I’m a total Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas fanboy. I loved their stuff at the Media Lab, at IBM and now at Flowing Media, their new visualization consultancy. Some of their work is “merely” beautiful:
Flickr photos of Boston Common, collected over the course of a year, abstracted to their color pallette.
And some is quite political and provocative. They show some new visualizations of Twitter at Personal Democracy Forum that focus on racial segregation on Twitter. (I’ve noted before that Twitter is a community with heavy African-American usage, a fact that’s invisible to many users.) They’ve carried out an experiment I’ve been desperate to try – they’ve selected a set of trending topics and hand-coded the participants in the threads to make guesses about the race of the authors. What they see are some tags – those related to breaking news, for instance – that don’t show a strong racial split. But others – including some that seem unlikely to be racially divided like “cookout” – are predominantly used by African American users. The amazing thing about this, Fernanda observes, is that the ability to interact with a different group of people is only a click away… and we rarely take advantage of it.
This sort of analysis and visualization requires a great deal of hand coding. But there’s lots of Twitter work that can be done by looking for the right hashtags. Martin describes “#hashtags as the bumper stickers of the 21st century”. By carefully selecting tags to study, they’re able to identify tea party conversations. Add some information to those feeds – the avatars of the people tweeting – and you’ll get a portrait of flags, eagles (and white faces.)
Interestingly, many tags aren’t an unambiguous signal for one side or the other. #p2 is a tag that’s common in progressive circles – it’s short for “Progressive 2.0″… and it appears surprisingly often in threads associated with the Tea Party. “What’s a nice, liberal tag doing in tea party clusters?” Well, a conservative Twitter user wrote an essay introducing hash tags to new users, offered a glossary of popular conservative tags and used #p2 as an example of tags liberals used. Now conservatives use #p2 to reach across the aisle to bug their listeners, and liberals use #teaparty to ensure conservatives see what they’re saying.
While the power of taunting may be one of the most powerful forces of the internet, it turns out that there is a pure, unpolluted liberal tag, one that is almost solely used by progressives. The tag? #npr