When you think about networks, you probably imagine all the different ways people use them. But what are networks really? What do they look like? And how can you make sense of them? As it turns out, there’s a simple image that can help answer all of those questions.
Networks can look like anything.
Networks are everywhere. They can be physical, virtual or conceptual. They can be made of people, computers or other things like ideas, energy and water. Networks can be highly structured and organized or very loose and chaotic; they may have formal rules (like laws) or informal ones (like social norms).
Network diagrams have a universal structure.
The structure of a network diagram is simple and universal. The nodes, or vertices, are represented by circles and the links between them are drawn as lines. Most diagrams also have an arrow at one end of each link to indicate which direction it travels in; this convention can be reversed if you prefer to show that information in another way (for example, with arrows pointing away from nodes).
The node-link model has become so common that many people think of it as the only way to represent networks visually–but there are other options! Another popular visualization technique is called “graph theory” because it focuses on representing relationships between objects rather than their positions relative to each other (which is what happens when you draw out your family tree). Graphs show how two things relate by drawing them together side-by-side:
Networks usually have multiple views.
One of the most important things to understand about networks is that they usually have multiple views. The way you view a network, and what you choose to emphasize in that view, will determine its usefulness for different purposes. For example:
- A graphical representation might