Internet Faith in view
A visual and algorithmic exploration of the texts and hyperlinks of Dutch religious websites
Frank Smit S2516462
Supervisor: Susan Aasman Definitive version 5-1-2023
1 C ONTENTS
2 Introduction ... 4
2.1 Online religion and the potential of digital humanities research ... 5
2.2 Research question and outline of methodology... 7
2.3 Outline of the paper ... 8
3 Religion in the internetworked Netherlands: a brief historical overview and current scholarship ... 9
3.1 Should religion be defined?... 9
3.2 Constrained freedom, 1950-present ... 10
3.3 Features of contemporary religion ... 12
3.4 Digital religion ... 15
3.5 Theoretical insights from digital religion ... 16
4 Network Analysis: Theory and methodology... 19
4.1 The power of graphs ... 19
4.2 Hyperlinks and websites ... 20
4.3 Social network analysis and hyperlink graphs ... 21
4.4 (Hyper)link network analysis ... 23
5 Webarchives and the webcollection on religion... 25
5.1 The fragility of born-digital media... 25
5.2 Webarchives: what, who and how (not)... 27
5.3 The KB webcollection ... 30
5.4 Considerations for the ‘religion and spirituality’ webcollection... 30
6 Data: metadata collection to link logs ... 33
6.1 The search and its engine... 33
6.2 Search, annotation methods and some results ... 34
6.3 Metadata to Data: Building a link Crawler ... 39
6.4 Link analysis software: Gephi and its format ... 41
6.5 Classifying websites: word vectorization and support-vector machines... 42
7 Results: Statistics, Graphs and classifier experiment ... 46
7.1 Exploratory statistics ... 46
7.2 Link Network graphs, part 1: inter-corpus links... 52
7.3 Link Network graphs, part 2: Neighbourhood of outlinks ... 61
7.4 Classifier experiment ... 75
8 Conclusion ... 77
9 Bibliography ... 80
10 Appendix ... 86
10.1 Python code ... 86
10.1.1 Webcollector Tool... 86
10.1.2 Link crawler ... 102
10.1.3 Link analysis... 108
10.1.4 Text scraper ... 118
10.2 List of categories (in Dutch) ... 131
10.2.1 Stromingen ... 131
10.2.2 Vertegenwoordigers of eigenaars ... 134
10.2.3 Doelen ... 135
10.2.4 Functionaliteit ... 136
10.2.5 Sociale media ... 137
2 I NTRODUCTION
Depending on one’s point of view, the 20th century and its bleeding over into our current millennia can either be characterized as an era of dizzying acceleration of new, emergent forms of being, living, thinking and relating, or one of precipitous decline in those ‘traditional’ forms that are felt to have been with us for much longer than the Christocentric calendar would like to admit. But as in the world of thermodynamics, where transformation is law and destruction an impossibility, so human societies too exist rather in a constant state of reconfiguration. Narratives of ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ are convenient places to hold onto for all of us caught in the river of change. Yet easy stories also tend to counteract possibilities of constructing a more stable raft to sail the currents with, that is, a comprehensive and nuanced picture of what is going on.
One domain in life in which the tension within and between the various (media) narratives and statistics and the ‘situation on the ground’ is readily apparent is religion. Referring to two topics which have seen frequent use in the construction of The Netherland’s contemporary self-understanding reveals one such site of tension. First there is all the talk of secularization (Dutch: secularisatie), or as Dutch publications like to state more specifically, ‘decongregation’ (ontkerkelijking, lit.: ‘dechurchification’, referring explicitly to the reduced attendance of traditional religious services and spaces). Research conducted by Statistics Netherlands (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS)) in 2020 indicates both seem ineluctable: for the first time in history those that disidentify with a religious grouping are in the majority (54%), while nearly 80% indicates to (almost) never participate in a religious service. Both statistics have been steadily rising over the years.1
Does this suggest that The Netherlands is well underway in becoming not just a secular nation, but an areligious nation? Taking up the second topic – migration – points in a different direction.
Globalisation has enabled the crosspollination of nations all over the world, and Europe has for various reasons been amongst the most popular flowerbeds. The Netherlands has been no exception to the slew of West-European countries suddenly finding themselves a multicultural society, and as a corollary, suffused by a wide variety of religious groups. Of these, Islam is the largest (5% in 20192), but it is far from the only debutante. Add to this the fact that the initiative has not only been with those who come to Europe. The flipside of globalization has also seen Europeans themselves spread out across the world, first physically and then digitally, and come into contact with hitherto distant systems of thought and being. The result is that, right under the nose of secularisation, the Dutch religious landscape is burgeoning with new and adapted religions and spiritual traditions, many of them small, niche, or ill- defined and ever-developing.
The CBS limits its categorisation to set of well-bracketed, major religious movements, and thus flies too high to account for this diversity. What is more, the language used in their questions is one of binary belonging to this pantheon of world religions.3 One is either a Christian, a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or one is fortunate enough to belong to the One True Religion, namely ‘Other’ (Anders
gezindte). But does such a narrow, ‘pillarized’ conception of what it means to be religious not cloud over the many kinds of belief, lifestyle and community that have become much more central to religion in the
1 Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek, “Religie in Nederland,” December 18, 2020, https://www.cbs.nl/nl- nl/longread/statistische-trends/2020/religie-in-nederland?onepage=true.
3 The main question asked is, in Dutch, ‘Beschouwt u zichzelf als behorend tot een kerkgenootschap of levensbeschouwelijke groepering.’
5 last few decades, not only outside of traditional religions but also within them? Think of the
undercurrent of esoteric spiritual traditions, now joined by easily appropriated elements from eastern culture, that, once the blockage from the institutionalized church was removed, erupted into the mainstream. Is it the religious or spiritual single movements that one’s identity ‘belongs to’, or is the postmodern individual itself now rather the locus in which such movements congregate?
2.1 ONLINE RELIGION AND THE POTENTIAL OF DIGITAL HUMANITIES RESEARCH
The type of institutional, large-scale statistics by the likes of CBS reveals important trends in Dutch society, but its Achilles heel is that it cannot but assume and deploy an a priori structure of religious forms and sensibilities, and then question respondents on their centrality or peripherality to this order.
Bernard Rieder writes that ‘order, as a concept, does not exist independently from ordering techniques.’4 Similarly, Lisa Gitelman et al. write how ‘[l]ike events imagined and enunciated against the continuity of time, data are imagined and enunciated against the seamlessness of phenomena.’5 In just this way, systematically studying the enormous diversity of contemporary religion and spirituality (as opposed to a more focussed, more open-ended anthropology of individual movements and communities) often means equipping a prefab mental model of the defining characteristics of the religious landscape, an act which assumes both the stability of identities and their meaningfulness to those surveyed.
This thesis will concern itself with the relation between categorisation and reality. The foundation for this is the internship project that I completed for the Royal Library in The Hague (KB, Nationale Bibliotheek) between September 2021 and February 2022, in which I assembled a collection of to-be-archived Dutch religious websites. The KB hosts its own webarchive6 – a digital archive of websites copied from the live internet for preservation – and one method of adding to it is the establishment of special themed collections, of which ‘religion, spirituality and “philosophies of life” (levensbeschouwing)’
was my responsibility. This resulted in a dataset of 1048 URLs, 656 of which were selected for archival and fully annotated with metadata concerning the nature and content of the site. My emphasis was on using the collection to portray the diversity of religious activity in the Netherlands. The methodology, however, was not dissimilar from the one CBS uses: the names of religions and spiritual subjects were compiled and used to find and then categorize the websites of a wide range of movements and actors (albeit with more room to integrate ‘snowballed’ findings and other serendipitous feedback loops.) In a sense, in desiring to know, there is no escaping the need to assume. I therefore want to use this thesis to explore a transformation of assumption into knowledge. To do this, I will use computational methods to explore whether, in the case of the website-as-data, the assumptions and structures employed in
‘creating’ the data can come to either justify their veracity or deficiency in accurately describing reality, when manipulations of that data make them reveal patterns that reinscribe or counter the reification of the categories they were stamped with at birth.
Chris Anderson in his 2008 article The End of Theory described how much of a game-changer the arrival of ‘the petabyte age’ has been for the work that data can be made to do. Services like Google
4 Bernhard Rieder, Engines of Order (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020),
https://doi.org/10.5117/9789462986190, 32. Although he writes specifically about the ordering work done by computer algorithms, is the same not true of surveys? A set of rules (questions and a spectrum of accepted answers) applied to an object (the surveyed) that places said object within a number of pre-set categories.
5 Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson, “Introduction,” in “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron, ed. Lisa Gitelman, Infrastructures Series (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: The MIT Press, 2013), 3.
6 The KB puts emphasis on their description of the archive as a ‘webcollection’.
6 don’t need to make assumptions about the content of their data or construct models that explain them.
They can merely give the petabytes a slight statistical nudge, and they start speaking as if for themselves.
The patterns and correlations netted algorithmically from the vast data-seas turn out to be sufficient for knowing what their users are doing, liking and wanting, which is all Google the Business really needs.
Why they do, like and want is superfluous.7 Of course, this utopian view8 of a world without models hasn’t arrived quite yet for us petaless plebeians, but getting the data to reveal its inherent
patternedness has become a highly influential project in many disciplines. Thanks to Franco Moretti’s keenly termed ‘distant reading’, it has even become somewhat of a founding myth for digital humanities as a field: the shattering of the old distinctions between qualitative and quantitative research, between what we in the humanities do and what they social scientists do.9 After all, thanks to such spells as ‘word vectorization’, texts can now be transubstantiated into numbers, and made into willing receivers of all kinds of statistical and machine learning metamorphoses.
As the internet has been maturing, so have the research fields that emphasize its influence. The field that studies religion on the internet has been no different, as ‘cyberreligion’ has morphed into
‘digital religion’ and theories and methods have refined their analyses of the influence of digital media on living religion in the contemporary world. Meanwhile, the importance of treating the internet as an inseparable part of everyday reality has also dawned in the broader disciplines studying religion.10 But having completed the webarchive, it seems there are lacunae and blind spots remaining. For instance, the religious website shares the fate of websites in general: a victim of being overlooked do to its ubiquity. A handful of papers11 conduct more or less broad research on websites with religious subject matter, many others use websites but shun making this explicit, describing themselves studies of ‘the internet’ or ‘online communities’12, even though the equivalence of a ‘traditional’ community-owned website (as opposed to, say, a page on social media or a blog) and online community has become increasingly less pronounced. Furthermore, with some exceptions13, using the web’s infrastructure through automated crawling and data-collection is not popular in digital religious studies. It appears as if the full potential of the digitality of digital religion has been only sparingly unlocked. This is why explicitly taking the religious website as an object of study, within a DH framework, can shine light on insights that were hidden in plain sight.
7 Chris Anderson, “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete,” Wired, June 23, 2008, https://www.wired.com/2008/06/pb-theory/.
8 Which includes naively describing Google as a mere go-between rather than an important player in its own game of who gets to see what.
9 Matthew K. Gold, Lauren F. Klein, and Ted Underwood, eds., “Distant Reading and Recent Intellectual History,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016 (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 530–33,
10 Heidi A Campbell, “A Brief Historical Overview and Introduction to Digital Religion Studies,” in The Digital Religion Yearbook 2021, ed. Heidi A Campbell (The Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies, n.d.), 4.
11 Such as: Sebastian Năstuţă, “The Impact of Internet on New Religious Movements’ Discourse,” Sociologie Românească 10, no. 4 (2012): 61–74.
12 Such as: Heidi A. Campbell and Oren Golan, “Creating Digital Enclaves: Negotiation of the Internet among Bounded Religious Communities,” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 5 (June 29, 2011): 709–24
13 Such as: Laura Osburn, “Between Network and Story: Analysing Hyperlinks and Narratives on Websites about Tibet,” in Buddhism, the Internet, and Digital Media: The Pixel in the Lotus, ed. Gregory Price Grieve and Daniel Veidlinger, Routledge Studies in Religion and Digital Culture (New York: Routledge, 2015), 40 –57; John D. Boy, Justus Uitermark, and Laïla Wiersma, “Trending #hijabfashion: Using Big Data to Study Religion at the Online–Urban Interface,” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 31, no. 1 (May 16, 2018): 22–40.
2.2 RESEARCH QUESTION AND OUTLINE OF METHODOLOGY
The aim of this thesis is as such not to go beyond models, but to invite different kinds of models to enter into a constructive dialogue. The first kind equals the annotated labels: grouping sites together on a shared belonging to a religious denomination, movement, community, spiritual topic, etc. ‘These sites are all Protestant’ is a practical, ‘human’ way to order the online-religious landscape. Simple models, but models nonetheless. The second kind concerns the actual data which has been annotated: the websites stored in the KB’s archive, or rather the parts of them which can be used by computer models to reveal purported latent structures in the data. These ‘webscraped’ parts – hyperlinks and text in my case – will nominally comprise the ‘data’ part of the dataset, or corpus. The labels are, after all, ‘mere’ metadata.
And yet it is the interface of data and metadata that my analysis is concerned with. Not only do the programs and algorithms require labels do their job, but it is the disjunction or harmony between the label-model and the graph- or stat-model that is of main interest in this paper. Both models represent a different way of ordering based on some perceived pattern. By forcing them work together, they can come to see both their mutual indebtedness and the limits of their style of representing reality, all while learning valuable lessons about love and friendship. The research question I want to answer is thus: ‘in what ways can the computational modelling of religious websites support or nuance their a priori categorisation?’
To do this, I will carry out two kinds of operations. Firstly, I have programmed a so called ‘link crawler’ that searches through a given website for links to other website, and outputs a report of what links it encountered and how often. Having fed all 656 links to this crawler, the results have been visualized in a ‘link analysis’ network graph using Gephi, showing exactly how the sites in the database relate to other sites, and thus to each other, both directly or indirectly. This kind of visual graph can be used for many things, but of main interest to me is viewing how the structure given by the labels is retained or discarded in the structure emergent from the sites’ use of hyperlinks, and how this (non- )correspondence can best be interpreted. Secondly, I will check the top layer of each website for bodies of paragraphical text and transform this into machine-analysable data using word embeddings. Using these, I will carry out a ‘classifier algorithm’ study. That is, by telling the algorithm that a certain collection of texts/words/word embeddings belong to a certain religious category, in an ideal world (where the streets are paved with data) the algorithm will be able to correctly classify any new,
unlabelled page it encounters. Luckily, we don’t live in a perfect world, for it is both the success and the failure of the classifier algorithm that can uncover hints about the differences the self-presentation of religious sites. Indeed, while no ‘positive’ information is gained – website x differs from website y
because x writes in style a and y in style b – again just the knowledge that there is a difference between x and y becomes revealing purely through referencing back to the labels. What would it mean if the
classifier has a hard time telling a Catholic site from a Protestant one? Such results are less ends in themselves than means to survey a dataset and finding entry points to move from distant to close reading.
One thing that should be noted is that this research merely emulates the use of the KB’s
webcollection, because I have obtained my data from scraping the live web, instead of using the archived files saved by the library. There are various reasons for this. One is that the availability to the KB’s
webcollection is very limited, for reasons discussed in more detail later. It cannot be accessed outside of
8 the library building, nor are bulk files easily available for the kind of corpus analysis I do here.14 In other words, anything but ‘traditional’ viewing and note-taking is currently nigh impossible. One way to incorporate the usage of a webarchive would have been to use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine:
the largest and most accessible webarchive. This, however, would’ve brought about its own problems and inconsistencies. For one, it would be impossible to download a single website in a single file, such as a .WARC file. Internet Archive doesn’t provide any direct methods or support for downloading sites, and instead links those wishing to do so to third-party services that claim to provide loose .html files (which for girthy sites can quickly become unwieldy).15 Thus, barring direct access to the KB’s archived files, it remains hard to avoid using the internet to access the Internet. As such, sending a webscraper to the sites in my corpus is the simplest and most efficient option. This method also has its hiccups, including the time and difficulty of programming a scraper that can do the job, the issue of that scraper getting blocked by several sites, and those few sites in the corpus which have gone offline since the list’s compilation, but they are minor sacrifices in the name of being able to research at all.
2.3 OUTLINE OF THE PAPER
I will start with a chapter that centres on methodology. In this case this also includes a reflection on the construction of the corpus, that is, the work I did during my internship. I will retrace the conditions and possibilities I was presented with in my task to create a special webcollection for the KB, what choices I made to limit the shape of the collection, and what methods I used to ultimately select the sites and gather the metadata. To deepen this reflection, I include an exposition on the webarchive in general, answering the following questions: what are webarchives, who operates them, how do they work, why are they needed, how can they be utilized for (DH) research and what are their limits. I finish this chapter by discussing the link analysis and classification algorithm methods, asking similar questions about their operation and caveats.
The second chapter will give a historical and theoretical overview of the two topics of this paper – religion and the internet – and their intersection. Since these topics are practically inexhaustible, the only option is to be practical, and limit the overview to those histories that can help in interpreting what the computational tools will show. This includes giving a short review of how religion and its practice has evolved together with the wider society, culture and economy, and an overview of the subfield called
‘Online Religion’ which can aid, for instance, in making sense of the link analysis as a manifestation of the specific confluence of religion and internet. For reasons of space, what is missing is a discussion of the individual religions, spiritualities and movements that feature in the corpus and thus the coming analyses.
For very short introductions on them and more elaborate discussions of their online forms, refer to the collection report attached to the webcollection.16
The third chapter will spend some time on the methodologies used in carrying out the analysis:
social network analysis, its graphical output and its application to hyperlinks specifically, and the use of
14 It has come to my attention that the archived files may be accessible to a limited set of researchers working directly with the KB.
15 Internet Archive, “Can I Rebuild My Website Using the Wayback Machine,” accessed July 27, 2022, https://help.archive.org/help/can-i-rebuild-my-website-using-the-wayback-machine/.
16 Frank Smit, Kees Teszelszky, and Peter de Bode, ‘Collectiebeschrijving webcollectie Religie & levensbeschouwing’, 10 November 2022, https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.7309555.
9 classifier algorithms to study the linkages between data and their labels. Finally, the fourth chapter interludes, shows the results of the study and discusses their implications for the research question.
3 R ELIGION IN THE INTERNETWORKED N ETHERLANDS : A BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW AND CURRENT SCHOLARSHIP
I would like to start this chapter with a quick overview of the characteristics that strongly define the nature of religion in our digital times. But wait, what’s that vague feeling that we’ve forgotten an essential argumentative cornerstone? That’s right, ‘religion’ and its cousin-concept ‘spirituality’ haven’t been defined yet.
3.1 SHOULD RELIGION BE DEFINED
In the report that accompanied the webcollection, I eschewed adopting a classic ‘definition’ that starts with a capital letter, contains a bunch of semicolons and ends with a full stop. With a project that
focusses on a great breadth of spatially and culturally diverse religions, the risk of parroting a Eurocentric view, from which indeed the idea of religion as a separate sphere of life originated17, seemed too great.
Instead, I opted for listing some of what I considered to be common denominators of religion: the transcendental, the ultimate, the absolute, the higher, divinity, God, gods, supernatural powers, phenomena and entities, questions on life and death, meaning, purpose, the good, the inverse of all these things (profane, mundane, evil etc.), and then of course all the myriad ways in which such things inform how people construct moral systems, relate to each other and organise their societies.18 But honestly, aside for not being very erudite, this just replaces one way of defining with another, and therewith likely switches one form of bias for another.
Nevertheless, my escapism was not wholly unjustified. As Michael Bergunder writes: ‘[t]here is a broad consensus in the research field [of religious studies] that the classical definitions of the past are not able to provide a basis today for the determination of the discipline’s subject matter.’19 And indeed, an alternative to a ‘classical definition’ is an open-ended list of features which are sufficient20 but not necessary for a phenomenon’s inclusion in ‘religion’. The ball of answering why then these diverse features all point at religion, is however still kicked down the road.21 Bergunder, like a cantankerous neighbour, pops that ball by emphasizing that researchers of religion are all socialized into a specific, historicized way of how religion is understood and experienced ‘out there’ in society, and that the way
17 Michael Bergunder, “What Is Religion?,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26, no. 3 (September 4, 2014):
18 Besides, if religion is indeed the territory that concerns itself with this Ultimate that transcends, underlies or interpenetrates our whole universe, and thereby with interpreting and experiencing reality at a scale and depth that no words can fully encapsulate – rather, words are encapsulated by it – then how could a definition that is both conclusive and exact be possible? For religious studies to argue that it is possible would be a subtle invalidation of its subject matter’s claim to truth.
19 Bergunder, “What Is Religion?,” 248.
20 The specific word used is ‘polythetic’, defined by Oxford as ‘Describing a type of classification in which membership of a taxon is based on its constituent organisms sharing a large number of characteristics.’ So technically, it is an indeterminate amount of applicable categories that is sufficient, not a necessarily a single one.
21 Bergunder, 249-250.
10 they construct religion as their research object is very much conditioned by this unexamined mental model.22 My ‘intuitive’ enumeration of features undoubtedly comes from the same source. Bergunder (after Laclau and Butler) compares this historicized understanding of concepts to sedimentation. Our
‘intuition’ for a word is deposited in the current moment by the meandering flow of our discourses, from past to present. By iterative use of these word-sediments we keep the flow going, constantly inscribing renewed and ever-so-slightly shifted meaning, contingent on whatever sands and soils – social
conditions, other concepts – are also flowing along. In doing so, the word becomes a name, an objective feature of our world, even as what it actually refers to becomes quite hard to see through the unsettled waters.23
The solution to this conundrum however, the settling of the waters to clarify what we really mean when we say ‘religion,’ is a convoluted matter in its own right. Bergunder argues that we need a critical, decentering genealogy of ‘religion as sediment’, an analysis of what ‘religion’ referred to in past times by different groups and actors, and how these mutually-influencing usages sedimented onto the banks of the river from which we casually draw our current usage of term.24 Thus, rather than giving definitions, pinpointing the subject matter ‘demands empirical research, wherein [our implicit
understanding of religion] is traced from its historical articulations.’25 To me this raises the question: who is being addressed here? Theoreticians of religion only, or anyone merely sidling up to religion as a subject? Should a student of contemporary religion be required to be a historian of religion prior to every project? Or should religious studies take a periodical genealogical sabbath to reflect on what sediment has recently been added to their field? I agree with Bergunder’s drawing attention to our unreflective use of ‘religion’, but his idea that becoming reflective requires genealogy seems unpractical.
Of course, the historian of religion is obliged to first deconstruct religion before it can be reconstructed in the past, but studying religion can also mean engaging with it directly in the here and now. Genealogy seems less fit for this than, ironically, theoretical reflection. Couldn’t becoming reflective successfully end half-way Bergunder’s proposed path? Firstly, owning one’s subjectivity by understanding one’s view of religion is determined time and space, and laying my cards on the table via a heuristic definition or enumeration. And then secondly, being reflective in the sense that this definition is heuristic, a baseline, and remaining open to anything in the world that can expand or challenge one’s view of what religion could be.
3.2 CONSTRAINED FREEDOM
The best substitute for the genealogy of religion is switching over to actual history. If anything, the above discussion shows how uncomfortable religion is with being isolated from society for research’s sake. It’s enmeshment with human life has after all not lessened, even though the shape of that interwovenness has changed enormously, along with the change of the rest of society’s fabric. It is important therefore to be focussed in working with religion’s enormity, and to gloss only a small selection of characteristics which are often attributed to religion in the contemporary west. I have picked three, which I deem most essential: individualization, pluralization and (de-)liberalization. Individualization refers to the increasing power and possibilities of individuals to give shape to their own religiosity and/or spirituality.
Pluralization leads directly into and out of individuality, referring to the mushrooming of new forms of
22 Bergunder, 255.
23 Ibid., 267-268.
24 Ibid., 273-279.
25 Ibid., 280.
11 religion and spirituality, both in (a)doctrinal content and communal, institutional and commercial form.
Liberalization finally refers to the integration of modern, liberal values and modes of comportment with all manner of old and new religious traditions, and its flipside, deliberalization points at those
communities wary of this encroachment which intensify engagement with purported traditional values.
All these trends are part of the phase shift that the west, and since then increasingly the world at large, underwent in the 1950s. Of course, many foundations had been laid in the adjoining centuries (for instance, the personalisation of religion can be traced back to at least medieval elite culture26), but it is with the 50s that high modernity fractured into late modernity. Especially with the coming of age of the post-war generation in a world of an entirely novel level of wealth and opportunity, the pace of change later baptized as ‘the Great Acceleration’ really took off. Statistically speaking, the current epoch in unique in human history.27 With rises in productivity came new modes of communication, new media and the erosion of bonds that had forced interpersonal ties into a more local mould. New pathways for life opened, previous barriers of class eroded and relations between the sexes entered a drawn-out period of renegotiation. The complex economies of industrial society had already undermined the belief in an innate linkage between people and their role or occupation.28 Romanticism had argued for the primacy of pursuing the destiny of the authentic self. The secularisation of the second half of the 20th century then operationalized these developments into a popular ethos: free yourself from limitations, pursue growth, wealth, authenticity and happiness, then society’s prosperity will follow.29
One of the essential baselines in understanding this epoch is the fact that the individual has become regarded as the locus of free choice, rationality and self-determination, and that simultaneously, the democratic and individualizing movements created a logic that became in itself a limiting, structuring structure. If anything, a host of globalized economic, social and political processes now constrained personal choice – ever guiding but never coercing – in a much more diffuse and impersonal manner than premodern morality did.30 The individualized individual is expected to manifest his or her individuality, but in a specific manner decided by time, place and (sub)culture, be it having a successful career, expressing one’s authenticity through art or ‘finding one’s true self’ through spiritual seeking. To renounce this responsibility is to lack the character required of a modern autonomous individual.31
The digital world of the 21st century is the extension of this development, its last half-century having not been as jubilant and straightforward as the liberal ideal would have it. Instead, as the engine of development and connectivity rattled on, it resulted in a rather ambiguous prosperity, characterized as much by technological marvel as by the anxiety, precarity and confusion brought on by rapid change.
The entrance of computers as mediators of almost every facet of life is one factor herein which deserves special mention. The internet in particular turned into a new fountainhead of productivity and profit, exactly because of its increasing ability to represent, facilitate and commercialise everything from
26 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), 70.
27 Will Steffen et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no.
1 (April 2015): 83.
28 Steve Bruce, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford University Press, 2011), 32, 35.
29 Joris van Eijnatten en Frederik Angenietus van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis (Hilversum: Verloren, 2005), 328-329
30 Werkgroep Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, Hunkering Naar Heelheid: Het Nieuw-Religieuze Verlangen Naar Een Authentiek Bestaan (’s-Hertogenbosch: Katholieke Raad voor Kerk en Samenleving, 2000), 11-15.
31 Werkgroep Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, 11-18.
12 sociality and culture to economy and government.32 This has created conditions that every sphere of life must contend with, and perhaps use to their advantage. Religion and spirituality are no exception.
The other major change to European societies since 1950 is their cultural makeup. In the
Netherlands, the percentage of Dutch with a ‘migration background’ (migratieachtergrond) rose from 20%
in 2010 to 24% in 2021. The majority of these have been non-western. With the exception of Indonesians, all nationalities of which statistics are maintained have gradually – occasionally explosively, in the case of Syria – increased their presence in the Netherlands.33 What makes these increases in numbers extra salient is the heightened potential for migrants to practice and display their culture openly. Religion-wise this has amounted to mosques, temples and other sites of worship becoming a normal part of many urban spaces, providing an interesting nuance to the official secularity of public life.34 Moreover,
immigrant religious groups often also maintain a presence in the cyberspace (to use an antiquated term), allowing them to publicly declare their faith, maintain a community across a wider area and make
themselves findable to interested new members that may have never encountered them ‘in the flesh.’
3.3 FEATURES OF CONTEMPORARY RELIGION
Across the intensifications of the 20th and 21st centuries, secularisation and ontkerkelijking has been a constant. But this constant has not been simply linear. Since the 1990s, in the Netherlands there has been talk of a ‘return of religion.’35 Religion lost the image it had between 1960-80 as an antiquated remnant of dark ages past, destined to fade. In fact, in 2015 a majority of survey respondents indicated that they do consider religion important, either to their own lives or to society as a whole.36 But the fact of the emptied churches makes clear that the religion that has returned is of an entirely different kind:
one which has removed itself from public spaces and the affairs of the government. Benefit to society then in fact passes through benefit to the self, as religion has changed intimately with the broader individualized, pluralized and (neo)liberalized culture. Belief and spirituality are used variously by the people in this world to give sense, unity and direction to their lives. According to some writers, it serves to unify lives that have been fragmented due to ‘functional differentiation’; our need to switch roles constantly when moving through the spheres of function through which society now operates – family, commerce, education, politics, entertainment, etc. – leaves us desperate for something that can remain constant throughout it all, be it a transcendent deity or an True Self.37 Others more cynically see
contemporary religion as simply one strand of neoliberal economic logic; individuals modulate their identity with a rapidly alternating set of religious or spiritual affiliations in order to present themselves more successfully towards whatever audience they want to curry favours with, or participate in ‘spiritual
32 Nick Srnicek and Laurent De Sutter, Platform Capitalism, Theory Redux (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2017).
33 Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek, “Bevolking; Migratieachtergrond, Generatie, Leeftijd, Regio, 1 Januari,”
September 10, 2021, https://opendata.cbs.nl/statline/#/CBS/nl/dataset/84910NED/line?ts=1643196526412.
34 Geurt Collenteur and Maarten Duijvendak, “Economische Groei En Sociale Ongelijkheid,” in Grenzen in Beweging:
De Wereld van 1945 Tot Heden, ed. Antoon de Baets, Jaap den Hollander, and Stefan van der Poel (Antwerpen:
Spectrum, 2013), 321.
35 Erik Borgman and Anton van Harskamp, “Tussen Secularisering En Hernieuwde Sacralisering,” in Handboek Religie in Nederland, ed. Meerten ter Borg et al. (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 2008), 16.
36 A. P. J. Bernts and Joantine Berghuijs, God in Nederland, 1966-2015 (Utrecht: Ten Have, 2016), 41-42.
37 Eijnatten; van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis, 363; Werkgroep Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, 15-16;
Borgman and Harskamp, 17-18.
13 workshops’ purely for their own wellbeing and self-development.38
What matters more than the truth of such claims is that they both describe religion as the object of an active subject: seeking religion, adopting a spiritual way of life. With the waning of the cohesive and disciplining function of church institutions, religion has become much more a matter of personal, active agency, of pursuing some goal. In many cases, and especially in the case of spirituality, this goal is a matter of personal experience, be it of something transcendental or something psychosomatic.39 In any case, except for those remaining (against all odds) within their familial religion, the individual has
become the ultimate authority about what, where and how to belief, what parts of a tradition to accept or reject, and how to fit religious values within a multifaceted identity.40 This has led to what sociologists have termed ‘bricolage’: the picking and mixing of facets from diverse spiritual traditions into a highly protean and idiosyncratic whole.41 But as noted above, this ‘freedom’ is itself limited by neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on self-development and self-responsibility for psychological wellbeing, and the cultural backgrounds of the individuals. Ergo, not only is the bricoleur’s choice of religion
predetermined by a socially (and economically) mandated need for self-realization, but so do qualities like gender, ethnicity and sexuality.42
This predetermination of the shape of individuality also comes to the fore when taking a closer look at the conceptual break that exists between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, both within academic and lay discourse. Whereas the former describes traditional belief at best and rigid dogmatism at worst, spirituality is the domain of the free flowing, unaffiliated seekers.43 This ‘spirituality’ has ‘its focus on the self and its wholeness, its emphasis on feeling’, it is a ‘quest’ of discovering one’s authenticity, being open to what the transcendent reveals through seeking and introspection, as Taylor describes it.44 Where religion declines, spirituality fills its void. However, Nancy Ammerman, looking into the US, found that this zero-sum view did not fit the data. The Americans they surveyed reported a wide range of associations with ‘spiritual,’ and many of them fit squarely within a Christian worldview and practice, including going to church. The churchgoers tended to have a spirituality more orientation towards God and morality, whereas ‘extra-theistic’ respondents emphasized the feelings of awe and numinosity when experiencing the mundane as somehow transcendent, but did not link that experience to God.45
In the Netherlands, the identification of spirituality with traditional religion seems smaller.
Instead, it serves as a ‘vague’ catch-all for many of the new entrees in the religious landscape. Berghuijs et al. indicate how many eastern quasi-religious practices (Reiki, Tai Chi, yoga), western esoterism, tarot, astrology are combined in various packages with psychological and ‘secular “art of living” worldviews’, all under the single moniker of spirituality.46 When they surveyed people on what they associate with spirituality, the results are not unlike my summation of religion’s characteristics above: higher power,
38 Meerten ter Borg, “Religie Na 1945: Een Cultuur-Sociologische Schets van de Achtergronden,” in Handboek Religie in Nederland, ed. Meerten ter Borg et al. (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 2008), 62-63.
39 Joantine Berghuijs, Jos Pieper, and Cok Bakker, ‘Conceptions of Spirituality among the Dutch Population’, Archive for the Psychology of Religion 35, no. 3 (September 2013): 376.
40 Eijnatten and Lieburg, 332.
41 Werkgroep Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, 21.
42 Véronique Altglas, “‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool,” Culture and Religion 15, no. 4 (October 30, 2014):
43 Nancy T. Ammerman, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 2 (June 2013): 259.
44 Taylor, 507-508.
45 Ammerman, 265-269.
46 Berghuijs, Pieper, and Bakker, “Conceptions of Spirituality among the Dutch Population,” 370.
14 transcendent reality, the paranormal, non-materiality, the mind. Concepts like God, Christianity and faith, which are more associated with traditional religion, were associated infrequently, while more individual concerns such as well-being, balance, the inner life and connectedness were named more frequently.47 At first sight, Ammerman’s findings thus do not hold for the Netherlands, were it not that many Christians identify as ‘spiritual’ as well.48 In Europe, both Protestantism and Catholicism went through what Bruce describes as ‘internal secularization’: the dissolution of Christianity’s orthodoxy into free- floating ideas, variously interpreted for instance as metaphors or references to internal psychology.
Transcendence turning into immanence. Research from 1996 indeed shows how large swathes of Dutch Catholics showed considerable variability in their beliefs, and that many of these had drifted far from Rome’s orthodoxy. The literalism of God the Father and Jesus the Son had transformed into belief in unknowable, higher power and the conception of life after death was broadened with beliefs like reincarnation.49 David Voas calls this ‘popular heterodoxy.’50 In fact, he claims that what European surveys on religion depict as continued religious adherence is for a large part ‘fuzzy religion’ – vague identifications with religions that played a role in one’s past but don’t take a very central place in one’s life anymore.51 A purgatory between true faith and secularity.
It thus seems that the difference between ‘religion’ and spirituality’ is hard to draw.
Developments outside of the Christian churches reflect back on how Christians themselves belief, while the heritage of Christianity structures the way in which new religions and spiritualities can be understood and practiced. Taylor writes how, far from being the mere demon of cold conformity and dogmatism, western Christianity has for centuries known the drive towards a more intimate, personal religion. The
‘spiritual quest’ model is but a contemporary continuation of it.52 Perhaps it comes down more to outwards forms and identity than internal experience. In a sense, the self-narrativization of being on a personal path or quest was more of a difference between the two groups Ammerman measured than the actual individuality of their approach, as both ‘theists’ and ‘extra-theists’ share many common underlying views on the importance of spirituality, and the freedom to voice that importance in their own words.53 Ammerman concludes: ‘Spirituality is, then, a cultural category that is neither utterly variable (whatever each individual takes it to mean) nor an undifferentiated domain on the other axis of the two-by-two table from religion.’54
Indeed, the democratic, secular economy exerts a pressure on all religious groups to open themselves up. All religions in the secular west have to contend with the fact that they are but one of the hills in the religious landscape, and that to retain popular approval in a secularized, liberalized society means eschewing self-proclamation as possessing the ultimate truth; we are right and all the rest is wrong (and damned). ‘The tolerance that is necessary for harmony in diverse egalitarian societies weakens religion by forcing us to live as if we could not be sure of God’s will,’ writes Bruce.55 What seem like exceptions to this, are in fact created by it. For instance: the (ultra-)orthodox Protestant churches
47 Berghuijs, Pieper, and Bakker, “Conceptions of Spirituality among the Dutch Population,” 382-385.
48 Ibid., 370.
49 Gerard Dekker, J. J. M. de Hart, and Jan Peters, God in Nederland 1966-1996 (Amsterdam: Anthos, 1997), 18-20.
50 David Voas, “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe,” European Sociological Review 25, no. 2 (July 19, 2008):
51 Voas, 165-167.
52 Taylor, 532.
53 Ibid., 272.
54 Ammerman, 276.
55 Bruce, 47.
15 that have proliferated in the Netherlands due to a series of splits from more liberal Protestants. These churches describe themselves as adhering to orthodoxy and traditional belief, and isolate themselves from wider society as a defence mechanism against the strong entropy of liberalized religion. In other words, their identity depends on a contrast with an outside world perceived as spiritually bankrupt.56
Bruce argues that ultimately, even though secularisation has co-occurred with a rise in religious diversity through migration, the factionalizing of Christianity and bricolage, society has become
structured in a way detrimental to religion’s overall significance. The waning of institutional power to inspire (or force) adherence to specific communities and their foundational dogmas has gone hand in hand with the individualization of religious choice. But as a result, the ties within communities that support this free choice are weaker, leading to an overall reduced ability of religious movements to maintain their cohesion, distinctiveness and replacement rate—the socialisation of new generations into the movement.57 So, whether or not there is an innate human need for religion that no secular paradigm can bury, ‘[w]hen the common culture of a society consists of operating principles that allow the
individual to choose, no amount of vague spiritual yearning will generate a shared belief system.’58 On the other hand, Taylor describes how the ‘nagging dissatisfactions with the modern moral order, and its attendant disciplines, the rapid wearing out of its Utopian versions, the continuing sense that there is something more’ makes our secular age an uniquely fertile age for fostering spontaneous spiritual longing in even those disconnected from their ancestral traditions.59 So while the lakes of religion have shrunk, people are more than ever before equipped to draw out the many sources that flow just below the surface. Those that draw from it on their own retain their ecumenical and non-sectarian disposition, even when they later to join more organized religion.60 In any case, Taylor summarizes that ‘this is a world in which the fate of belief depends much more than before on powerful intuitions of individuals, radiating out to others.’61
3.4 DIGITAL RELIGION
The study of religion on the internet evolved alongside the increasing embeddedness of internet in daily life, gradually shifting its views of the intersection of faith and web. In the distant past of the 1990s and early 2000s ‘cyberreligion’ or ‘virtual religion’ emerged as a subfield in its own right, named in line with the view that the internet was a totally novel, incorporeal space disconnected from everyday life that could only be accessed through interdimensional portals (computers).62 Soon this image started to be nuanced: religion on the internet was tied to the conventions and characteristics of religion in the offline world, but the nature of these ties invited elucidation. Was it more ‘online religion’ or ‘religion online?’
Which traditional religious forms were trying to make the leap to digital formats, and which novel ways of practice and connection – perhaps cutting off the regulations and hierarchies ordering the
communities on the ground – were suddenly made possible by the characteristic anonymity and collapse
56 Werkgroep Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, 21.
57 Bruce, Secularization, 4.
58 Ibid., 55.
59 Taylor, 533.
60 Ibid., 534-535.
61 Ibid., 531.
62 Heidi A. Campbell and Ruth Tsuria, “Introduction to the Study of Digital Religion,” in Digital Religion:
Understanding Religious Practice in Digital Media, ed. Heidi A. Campbell and Ruth Tsuria (London: Routledge, 2021), 3-4.
16 of time and space? As the 2000s moved into the 2010s, and the internet settled into society’s every nook and cranny (especially after it was liberated from the desk and settled into the hand palm) the distinction between online and offline religion became increasingly untenable. Religion everywhere was now touched by the internet, just as the internet was intimately tied to physical reality. The field was thus rechristened once more: ‘digital religion’: the study of how religion as a whole is reshaped now that the digital is an everyday part of our life.63 ‘Digital Religion scholars consider both how digital media are used by religious groups and users to translate religious practices and beliefs into new contexts, as well as the reimagining of religion offered by unique affordances within these new media and spaces,’ writes digital religion matriarch Heidi Campbell.64
In a review of the field by Campbell, much of what she describes echoes the general features of contemporary religion. ‘Echoes’ is a wrong word, however, as the interwovenness of offline and online contexts means that many of contemporary religion’s features are strongly enabled precisely by the internet’s affordances. Individualization of beliefs and practices thrives in this environment, where the barriers to both knowledge acquisition and production are low, and identities and ideas can be worked on in (anonymized) peer-to-peer networks. In such loose networks, practices can be adopted to suit one’s interests and needs, without the danger of marginalization that comes with self-reinvention in a tightly knit community.65 Or, if one’s religious inclination is already marginal, the internet can provide the possibility to associate at all.66 The flipside of the online-offline non-duality is that, if a religious
community is primarily an offline presence, the offline organisation and its network structures the form of its online presence. Engagement with these websites is therefore an extension of in-person
engagement; the website has little utility as a standalone resource.67
3.5 THEORETICAL INSIGHTS FROM DIGITAL RELIGION
There are a number of theories associated with media studies that have been used to good effect in studying religion, either in media studies itself or in the field of digital religion. I will extend the exploratory direction of this paper to these theories as well, and give an overview of two of these noteworthy frameworks that seem most promising is making sense of a network of hyperlinks.
The first framework goes under the moniker ‘mediatization’ and ambitions to study how societies and cultures change as specific forms of media come to dominate the patterns of
communication.68 Mediatization tries to view the socio-cultural construction of reality, the consolidation of institutions and the availability of technologies in people’s life as an integrated whole.69 For instance, the introduction of the internet opened up a Pandora’s box of communication tools and methods with enormous flexibility and velocity. A webpage containing text, audio, imagery and video can be accessed at about any time from any place within seconds, and with the aid of platforms, the average person is no
63 Ibid., 4.
64 Heidi A Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches within Digital Religion Studies,” New Media & Society 19, no. 1 (January 2017): 16.
65 Heidi A Campbell, “Religion and the Internet: A Microcosm for Studying Internet Trends and Implications,” New Media & Society 15, no. 5 (August 2013): 683.
66 Ibid., 687.
67 Ibid., 684-685.
68 Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches within Digital Religion Studies,” 18.
69 Knut Lundby and Giulia Evolvi, “Theoretical Frameworks for Approaching Religion and New Media,” in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in Digital Media, ed. Heidi A. Campbell and Ruth Tsuria (London:
Routledge, 2021), 240.
17 longer a mere consumer of such communication, but a highly capable producer. As a result, the whole ground of human interaction has shifted: the internet has become institutional in the sense that more and more ways of human communication and organisations are expected to be routed through its servers. To use the internet has become a near-objective necessity. What this means for religion is that its own place as an institutional node for communication – its churches, preachers and political parties – has waned, and instead religion is now itself required to adapt to those institutions that took its place, especially the media. Religious groups have to work with ‘the logic of the media’ to disseminate their message properly, and in turn, the media become society’s main vein of knowledge about religions.70
Lundby and Evolvi gives examples of the mediatization of religion both from the perspective of the media and from that of religious groups. The first is, for example, how popular media include religious symbolisms and imaginaries (in movies and games, for instance).71 Elements of religion thus become more visible in society, but also risk becoming free-floating and disconnected from the original religion’s comprehensive framework of meaning. The second is how traditional religious groups
themselves use new media technologies to serve their cause, such as Tibetan Buddhists holding online services to connect with their diaspora.72 Both of these can be used in making sense of how the sites in our dataset are actually positioned within the field of religion and media, and how they are thereby more different than their labels would suggest. In the first instance, if certain sites are far removed in the network from their categorical kin, it may be possible that they represent two separate initiatives of religious mediatization: one popular and free-floating and one institutional. In the second instance, if certain sites entertain many ties to highly central general platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud, not eschewing but embracing the affordances of internet technology, this is an indication of the way they are embedded in society.
The second approach has been developed by Heidi Campbell herself: she calls it ‘religious-social shaping of technology’ (RSST). It draws attention to the ways in which the usage of technologies is conditioned by beliefs and social organisations of religions. “[U]ser communities’ negotiations with technology are constrained by distinct beliefs and patterns of social–technical engagement grounded in their communal histories and traditions,” writes Campbell.73 In doing so it counters views of
technological determinism by emphasizing that beliefs, social practices and identities influence which technologies are adopted and how they are used. So, while the media may be an institute, its power is neither absolute nor uniformly experienced. One example of RSST’s application is a study into a row concerning the archbishop of the Church of Sweden, whose Twitter account was discovered to be managed by an imposter. The situation led to public questions about why the bishop wasn’t on Twitter, and what it meant to be a religious leader in the digital era. Scholarly questions subsequently wondered what it was in the Church’s history and orthodoxy, and the Northern European context it was part of, that made it so slow to properly adopt such technologies.74
Campbell has designed her approach to involve a four-step historical and discourse analytic study of a religious actor. This thesis won’t traverse the whole process, but the third step by itself has enough pertinence for it to be kept in mind: ‘the study of the community’s negotiation processes with new technology, relative to which aspects they accept, reject, or need to innovate in light of their
70 Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches within Digital Religion Studies,” 18.
71 Lundby and Evolvi, 241.
72 Ibid., 241-242.
73 Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches within Digital Religion Studies,” 20.
74 Lundby and Evolvi, 243-244.
18 values.’75 Mapping to which other websites a religious community links or of which platforms they make use of, and how they relate in this compared to other communities within and outside their faith can show this process of negotiation in action. The various uses of the hyperlink in utilizing the web’s infrastructure are used or not could then provide an entry point into the hypothesis that a community’s history, beliefs and identity may play a role. Or the inverse: given a community’s status one would expect them to be surfing the web’s avantgarde or to respectfully decline its waves, but that assumption is proven untrue. Either religious-social shaping plays less of a role than imagined, or one’s intel about the community was incomplete.
75 Campbell, “Surveying Theoretical Approaches within Digital Religion Studies,” 20-21.
4 N ETWORK A NALYSIS : T HEORY AND METHODOLOGY
This chapter introduces the theoretical background of network graphs and the conceptual schema’s that are essential to getting the most out of their use.
4.1 THE POWER OF GRAPHS
Data visualizations like network graphs carry tremendous power in today’s world. José van Dijck even writes of ‘dataism’: a paradigmatic ideology that sees data as a direct way to access and control the world, and thus emphasises the expansion of a techno-institutional framework for turning as much of life into data as possible. ‘Dataism presumes trust in the objectivity of quantified methods as well as in the independence and integrity of institutions deploying these methods.’76 The visual graph, is then, the Holy Communion of Dataism: the abstract flow of numbers or digits incarnated and brought fully in line with our profane perceptions – shape, colour, depth – while simultaneously providing a glimpse into the implicitly transcendent qualities of Objectivity – order, complex-simplicity and beauty. Indeed, despite the official appeal to objectivity and rationality, it is more the ‘sublime’ moment of encountering so much of the world represented in a single, aesthetically pleasing graph, that determines its impact. As one designer admits, a graph’s beauty is the main gate to its actual knowledge.77 But this also means that viewing a graph is very far from observing unmediated reality. To recall, data are never found ‘raw’ in the world, yearning desperately for human analysis. They are created for a specific purpose by filtering a specific subsection of reality, one that is often only correlated with that subsection one is actually interested in, but which, despite dataism’s claim, is not so easily sieved into data (such as subjective states and experiences).78 A visualization is thus ‘not simply visual and […] not simply quantitative.’79 The challenge in using them is balancing the emotional and cognitive dimensions so that one does not overpower the other, and thereby impair its overall efficacy.
This is not only achieved within the graph, but especially outside it, through textual
accompaniment. Analysis of striking and/or anomalous features is non-negotiable of course, but when dealing with a ‘public exploration’ through graphics, as I do here, it is also essential to provide context for a how a graph came to be: what choices, methods and filters were applied to what data to draw up the present graphs, and what are pros and cons of this presentation compared to others. ‘Identifying interesting features and knowing how to check them in more detail among a myriad of possible graphics is not just a matter of drawing many graphics, you need interpretative skills and an appreciation of which graphics will provide what kinds of information,’ writes Antony Unwin.80 This paper’s mainstage graph type, the hyperlink network, can be a particularly dense and complex graphical representation, both due to the sheer quantity of hyperlinks, as well as the nature of the hyperlink and it various ways it is used on the internet. Therefore, it is important to spend some time on the hyperlink and the webpage as objects in order the develop a feeling for the difficulties involved in their use.
76 Jose Van Dijck, “Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology,”
Surveillance & Society 12, no. 2 (May 9, 2014): 204.
77 Jill Walker Rettberg, “Ways of Knowing with Data Visualizations,” in Data Visualization in Society, ed. Martin Engebretsen and Kennedy Helen (Nederland: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 45.
78 Rettberg, 42.
79 Ibid., 45.
80 Anthony Unwin, “Why Is Data Visualization Important? What Is Important in Data Visualization?,” Harvard Data Science Review, January 31, 2020, 4.
4.2 HYPERLINKS AND WEBSITES
Niels Brügger describes a 5-fold topology of the objects of web research, arranged by scale in descending order: there is the web as a whole, the web sphere, the website, the webpage and the web element. The element and the page are overall unproblematic to define and delineate, as they are strongly
‘semantically, formally and physically’ determined by computer hardware, internet technology and software browser.81 In other words, the HTML language makes it clear it is structuring a single page made of separate elements, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) allows reaching these pages stored on servers, and your browser windows display one such page at a time, with the individual elements – texts, images, videos etc. – generally orderly laid out and readily identifiable. The web sphere is very much a heuristic construct made by a researcher, grouping websites together based on a common theme, topic or framework, irrespective of any actual mutual interlinking between them. The website, however, while being easily intuited by any internet user, is more difficult to strictly define. It is a collection of pages linked together through shared meaning, form and technological elements (such as a shared base URL), meant to ‘[unfold] in one or more interrelated browser windows.’82
The distinction between the page and the site is important to acknowledge for this project. My crawler has saved the ‘full’ links it encountered, but these links cannot be used to actually create the graph. For many reasons, a link graph containing every unique URL as its own node would balloon to a level of interpretative difficulty that’s beyond my reach. Therefore, only base links – full links reduced to the host name or domain name – populate the graph. This means that a link to a webpage is treated as a link to a website; a totum pro parte where the part is assumed representative of the whole. This
reduction of dimension introduces epistemological uncertainties into the graph, since all the information that can be gleaned from a full URL has been lost; information which can provide important information about the ‘context’ of the link, all indicators of the prominence of a link on a page, the intent behind the linkage, perhaps the strength of the ‘tie,’ and whether the link was visible as link or hidden as part of an embedded widget’s machinery.
The hyperlink is in essence a relatively simple internet technology: it is a functional connection between one webpage and (part) of another. Usually this means taking the user from the outbound page to the inbound page. Recently, however, with the rise of social media platforms, the embedding of content from one site onto an external page have utilized the hyperlink for a new, less unidirectional purpose. To use Brügger’s website topology, a ‘classic’ hyperlink jumps one’s browser from one webpage to another, while an embedded link, such as YouTube video or Twitter post, collapses the distinction between out and in by placing an (adapted) webelement from one page directly onto another. Such a hyperlink accords an entirely different meaning to the act of linking and suggests a different level of internet-literacy on the part of the webmaster, when compared to a more standard link.
The overall problem is thus the ‘why’ of linking. Linking can be variously interpreted as
communication, shows of affinity, mutual aid in gaining recognition and attention-currency and avenues of coordination.83 Linking can thus be very much a political act, its use dependent on the actor that links and the actor linked to. Richard Rogers gives an example of a link-graph including a business, an NGO and government institutes. The business links to the NGO, but not vice versa. Both the business and the
81 Niels Brügger, “Website History and the Website as an Object of Study,” New Media & Society 11, no. 1–2 (February 2009): 122-123.
82 Ibid., 123.
83 Annie Waldherr et al., “Big Data, Big Noise: The Challenge of Finding Issue Networks on the Web,” Social Science Computer Review 35, no. 4 (August 2017): 429.