Describing the world through our network connections, Only Connect

There are certainly lots of ways to describe the world: Geographically, chemically, biologically, economically, politically, so on and so forth. Mizzou has departments all over campus with people who can describe the world according to the best thinking of their discipline.

No matter how we describe our planet, we know that the world today is different that it has been in the past in all respects. As the planet has aged and evolved, there has been enormous changes in species, geography, and climate. But in the age of man (say the last 10,000 years), no other generation has seen the degree of change, or perhaps will see, than those of us alive today.

That is because our world today is defined NOT so much by where we are, what class we were born into, what country in which we were born, but by who we are connected to. We are in the middle of the largest change in human civilization: the information revolution, one that lets us connect in ways never imaginable in the past.

There have surely been hints of the importance of connecting with people not in your geographical area, family, or tribe over the last hundred years: “Only Connect” was a phrase from E.M. Foster’s novel Howards End over 100 years ago. And J.C. Licklider’s theoretical information network, which he called a “procognitive system” in the 50s, noted how “the concept of a ‘desk’ may have changed from passive to active: a desk may be primarily a display-and-control station in a telecommunication-telecomputation system-and its most vital part may be the cable (‘umbilical cord’) that connects it, via a wall socket, into the procognitive utility net” (Licklider 1965, 33). Think about how much your view of the world would vanish if the computer in front of you was not connected to the internet?

So, how can we look at, and describe our world, in terms of connections. Obviously, in the information age, we can do that in so many more ways than ever before.

Below is a map of the communications between computers on the internet. Created illegally, by hacking into 420,000 computers, it shows the flow of information around our globe. It shows the people who are connected and connecting to each other. Notice that you can even see the terminator between night and day move across this map as human activity increases and decreases with the sun.

That map, of connectedness on the internet, closely mirrors maps of how information and ideas flow around the world, mapped below as a function of scientific collaboration between researchers. Scientific information has exploded in the past decades and so has non-traditional means of scientific information sharing.

A researcher at Facebook looked at the massive data they had on connectedness and was able to generate a whole series of maps, one of which is shown below. What I find interesting about this and the maps above, is that the shape of the continents and some countries is outlined naturally by the connections (no overlay is needed). The intensity of the outline doesn’t entirely correlate with population, but is influenced by the social networks used in those countries, the relative affluence of the people, and political stability of the region.

Drilling down deeper, Mia Newman, used facebook data to look into the connectedness between people in different countries:

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, most of the data about who is connected to whom is not easily accessible except for those people working at facebook or the NSA. Much more has been done to map the world according to Twitter, which allows for anyone to access the public timeline.

A World of Tweets, maps the twitterverse as a real time heat map.

Tweet ping is another project which maps the world of tweets in real time.

Other visualization projects with access to much more computing power have gone even farther in visualizing the twitterverse. In this video below (from a TED talk), New York Times data artist-in-residence Jer Thorp takes on Visualizing the world’s Twitter data:

[While not a map per se, emojitracker show realtime tracking of emoji use on twitter, perhaps giving eventual insight into the mood of this or that country, market, demographic, etc., without having to analyze the language or meaning of a tweet: i.e. regardless of the message, if you are feeling bad a :( represents the feeling in any language. ]

Want to know more about how you are connected to people? LinkedIn has a very cool tool that allows you to analyze your LinkedIn connections and see your connections and how they group together. Here is my most recent map of connections (try it yourself and you can drill down interactively into the diagram).

Of course, not everyone is on LinkedIn (I tend not to use it much myself), Facebook or Twitter, or is a regular user of those services. The use of some social networks seems to be waning in certain demographics; For teens, Facebook is ‘dead and buried’ ). And it turns out that what social network you use, and therefore the scope of your view of the world, depends on where you live.

These are all interesting ways to view the world of 2014. To me, a couple of things stand out from these maps:

  1. The world is online. If you are not online, your view of the world is very different from those who are online 4–8 hours a day. At some point (perhaps 20–30 years), if you are not online, you will not be part of the world.
  2. The world is continuing to change at an unprecedented pace as the information revolution rolls on.
  3. The world is getting smaller in many ways. But at the same time, our view of it may be getting more siloed and myopic as we confine ourselves to interacting with just those in our friends list, our google+ circles, our twitter lists or LinkedIn network. There is a real danger that online interactions can drive deeper wedges between people.When there were just three channels to watch on the television, most Americans were exposed to the same news and commentary, whether they liked it or not. Now you can tune in to a channel that will only present viewpoints and stories that fit your viewpoint or political narrative; you will not have your assumptions challenged. The same thing is happening online as we group ourselves naturally with those with which we agree.

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