Sophisticated methods for analysing complex networks promise to be of great benefit to almost all scientific disciplines, yet they elude us. In this work, we make fundamental methodological advances to rectify this. We discover that the interaction between a small number of roles, played by nodes in a network, can characterize a network's structure and also provide a clear real-world interpretation. Given this insight, we develop a framework for analysing and comparing networks, which outperforms all existing ones. We demonstrate its strength by uncovering novel relationships between seemingly unrelated networks, such as Facebook, metabolic, and protein structure networks. We also use it to track the dynamics of the world trade network, showing that a country's role of a broker between non-trading countries indicates economic prosperity, whereas peripheral roles are associated with poverty. This result, though intuitive, has escaped all existing frameworks. Finally, our approach translates network topology into everyday language, bringing network analysis closer to domain scientists.
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