“Up and down and round and round”
The elusive shape of the Web

Tommaso Venturini (CNRS—Centre for Internet and Society)

Understanding and representing the structure of the World Wide Web has never been easy and not only because the Web is extremely vast, but also because its relational architecture is shaped by two different attachment dynamics that push the structure of online networks in two orthogonal directions.

  • The first dynamic, communal attachment, consists in the fact that websites (but the same could be said for social media accounts) tends to connect to other websites focusing on the same topics, issues or matter of interests.
  • The second dynamic, preferential attachment, consists in the fact that websites that are already highly cited have more probability to attract new hyperlinks than websites that are less visible.

These two dynamics are equally important but also diametrically opposite. While communal attachment encourages homophily and generates thematic communities where shared interests are discussed by like-minded actors; preferential attachment encourages hierarchy and tends to create a pyramid of attention in that progressively concentrate visibility around a few hyper-visible actors. Communal attachment goes in circles (within the same community) and creates clustering; preferential attachment goes upward (toward the most visible) and creates ranking.

The difficulty to consider these two dynamics together and to combine their opposed effects has produced a twofold reading of digital communication. Recently, for example, the mounting alarm about online misinformation has produced two opposite concerns. On the one hand, commentators have denounced the emergence of increasingly tight “echo-chambers” trapping online users within closed conversations and preventing them from being exposed to different ideas and viewpoints. On the other hand, observers have warned against the pathological amplification of some viral stories which capture a disproportionate portion of online attention and reduce the diversity of the news diet.

In this paper, I discuss the two attachment dynamics shaping online communication and I suggest a few strategies to deal with them when collecting online data and when analysing the networks extracted from them.