While browsing data visualisations on Pinterest the other day, I came across an interesting-looking tool: Sociotope, a social media experiment which takes the data people leave behind in social networks and turns it into an interactive data visualisation.
The free-to-use web app works with Twitter, Facebook and soon Google Plus. It uses your data to build a “virus”-like creature with one tentacle for every post you’ve made, or post that someone else has involved you in, up to a maximum of 150 (though you can choose to load more). The colour scheme is taken from your profile picture, and the length of each tentacle varies depending on the length of the post. The more the tentacles move around, the more people have interacted with that post – providing a slightly bizarre but effective overview of your social media presence.
A screen capture of me exploring Sociotope and using it to visualise my Twitter activity
Sociotope is functional, but also fun and interesting – you can use your cursor to spin it around in the three-dimensional space, and watch as the tentacles flop about. You can click on each one to see details about that post, although with so many tentacles in the way, it can be difficult to hit the exact one you’re aiming for.
Sociotope also provides a few options for analysing your social media presence, including sorting posts by time and by author. Its design is geared more towards visual impact than straight-forward analysis; but it’s effective as a visualisation and fun to play with, and could serve as an entry point for more casual users into analysing their social media presence, rather than only appealing to professionals, like most analytical tools.
A visual metaphor
Stefan Wagner, the designer who created Sociotope, says he wanted people to gain an understanding of what they leave behind online:
If you browse websites, data is collected about you – lots of data. I think the average user doesn’t ever glimpse how much data that is actually collected … these kind of exceptional visualisations, they gain people’s interest, and they will be interested in this viewing this data and what lies behind it.
Stefan describes Sociotope as a “metaphor” that represents people’s social media activity and their social relevance. “I always liked connecting data visualisation to some sort of metaphor – I like working with metaphors to convey information about something. The idea was created to make a data visualisation of social media and put it in some sort of other form, to shape it differently, so that the viewer would learn something else from it.
“I really hope that people are using it to analyse their own presence and maybe the identity of others. Because social networks, they’re all about social interaction, and I think it’s really important for people to realise how they use this kind of social media, how they interact with their friends, and how deep this interaction goes.”
Does he think that this is a role that data should be playing – in helping people realise these things about themselves? “For me, it’s the only way data should be used. Of course big data is used to do advertisements and stuff but for me, the interesting thing lies in analysing behaviour and getting into how people use this kind of media.”
Sociotope also provides an unexpected insight into how the internet has developed over time and how users’ social media presences have changed with it. By loading posts back far enough, you can play them as a time-lapse which shows the evolution of a person’s social media presence over the years.
“When I started to build the project,” says Stefan, “I saw that in 2009 or 2010, people were writing a lot more text, but now they restrict themselves to posting photos or one-liners – just a few words. People tend to not write so many things any more; they more tend to post photos or videos.
“You can read it out of the visualisation. [Similarly], when you look at websites, how they are structured and how they try to gain attention, photographs or images get a lot more space these days than they did two or three years ago.”
Sociotope isn’t Stefan’s only project which uses data visualisation to give insight into how people use social media. In 2013, he created ‘Generating Utopia’, a real-time visualisation of social location data using the social platform Foursquare.
It takes a map of an existing city and alters the topography based on a person’s Foursquare check-ins, elevating the areas where a person checks in the most, to emphasise their importance. The locations are connected by a web of neon lines in primary colours: red for work, blue for recreation and yellow for transport. The overall effect is a dramatic, futuristic cityscape.
“People like to represent themselves from their best side, in social networks,” Stefan explains. “So when they check in somewhere, it’s not like the doctor’s office or something; it’s some awesome place. So people will build up a utopic vision for themselves, and I wanted to build utopian landscapes from the data.”
“I really love provoking people by showing them data in a different way. I like using metaphors and images, strong images, which provoke people’s imagination to make them build up a sensibility towards what data means and how much data they produce. I think it’s really important.”
Stefan says that he would like to see more people creating images and ideas from the data that lies behind a person’s online presence. “Every image which is created helps shape this future idea of how data should be, or how social networks should work. I can only motivate people to try to visualise data.”