The Social Networks of Superheroes

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The world of superheroes is inherently fantastical. Flying aliens, crime-fighting millionaire playboys, rulers of Atlantis, supervillains - these are not the stuff of everyday experience. And evil clones and bizarre doubles from other dimensions, while interesting, bear little relationship to our own lives.

One clear way in which the fictional world seems far less dull is in the tendency to create complex connections between characters. Characters are not strangers to each other, but are connected in surprising and complicated ways. From superheroes to the world of Scooby-Doo, we are well-versed in the Big Reveal, where someone is exposed as a previously known character. Enemies are actually long-lost brothers; a secret father is discovered; and when a mask is taken off, the antagonist is exposed as a neighbor from down the street.

This isn't a modern inclination either. In the Jewish rabbinic tradition, there is a trend towards interpreting an unnamed character -- who is mentioned briefly and then never again -- as someone who we have met before. For example, a man in a field is not simply a random person; instead he is the angel Gabriel. This concept is used so often that some people have a light-hearted term for this: the Conservation of Biblical Characters.

We can now bring new methods of analysis to these phenomena through the now-ubiquitous scientific study of social networks. Through research that delves into who we know and what sorts of relationships we have, we have a good handle on the overall structure and shape of social networks in the real world. In addition to the oft-mentioned six degrees of separation, there are many other statistical properties of social networks, from how individuals with lots of friends are connected to each other, to the distribution of popularity.

It turns out that similar research has begun on the social network of the Marvel Universe. The common home of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, various die-hard fans decided that collecting comic books wasn't enough; they wanted to understand the universe in its entirety. Thus was born the collaborative Marvel Chronology Project, which details every character in the Marvel Universe, major or minor, and every issue of every comic book series that they appear in.

Some scientists realized that this Project could be used to construct a network of social ties, based on which superheroes (or other characters) appear together in comic book issues. And they examined this fictional social network to see if it conformed to the properties seen in real-world networks.

And in some ways, it did! The Marvel Universe does exhibit the statistical features of a real social network in some simple ways. Furthermore, similar to our own world, they found distinct differences between the social structures of good guys and bad guys. However, in some very important aspects, it's actually the opposite of a real social network. Specifically, while in real social networks the popular people interact with the other popular people, this is not so in the Marvel universe. For example, Spider-Man and Captain America rarely come into contact.

Of course, the world of superheroes need not be the same as other types of fiction. The social structure of Gotham City needn't be the same as Lake Wobegon, and the X-Men needn't have the same genealogical properties as Faulkner's Compson family. Nevertheless, the fact that we can quantitatively explore the nature of story-telling is astonishing.

Michael Chabon, when revisiting his discarded and unfinished novel "Fountain City," was clearly unhappy with the coincidence, described by the New York Times, "when the reception clerk at a Paris flophouse happens to be the student of the very architect who had sent the hero's father a mysterious postcard from Israel." It just seems too neat for the real world. And in some ways, Chabon is right. The real world is distinct from the world of fiction, and in a mathematically quantifiable way. But these two worlds are also much more similar than we realize, and we can now begin to measure it.

Image: flickr/mattmendoza

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Samuel Arbesman is an applied mathematician and network scientist. He is a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at HarvardUniversity. His writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe AtlanticWiredNew Scientist, and The Boston Globe. He lives in Kansas City with his wife.

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