Thursday, February 5, 2009

Twitter as National Consciousness

And here's the coolest thing I've seen all week, via kottke: a The New York Times mapping of key words used by Twitter users during the Super Bowl. Take a moment to explore this interactive graph. Then come back to read a few observations of mine.
  • Note, first of all, how perfectly designed this graph is. The presentation is clear, the categories (player names, commercials, etc.) are exactly what I am interested in knowing about, and the geographic distribution clarifies any partisan behavior. The writers behind the Free Darko book mentioned at a book reading that they had no idea how to create graphs before working on their book. So the first thing they did was study as many graphs and charts from The New York Times as they could. This is a great example of why that turned out to be a good idea. Another thing this chart is a great example of: the value of the Times in general. I'm not sure if any other media outlet could have put together a presentation like this on such a fascinating topic, but I do know that no one else did put it together.
  • But the real genius of the presentation is in lining up the word-mapping with the game situation. Italo Calvino in his novel If on a winter's night a traveler... satirizes people who read books by counting up the number of specific words used. So if a a book uses a preponderance of military words, you can be certain that the book focuses on war. In the context of the book, it's a biting critique of those who don't truly read. But on this twitter-graph it's almost true. I know exactly what happened when I see the map covered with "Fitzgerald" or "Holmes" or "Springsteen." I am able to see the dominant thought pattern of the more than one million twitter users at a particular time. That's the strongest representation I can imagine of the intimate thoughts of a significant portion of our population. This graph, to a large extent, displays what around one million people were thinking across the course of four hours.
  • Sports fans (or, I guess, regular people while they watch sports) overuse the word "go." We as a sporting nation should be able to devise a more thoughtful sentiment than: Go team from my geographic location!
  • Twitter, famously, only allows 140 characters per update. I would think in this environment of concision that more twitterers would use "Bruce" instead of "Springsteen" during halftime. Your followers would all understand whom you're talking about.

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