What is a network? Thinking outside the box

This year, the Sydney University Anthology is asking staff, students, and alumni to reflect on the theme of ‘networks’. This is a broad concept that will be interpreted in different ways by different people. For many of us, the term ‘networks’ brings to mind social connections, whether ‘networking’ for business, or communicating with friends via social media. Many fields have their own unique understandings of networks: network analysis in anthropology, neural networks in artificial intelligence, network addresses and nodes in computing. We encourage you to bring your own interpretation of this year’s theme to your stories, essays, poetry and visual art. To get you thinking about some of the many ways to approach the anthology’s theme, here are three alternative kinds of ‘networks’ you might want to consider. 

Phone networks

On Friday 9th April 2021, thousands of Vodafone users received a message that the telecoms company had ‘temporarily switched off the network’. Users were unable to send and receive calls or texts, and many had trouble accessing mobile data. Moments like these highlight how much we take the convenience of mobile phone coverage for granted. Uber drivers were unable to book rides in order to earn income, and those awaiting SMS COVID-19 test results were left unsure of whether they needed to remain isolated. 

Indeed, the last year has illustrated how intrinsic phone networks are to modern life. We are expected to check in via QR-code in order to enter most establishments. The Victorian government’s Mobile Black Spot Program is rolling out new infrastructure to ensure regional and remote communities have mobile coverage. Insufficient mobile coverage has caused issues in rural parts of the country, with the ability to conduct business remotely becoming increasingly essential to economic recovery after 2020. Mobile coverage can also be a matter of life or death when it comes to bushfires. Think about the ways in which you rely on mobile coverage in your day to day life. Could you get by without it? What problems or opportunities might our reliance on phone networks cause in the future?

Television networks

The 1976 film Network directed by Sidney Lumet revolves around several news anchors, producers and executives working at the fictional television network UBS. Struggling with ratings, these characters clash over their different visions of the role of news media: is it informative or entertaining? The ‘fourth estate’ holding those in power to account, or a division of a money-making corporation? The film is seen as eerily prescient of today’s media landscape, where 24-hour coverage and clickbait headlines have become normalised. 

According to the ACMA, 42% of Australians still rely on television as their main source of news, though this number is declining as more of us turn to digital sources. Have you made this switch from television to digital news? What about for entertainment? How have streaming services like Netflix challenged Australia’s big five television networks? Has the internet made us more connected than ever, or driven us into separated echo chambers?

Network marketing

Network marketing is the latest euphemistic term for the controversial business structure widely known as multi-level marketing (MLM). Businesses such as Amway, Avon and Herbalife sell products and services not through a salaried workforce, but rather through participants who earn income through commission. In theory, participants make money through two revenue streams: commissions on the direct sales of products to customers, as well as through commissions earned through recruiting new participants as ‘down line’ distributors.

This structure, where recruiting new participants is essential to earning revenue, is controversial for its resemblance to an illegal pyramid scheme. The distinction between network marketing companies and pyramid schemes are blurred, both legally and in practice. Participants often reach out to their social networks on Instagram and Facebook in order to tap new customers and recruits – the ‘girl you went to high school with trying to recruit you to her essential oil-selling business via out-of-the-blue Facebook message’ has become something of a meme. In addition to the financial risks associated with joining an MLM, participants often experience interpersonal strains and isolation from friends and family members who feel harassed or exploited by the aggressive sales techniques required by network marketing companies. Have you encountered a network marketing company? Have you ever been tempted to participate in one? Why do you think they are successful?

These are just a few of the many different ‘networks’ that exist in our world. What other networks can you think of?

The anthology team looks forward to reading your submissions and can’t wait to see the creativity, originality and skill of the USYD network! Submit your work here.