June 18, 2011, 10:00 pm
Follow the Dots, not the Lines
By Henry Woodbury
Over at ESPN’s Grantland, my new favorite sports site, a visual explanation has made an appearance.
Andy Greenwald, writing about HBO’s reuse of character actors in different original series, posted a diagram of “The 66 Busiest Actors on HBO”. The diagram links actors to each series in which they have made three or more appearances. On the left you might find Roxanne Hart. On the right you might find The Sopranos.
This is a chart of a type. It shows a network, but the assemblage of lines that denotes the network is indecipherable. It’s pickup sticks. (Other network diagrams devolve to spaghetti.)
Partly this is an artifact of organization. The alphabetical list of actors has no meaningful correspondence to the alphabetical list of shows. Imagine if shows were listed chronologically and actors listed in order of first appearance. Then you might see a pattern. Would it be enlightening? I’m not sure. A common problem with network diagrams is that the lines don’t aggregate into meaning. An individual line might tell you something, but only in its connection to a pair of nodes. And if you want to focus on individual nodes — an actor or a show — you don’t need a diagram.
Here, the big picture is not in the lines, but the dots. Scan either list and the diagram quickly informs you of something interesting: Stephen Toblowsky appears in a lot of HBO shows. The Wire employed a lot of actors. But not Stephen Toblowsky (no line).
Confusing. Why do some series appear to have just a single actor?
Posted by John S. on June 19, 2011 at 3:08 am
The fundamental issue they’re facing, as you’ve noted, is there’s no relevant vertical axis. Alphabetical sorting is a fine default, when there’s no other more interesting or useful way to sort the data. In this case there’s plenty of better options, such as chronology.
Posted by Noah Iliinsky on June 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm