The Germanic tribes which Beowulf describes had a tightly interwoven kinship network which resembles the networks of today. Government consisted not of arbitrarily drawn national boundaries but of ethnicities bound by bloodlines. The lord of a tribe was surrounded by thanes or retainers who were expected to die for him in battle, to subordinate their selves in the name of kinship. In return, the king distributed the spoils of war among his retainers. Kings are sometimes referred to in Old English poetry as "gold-friend" or "ring-giver". These gifts imposed heavy obligations on warriors; it was a very serious matter that all but one of Beowulf's men abandon him when he is fighting the dragon. Wiglaf, the only warrior who fought alongside his dying lord, reproaches his tribesmen in lines 2864-2891.
Networks were important in more ways than war. When Beowulf arrives in the land of the Danes, the Danish king Hrothgar is receptive because he once knew Beowulf's father Ecgtheow. In lines 459-472, Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings (another term for Danes), tells Beowulf how he met Ecgtheow. No man is an island; genealogy is not so much a history as it is an immediate, present fact.
The embeddedness of the individual with the tribe is mirrored in oral texts, according to Walter Ong. The oral word first divides the subject and predicate and then relates them to tie society together. (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 179) The performance of an oral epic poem is in a group setting, where the speaker can read the audience's faces and interact with them. Writing alienates the author from the reader. Although with the advent of print, many copies of the same book could circulate to multiple readers, the act of reading was still in a private, noninteractive sphere.
With the advent of cyberspace, this private sphere is once again merging with the public. Although I am not personally in front of you, reciting this text, the computer screen interface between you and the words is fluid. You can click your way to different parts of the text or to completely different areas. If you are online, you are not alone. If you print this page out and read it on a static piece of paper, you may not see much difference, but the links will become unavailable to you.