writing about the end of the Plantagenet dynasty towards the end of the Tudor one that replaced it, and it's in his best interest not to go against the conventional wisdom of the time, which is that Richard was a horrible, deformed, murderous king who was rightfully overthrown by the good and just Henry Tudor (later Henry VII).

By all accounts, though, Richard wasn't all that bad a king, instituting legal reforms in the court system and so on. He almost certainly wasn't a hunchback with a withered arm--there are no contemporary writings that mention either. There's no concrete evidence he had the princes murdered in the Tower. Finally, Henry's claim to the throne was...iffy at best.

Shakespeare's play is basically a big piece of Tudor propaganda, with Richard as a thinly-veiled Vice character borrowed from medieval morality plays. Not that there's anything wrong with it; it's at least tremendously entertaining. Shakespeare's other big Tudor propaganda piece (Henry VIII) is a huge snoozefest by comparison.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:57 PM on July 26, 2012


Forgot to add that Holinshed's Chronicles is way harsh on the subject--here's an excerpt from last part of the Richard III section:
And as it thus well appeared, that the house of Yorke shewed it selfe more bloudie in seeking to obteine the kingdome, than that of Lancaster in usurping it: so it came to passe, that the Lords vengeance appeared more heauie towards the same than towards the other, not ceassing till the whole issue male of the said Richard duke of Yorke was extinguished. For such is Gods justice, to leaue no vnrepentant wickednesse vnpunished, as especiallie in this caitife Richard the third, not deseruing so much as the name of a man, much lesse of a king, most manifestlie appeareth.
Shakespeare Nerd Man...awaaaaaayyy!
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:02 PM on July 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Finally, Henry's claim to the throne was...iffy at best.

True, but the only consistent rule of monarchy is that the people who have the nobles and the military in their pockets can make the rules in their favor.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:31 PM on July 26, 2012




« Older O, Pioneers   |   Happy Little Clouds Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post