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Social Networks in Friday Night Lights

Page history last edited by Alan Liu 2 years, 2 months ago


Graphing Race in Friday Night Lights

By Hannah Goodwin, Team Affective Networks in Ensemble Character Dramas



I have chosen to focus my project, which is part of this larger project, on Friday Night Lights, which aired on NBC from 2006-2011. This show takes place in a small town in Texas, and revolves around the town's obsession: high school football.

Here is a very brief trailer to provide a sense of the show's characters, setting, and premise:



The team becomes an interesting site for the exploration of racial tensions that run rampant in this town, but even as the show directly addresses these issues, most of its main characters are white, with only one main black character in the first three seasons. I am interested to see what happens to the logic of the show when this character is removed, and intrigued to play with the social networks with and without this character present as a node. I suspect that the overtly racial drama of the first season, in which a white coach's racist comments incite racial conflict throughout the high school, would make little sense without this character's negotiations between the black world of the background characters and the white world of the main characters--but I hope to understand this role more fully through the deformances and social network graphings we propose. Here is an example of a fan wiki site that provides biographies of the characters and describes their relationships to one another. Below is an example of a character profile (from the fan wiki), outlining at the bottom the familial and romantic relationships of the character:


I have been comparing graphs of these fan-defined relationships with micro-study graphs of all dialogues in a given episode. I hope this will illuminate not only the overarching relationships that fans deem worth mentioning, but also the small interactions that haven't solidified into relationships but still represent some connection between characters.


The Graphs

Fan-Based Graphs

This is an example graph of the relationships described by character profiles like the "Billy Riggins" one shown above--profiles from the website fnl.wikia.com.

This graph was created in collaboration with Andrew McClung, a graduate student in Physics at Caltech, who helped me convert the data I had collected and organized (in Microsoft Excel) into a graph using Mathematica. As I continue this project, I hope to show that this kind of result is replicable using free software easily accessible to humanities scholars. In the mean time, this graph serves as a model of what I hope to produce independently. Above, red nodes signify black characters, green nodes signify white characters, and blue nodes signify Latina characters. The graph was constructed using data from a fan wiki that defined relationships as either familial or romantic. Thus the graph above does not convey any non-romantic, non-familial friendships. This is why the structure of the graph is so fractured, with several completely separate clusters. A few things are readily apparent: most of the networked characters are white; white characters tend to be more highly connected than Latina or black characters, with the exception of Smash's family; and white families are more interconnected with each other than with families of color. 


Here is another Mathematica-created graph, also based on data harvested from a fan site, fanforum.com. This fan site's structure is markedly different, however. Rather than having individual pages for each character, the site consists of hundreds of threads across 41 pages of the Friday Night Lights forum. The threads that I looked at were all named after relationships between specific characters; for example, a thread entitled "Full Hearts [Mr. & Mrs. Saracen] #29: Because we want to see Matt and Julie married in the movie" contains pages of discussion about the romance between the characters Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen. The relationships defined this way were not merely romantic or familial. Many fans created threads devoted to compelling friendships, as this graph depicts:

In this graph, the nodes are also colored according to race, to best demonstrate the degree of racial integration (or maybe more accurately, segregation). It is important to note that these are not all of the relationships that occur in the series, which is why part of my investigation will involve close social network readings of individual episodes, mapping all spoken interactions. Here we see only the relationships selected by fans as particularly compelling. Thus many characters and relationships are excluded--but this exclusion is telling, not only of fan bias, but of the weight the show puts on certain relationships. Here the preference for relationships between white characters is made plain. The relationships between characters of color or between white characters and characters of color all but disappear, leaving only two relationships between minority characters and seven interracial relationships. Notably, of all the characters of color, only Smash--a central character in the show's first two seasons--has more than two edges, or relationships to other characters. Tinker, Jess, Waverly, Santiago, and Carlotta, five of the seven characters of color depicted here, are each only connected by one edge to the rest of the network.


Finally, the following graph represents only romantic relationships. Based on episode summaries at this fan site, I recorded all relationships with some degree of romantic interaction. In some cases, this means marriage, in others, a mere kiss. The graph flattens out the degree of romantic involvement, but nevertheless conveys an overall sense of affect.

Notably, this graph is visibly segregated. White characters seem much more prone to romantic involvement, suggesting that white characters are generally more involved in driving the plot, and the vast majority of all romantic relationships are racially homogenous. 


Episode-Based Graphs

Seasons One Through Three

In addition to these graphs of character relationships as defined by fans, I am also doing an analysis of several individual episodes across the show's five seasons. In doing so I hope to show the small interactions thad do not constitute solidified relationships but nevertheless reveal the degree of character interaction across race, and thus the racial integration of the show's characters across time. To make these graphs, I list every reciprocal verbal interaction in any given episode. Any character who engages in dialogue is assigned a node, and every conversation is represented by an edge connecting two characters' nodes. I did not include any speech that was directed at and answered by a group of multiple characters whose lines were indistinct from each other; for example, any directions Coach Taylor yells at the team, if responded to in chorus, do not constitute personal interactions, but if he yells at several students and they each respond verbally as individuals, I would draw an edge between Coach Taylor and each of those students. I also do not include any non-verbal interactions, of which there are of course some, or any inaudible verbal interactions. Furthermore, I do not distinguish between the weight of different conversations, so short interactions of four or five words appear the same as interactions several minutes in duration. Finally, these graphs do not indicate repeated interactions, so characters who interact frequently throughout the episode are indistinguishable from characters who speak only once. While this has limitations, if viewed alongside the graphs above, which show which interactions become veritable relationships, these mappings are quite valuable.  Here, in contrast to the the Mathematica networks above, is a network I created using ManyEyes and Paintbrush (to add color-coding where ManyEyes cannot), to depict all spoken interactions between characters in one specific episode, Episode 16 of Season One.



The episode on which this graph is based deals directly with racial tensions; it takes place in the aftermath of a televised statement by one of the team's coaches that describes the black football players as "junkyard dogs" who are in the rough but have impressive natural talent. I will be interested to see how the graph of this episode compares to graphs of other episodes that deal less directly with race. Here, blue nodes represent white characters, while red nodes represent black characters. While there are still clusters that are largely racially homogenous, there is nevertheless a higher degree of racial integration than in the graphs above, showing that there is more racial interaction on the show than graphs of solidified relationships reveal. Here Smash, the main black character of the first two seasons, has verbal exchanges with five white characters and four black ones. His role in this graph is as a "bridge" node, connecting two otherwise separate clusters of the network. To give a sense of Smash's importance to the connectedness of this graph, here is the same graph with him, and all edges connected to him, erased.


The number of interracial relationships (as well as relationships between black characters) drops dramatically, and the network, previously consisting of two separate clusters, splits into five separate clusters (or, three clusters and two completely disconnected nodes).


Here is the original graph again, but with the non-recurring characters erased, leaving behind only characters who appear in multiple episodes (thus allowing for the possible formation of genuine relationships):


Here we see a much more segregated version of the original graph, revealing the degree of the characters' homophilic tendencies--their tendencies to form relationships with people of their same race.


Similarly, this graph, from a randomly chosen episode (8) in Season Two, shows Smash's centrality to interracial interaction.


The connectedness of the white characters is much stronger than the connectedness of the black characters, four out of six of whom are only connected to one other node. Smash's role in the graph becomes yet more visible when he and all the characters who are in the episode exclusively when they interact with him are removed. This is the deformed graph:


Here only five interracial interactions remain--seven fewer than in the graph that includes Smash as a node. Again, he is crucial to the show's racial integration. Finally, if all one-time characters are removed in addition to Smash, only one minority character remains in the network:


Seasons Four and Five: Relocation

In Season Four of the show, a significant shift occurs in the racial dynamics of the show when the team's coach (and she show's main character) Eric Taylor moves to another school on the east side of the town, where most of the black community lives. Now most of the team is black, and the show begin begins to focus on more black characters. Instead of remaining in the background and speaking only occasional lines, the black cast now plays a central role in the show's dialogue. Here is a graph of all spoken character interactions in episode 9 of the fourth season:


One particular black character, Vince, is still central to the interracial dynamics, much as Smash was in the first two seasons. However, even when he is removed from the graph, the graph does not split as markedly as it did when Smash was removed from the graph from Season One. 


There are significantly fewer interracial connections, but the number of fully separate clusters does not change, indicating that Vince does not serve the same bridge role between communities of characters that Smash served in the earlier episode. 


Removing Eric, the central white character, however, does cause a visible segregation:

One set of two characters splits off from the main network, and the number of interracial interactions decreases from twelve to five. Eric, then, is a central character to the town's integration, and without him the black and white communities are significantly more segregated. That said, the main network remains racially diverse--it does not become largely whitewashed as in the deformance of Season One's social network graph.


Concluding Remarks

he usefulness of this project’s methodology lies in bringing together visualizations of the episodes’ micro-interactions with those of longer term relationship formations; in combining the objective record of all spoken interaction with the subjective record of relationships defined by emotionally involved fans; and in playing with the visualizations of all of these relationships by deforming them along lines that are simultaneously subjective (chosen by me) and objective (according to certain chosen rules). While this project has focused on race in Friday Night Lights, Alston D’Silva has used similar methodologies to look at difference in gender and sexuality in Lost, and the methodology could be more widely applied to the investigation of various forms of difference in any long-term, ensemble cast television show.


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