What Info-Design Tells Us About Egypt
February 17, 2011
A lot has been said about the revolution in Egypt since it ended (“ended”) — especially on that hot-button topic, social media.
But it’s really hard to get a holistic picture of what actually happened in late January. Thousands of voices speaking at the same time gave the revolution power, but the network is impossible to perceive or understand at a glance (unless you’re interested in sifting through hundreds of thousands of tweets and seeing what you can come up with).
So if we’re to glean any insight into the role of the “digital mob” in political change, we have to turn to graphic designers who can visualize the uprising’s machinations.
Fine. These are tools that enable protesters and commentators to follow the movements of the mass. But the information comes at a trickle, tweet-by-tweet.
We’re more interested in what computation can reveal. Kovas Boguta synthesizes on-the-ground social media output of the largest players, by language, below.
Blue is English, while red is Arabic. Says Boguta: “The lump on the left is dominated by journalists, NGO and foreign policy types; it seems nearly grafted on, and goes through an intermediary buffer layer before making contact with the true Egyptian activists on the ground. However, this process of translation and aggregation is key; it is how those in Egypt are finally getting a voice in Western society, and an insurance policy against regime violence. Many of the prominent nodes in this network were at some point arrested, but their deep connectivity help ensure they were not ‘dissapeared’.”
Meanwhile, an infographic from after the 2009 Iran election shows tweets mentioning the election and Obama – the blue dots representing the dense insularity of conservative groups. Via.
What these fascinating examples tell us is that we’re incredibly dependent on “choke points” in the network. Cut off one of those essential connecting actors and you disable thousands of others.
The internet was created by corporations, who maintain them, in cooperation with governments. Despite its resilience in the face of “turn-off” attempts, there are still key physical locations on the map that our connectivity relies on — making us vulnerable to powers that would turn off internet access to large populations. This is how “Egypt Leaders Found “Off” Switch for the Internet” in the final days of January 2011. The Times profiled a Columbia law professor (and renaissance man) who thinks he has the solution: personal servers, that would decentralize your web presence and make you independent from these “choke point” server sites. Check out the article here.
The next few weeks — in particular, right now, in Libya — will tell us more about the power of the internet in radical political action. It will also, undoubtedly, bring much more in the way of computation-based imaging of large-scale human movement and communication.
Other great mapping/aggregating projects:
- Cairo’s Development and Institutionalization Support Center has U-Shahid map, which allows verification of user-submitted event reports. Critically, the map generates input not only directly, but from Facebook and Twitter.
- RIPE has a set of diagrams that specify which networks went down, when, and for how long.
- Storyful is a web app in beta currently that helps journalists to filter through the massive amounts of social media-generated detritus to find authentic and informed tweets and posts.