Over these last few years, we have been experiencing an incredible growth in the use of—and public discussion about—social media. Facebook still holds the largest slice of the cake, with 900 million users as of 2012, but what is really interesting is the stunning growth of Twitter, which presently has more than 140 million active users.
What we are experiencing is a shift of attention from individual social networks to the larger social media arena. Social platforms are expanding their scope, connecting not just people but also connecting interests and opinion.
Interestingly, Twitter has some characteristics of news media. It’s real-time information; it highlights timely topics. There are multiple hubs, each directly reaching a large audience, and it’s a fast and widespread source of word-of-mouth information. It is also deliberate and concise, a quick 140 characters of news, ideas, and feelings shared with the rest of the world.
And, above all, Twitter is accessible. Unlike Facebook and other social networks, tweets are completely open, and data can be accessed through APIs, a best practice that works in favor of the open data movement. Because of this distinctive feature, Twitter is the very definition of “user-generated content.” It’s becoming an incredible source of information for businesses, communication professionals, and scholars to listen to people’s opinions, without the mediation of standardized social research methodologies.
Tweets are also emerging as an interesting data source for digital artists and designers. From a data-visualization researcher point of view, Twitter offers plenty of data to work with: social-ties analysis, trend-topics analysis, geo-referenced data, and the possibility to visualize real-time data. It’s also possible to examine all the connections between different indicators: time, geography, topics, and languages people use to share.
For the eighth edition of the Frontiers of Interaction conference, held in Rome in June 2012, DensityDesign presented “Andromeda,” a wall designed to visualize the live Twitter stream related to the conference.
The application was projected on a 1,046-inch surface used as a stage background screen.
The visualization of the Twitter discussion was obtained through geometric symbolization and apparently simple movement. Each user was represented with a different polygon, depending on their number of tweets. Each tweet was a vertex of their shape, which was created dynamically in real time. As time passed, users slowly drifted away from the center of the screen, leaving space for new tweets to pop up, thus creating a sort of space environment where the different orbits represented different timeframes.
At DensityDesign, we are currently working a lot with Twitter datasets and generally with user-generated content. In particular, we are working with Urbanscope to build new methods and technologies to gather specific information on urban spaces through people’s activity on social media. We believe that they are a particularly fertile environment, both for communication design research and for visual experiments, and a very interesting source to create interesting and playful visualizations.
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