Foreign Policy: Twitter Predicting The Next Tahrir?

Apr 12, 2012
Originally published on April 12, 2012 6:21 am

Luke Allnutt writes about digital activism and repression at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tangled Web blog.

At first glance you don't quite know what you're looking at. It could be strands of mitochondrial DNA, or sperm fertilizing an egg, or perhaps the product of an incongruous union between a sea creature and a hairball. As the thing grows, it passes through a series of increasingly complex mutations — ending up as a kind of Death Star under construction.

You're looking at data — or, to be more precise, a visual rendering of tweets and retweets from a several-hour period on February 11, 2011, starting shortly before the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

More than ever before, we inhabit a cosmos of data. With smart phones and the ability to share reams of information publicly on social media, our digital footprints are everywhere — from what we "like" on Facebook to our store loyalty cards to banking transactions on our smart phones.

With that explosion of data have come new ways to visualize it. From Sumerian cuneiform to the humble pie chart, visual symbols transform the abstract into the concrete, helping us to see patterns and relationships we might have otherwise missed. The bigger the data sets, the more useful pictures of them become — and at no time in human history have we ever had to deal with floods of data greater than the ones that wash over us now.

Of all the social phenomena that invite analysis, few are as complex, or as volatile, as revolutions. The petabytes of social media data generated by the upheavals of the Arab Spring are fertile ground for social scientists studying those events. For years we've been snapping photos of demonstrators and protests; now the new cosmos of data potentially enables us to map the ebb and flow of the ideas that drive them, something like a magnetic-resonance imagery technique for visualizing the mechanisms of dramatic change.

Interest in the role of social media first exploded during Iran's post-election unrest in 2009. In his "Retweet Revolution," Gilad Lotan, a designer and computer scientist, tracked Twitter conversation threads around popular hashtags such as #iranelection, #ahmadinejad, and #mousavi. By visualizing flows, Lotan says that we can "put a face" to an audience.

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