This is a story about something very peculiar and quite literally life altering that happened to me after a difficult moment after a terrible break-up in 2016. While that might sound terrible, and certainly the break-up and how and why it happened was not exactly fun, this story was a moment that the world came back together for me for a few hours, and I completely forgot about it until a few minutes before I started writing this blog entry. It was an absolute clarity in the chaos. And it certainly was chaos.
After a week-old non-relationship with an ex-girlfriend, she suggested I go with her to a Facebook event that I had already planned on attending after I got off my shift at a coffee/wine shop gig after I finished my introduction to economics sections with undergraduates. This gig, at a place called JavaVino, was about five minutes walk from a grungy but clean dark-wood-paneled little-ish bar: Hand In Hand. I used to hang out there all the time for happy hour food, but the event wasn’t for happy hour.
Maybe a week after Pokemon Go, one of the first massively popular augmented reality games, had been released some sorority member decided to create an event for her and a handful of friends to battle it out for the “Gym” that was digitally present at the bar. Basically a few friends competing over a “Team Instinct” and a “Team Valor” rivalry had incidentally started among these sorority friends. For those that don’t know, these Pokemon Go rivalries were more brutal than any family Monopoly game, and after choosing between one of the three Pokemon Go teams, there was no going back. The game wouldn’t let you change teams! You forever had made your decision much to the surprise of a great many who chose their team on a whim, and then found themselves battling their closest friends for the same gyms.
Naturally friends became enemies. Strangers became friends. For a solid week, anyone driving through the city of Atlanta had to watch out for smart phone toting people of all ages were darting to the side of the road to catch pokemon or fight for a gym. A few people probably died in car accidents that week digitally tossing pokeballs in cars going from 70 mph to dead stop in rush hour traffic in order to catch the ever elusive Eevee. If you don’t know, they’re cute fox-like looking pokemon that can “evolve” in special ways and were rare early on in the game. Anyway, suddenly middle class white college kids who had been living in Atlanta for years, never having ventured beyond Downtown, Old Fourth Ward, and historic Sweet Auburn were finding themselves saying, “Yes! Stocked on pokeballs. … Oh shit! This is Martin Luther King Jr’s house!” right in front of unassuming tourists who literally were driving from all over the country to see exactly that house. I am not kidding - chaos compared to the everyday goings on of this metropolitan city.
But anyway, this event at Hand In Hand: Humorously, and probably much to the surprise of these young sorority women, they had forgotten to make their Facebook event private among the hell everyone had collectively signed up for in the past week. Naturally, as one does when they see an invite to a rival battle between Team Instinct and Team Valor at a bar, and you know all the coolest, hipsterist single-speed riding, Monday Night Brewery/Creature Comforts drinking, southern leftist rebels are going to be there, you tell Facebook you’re gotdam “going”! Within a couple days, this Facebook event had literally thousands of people who claimed they were going. The day before, the event had the better half of a ten-thousand group of people who said they were going to this little bar only could seat 70-80 people at a time without the Fire Department having to show up with a citation.
As I said, my ex decides she’s going to invite me to an event that I had already been planning on going to for a week. I think to myself, ‘Why not? Maybe by some miracle, we will make peace with our nonsense, and become friends.’ I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her since that night. I just knew I had to be at this thing, and she seemed to want to be there too. We could be adults playing a mobile game based on a card game I paid all my hard earned grass cutting money on to kick fellow elementary school kids’ ass. Sure.
Anyway, I got off my coffee shop gig around 6 pm, totally caffeinated and walk the five minutes to Hand In Hand. I was able to get a couple beers with my ex and try to pretend like nothing had happened between us. We, despite our best efforts, had to awkwardly explain to a fellow masters student and his girlfriend that us all sitting at the same table was NOT okay to call “a double date”. Fortunately it got too loud for any one of us to hear each other when literally hundreds of people showed up.
The event was supposed to start at 7 or 8 or something, but if you showed up at that time to this little bar in the middle of Atlanta, Georgia, there wouldn’t have been space for the holy spirit between you, the bar, and 8 other people. Republican Jesus would have been really upset with how many dudes were touching each other at this sorority game night party based around a Japanese video game about ungodly critters that evolve. In fact, we were never sure if the sorority group actually got in the door to see the battle they spawned. I’m still not ashamed, and probably more proud than I should be, that I took the gym for Team Mystic at least 3 times. The last time I held the gym for a long 15 minutes before my phone died. I only understood that we had lost the gym maybe 5 minutes after that by a sudden burst of screams followed by taunting and waves of people lightly shoving their favorite enemies and people affectionately grabbing their closest teammates. This would happen every time the gym changed to a new team which could be as long as 30 minutes or several times in less than 5 minutes. The longer the gym was held, the more intense the waves of celebration and exasperation. By 9 pm, the bar ran entirely out of food and beer. There were people wrapped around the block of the bar trying to get in. Even if I had wanted to, I could not have gotten out. At some point, people started ducking out to get cases of PBR and SweetWater and sneaking them back into the bar. It probably wasn’t hard to do. The servers were forced to closed everyone’s tabs, give up work, and join the party. What else do you do when a bunch of maniacs buy out the place of everything you can serve?
But although this bar was definitely an alcohol infused, improv hipster-mobile-gamer-fest that was more like a mosh pit for an entire 7+ hours than a simple sorority gathering, I was seeing something else than most people I bet. As it happens, I’m not a party kid. I have never showed up to a sanctioned greek-life event ever. I am more likely to go to a house party with max 10 people, or better yet, go home and read textbooks for fun. This would never have been my idea of a fun time had I not decided to go for a particularly specific academic reason. I showed up to discover something for myself about the movements of bodies. I wanted to see the power of Barabasi’s scale-free networks in the flesh. And dammit, I got that and more. I, up until that point, had taught myself some of Barabasi’s Network Science and Newman’s textbook Networks and I was fascinated by the way they described how networks could bring people together in rapid ways and change how communication can flow through cascades, viral events, and so forth: all really mathematical, statistical, and computer science-y stuff. I showed up because I was a nerd who was using Pokemon Go and Facebook to understand how the social world could come together in strange ways. I was ashamed to be a nerd of nerds, and I was afraid to explain this to my ex-girlfriend who wanted to go for whatever her reasons were.
One thing that never left me, even if I almost forgot this story, is that networks are something different. It took a handful of very early-20s sorority women to fill a bar with unaccounted numbers of people and literally wiping the place of every service and product they offer. But more than that, in such density and such precision of goals, people can do powerful things. This easily could have turned into a riot that hurt people. This easily could have destroyed the restaurant or even lives. It wasn’t hard to imagine that. I literally could not get from my seat to the bathroom for hours in the middle of a bunch of people who had way more alcohol than me. Yet somehow, these people kept it together. Thinking back on it now, it was only a matter of time that the analytic properties of networks would cross my mind as carrying affective meaning making that would challenge the simple data that we know about seemingly static combinatorical computational studies. I experienced intense network dynamics happen, FROM THE MIDDLE OF IT, from start to finish, in quite possibly one of the most materially dense and temporal social networks in the state of Georgia, if not the south east aside from the Peachtree Roadrace and the Peachdrop every year, for the better part of a day, and lived through it aware of what was happening. (Bergson’s “Intellectual Empathy” comes to mind.) What I know is that these events are predictable, the dynamics of static contacts between people are predictable. But that being in them and understanding what people are doing in them, and how they feel, and what they take away from it and the way in which people utilize various technologies and geospacial features in order to develop the experience, are absolutely NOT PREDICTABLE!
At some point, the experience that happens in these kinds of moments lives with us forever, but it is decided by how we interpret the event, and the literal bristling of bodies across the space. You cannot design or plan for these kinds of happenings. You can only try your best. All I know is that from that moment on, I stopped being an economist and became a social networks focused informational scientist trying to understand how the most trivial of things can change the way we see the world forever. Traditional economic thinking doesn’t hold the same kind of energy of life and such a vested interest in a research area that I faced that day. I went on to take a PhD level Computer Science course on Networks taught by Dr. Constantine Dovrolis at Georgia Tech, and academically changed the entire focus of my masters thesis. I walked away from that event changed in every way. A techno-religious experience decided what kind of scientist I consider myself to be.
But of all people who probably should have been at Hand In Hand, I don’t recall if the Fire Department ever showed up to give anyone a warning.