When is a news network a network?

The News Networks in Early Modern Europe research network met at the Institute of Austrian Historical Research of the University of Vienna on 13-14 September 2012. First: thanks to our kind hosts, the Institute and Professor Katrin Keller, and Nikolaus Schobesberger and Paola Molino; and to The Leverhulme Trust for funding the workshop as part of our research network.

I’m not going to offer an account of everything that was said, or even synopses of all of the papers (the programme can be viewed in the previous posting). Instead, I’m going to pick out some of the interesting themes and issues, and invite everyone — participants in the workshop and all readers of this blog — to comment and respond.

We began with a collaborative session on postal networks in early modern Europe, in which each participant sketched the various postal services in our areas of geographical specialism. Paul Arblaster began with a survey of the post in the Spanish Netherlands, and its connectivity with other areas in Europe …

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Nikolaus Schobesberger followed, looking at the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, and filling in some additional routes …

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Then Mario Infelise, André Belo, Carmen Espejo and me, Joad Raymond.

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At the end of the session the map looked something like this (it seemed a crime to erase it).

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For me this offered more than a brush up on geography or a learning exercise on where the north west European archipelago interconnected with the European mainland: the experience of collaborating on the map made material the complications of moving things around Europe, of finding ways of transporting or communicating objects and news. Collaborating on a map provided a space for accumulating basic information, but also for a good deal more. We found it all the more involving because the postal services — or networks — that functioned in various areas were not straightforwardly commensurate. Different services had to interconnect in different ways: the nodes (or points of connection) were not homogenous. Moreover, there were always alternative routes, and considerations of speed and cost. Yet it was nonetheless an effective network — through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries postal and carrier networks developed in order to get the job done.

We listened to papers by Anton Tantner, Oswald Bauer, Virginia Dillon and Paul Arblaster, all of which considered the geographies of news communication, and the material places and forms through which news communication occurred. And we visited the Austrian National Library, where we saw the famous Fuggerzeitungen in the flesh. These are currently being digitised and indexed by Keller and her team: they will go live soon (and you will hear about it here).

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In the concluding roundtable several themes congealed: first, the need for a shared glossary. We are currently working on an article on lexicons of news in the major languages of western Europe. But more than that, we saw we understood by the terms we commonly used (newsletters, newspapers, periodicity) subtly different things, and that the concepts denoted shifted their contours and their relative contours over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But worst of all was ‘network’, a term that, it seems to me, has been debased to mean nothing more than a connection between three or more things. When is a network a network? Are there specific rules for the performance of exchanges (such as characterised in Social Network Theory) that define it as a network? Can the connected communication mechanisms across Europe be defined as a network, and if so, does that mean we can describe the limits of the community of Europe through an examination of that network? Or can we only meaningfully talk about particular exchanges, a series of unique cases, in which case a network is an evanescent, non-generalisable phenomenon? This proved a topic of heated disagreement: in a future blog I hope to propose a solution to this.

JR

One thought on “When is a news network a network?

  1. Pingback: Seminario en Viena: “Networks & Centres, post, & Commerce” « Historia del Periodismo en Andalucía

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