Sociotope brings your online identity to life

A mass of multi-coloured tentacles against a grey-blue backdrop

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.”

A colourful Sociotope visualisation with a few tendrils extending out towards the words "tweet", "reply", "tweet with media" and "link"
Sociotope can break your online presence down by type of post and whether or not it contains media | Stefan Wagner / andsynchrony

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.”

Generating Utopia

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.”

A bird's-eye view of a cityscape with several buildings perched on top of high mountains, with lines of red, blue and yellow light winding their way around the topography
A still from Generating Utopia | Stefan Wagner / andsynchrony

“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.”

Interview: Hera Hussain on the need for open data

Hera Hussain is Communities and Partnerships Manager at OpenCorporates, the world’s largest open companies database. When she isn’t busy organising hackathons and liberating corporate data from across the internet, she works with the social entrepreurship movement MakeSense and empowers women to achieve independence through Chayn. She spoke to Interhacktives about her experiences with open data, its importance, and the role that journalists should play in making it more accessible.

A basic right

“I initially misunderstood it,” Hera says, of her first encounter with open data as an organiser of WikiMania, an annual event focused on wikis and open content. “Like many other people, I could only see some applications of open data. For example, I thought it would be really useful if government posts statistics on crime. What I didn’t realise is that the aggregated statistics aren’t important. Anybody can come up with those numbers; the important thing is the underlying data. It’s not just about how many knife crimes have happened, it’s more about when they happened, where they happened – the little details.”

“Data should be a basic right,” she goes on. “And that wasn’t very clear to me until I started working for OpenCorporates.”

What does being Communities and Partnerships Manager for OpenCorporates entail? “It’s my job to make sure that the data held by OpenCorporates is used for social good – by journalists, by NGOs, by citizens, by other open data organisations. My job is to make sure that happens and also make it easy for people to contribute open data.”

One of the ways people can get involved in contributing open data is through taking part in #FlashHacks, monthly hackathons where anyone can come along to liberate and map corporate data or write bots that will convert the data into accessible formats.

Hera Hussain wearing a red T-shirt with the word "FlashHacks" across the front, against a crowded backdrop of hackathon attendees wearing similar T-shirts and sitting at tables
Hera Hussain at a FlashHacks hackathon

 

The importance of open data

Believe it or not, the UK is one of the world leaders in open data, alongside New Zealand. “Especially company information,” says Hera. “Our Companies House is really open to suggestions from the NGO community and the open data community, and they’ve done great work in opening up the database. The government has a really pro-open data stance which makes it possible for this all to happen.”

What is the most important thing about having open data? “I think it’s the fact that it exists,” Hera says. “People always say open data is very elitist. Only people who can work with data can use it. But because I think it’s a right, the fact that it exists is really important, because there will be somebody who can use it. We can leverage their knowledge to make things better.

“There’s always somebody out there who can apply it, and while there’s a big gap in terms of understanding data, I think eventually that will be filled. You can say the same thing about engineering, you know – engineering’s really elitist, because not everybody can understand how machines work or how buildings or materials work. But those who know how to make it work make it work for everybody.”

Making an impact

Ideally, she says, more people should be educating themselves about data and what it can do; but it might take a different approach from the data community to generate more interest in open data. “The problem is that things that make an impact on people are stories. I think we need more of that and I think the whole open data community is realising that, is trying to create a storyline of how it can be applied and how it is being applied.”

Is this a role that journalists should be playing? “I think it’s a responsibility. I think you become a journalist because you want to report on something that’s true, or you want to investigate something that you don’t know about. In both cases I think preferring open data over proprietary data is really important.”

Of course, the right data isn’t always available for journalists to tell the stories they want to, but Hera is optimistic that this will improve as the open data movement and data-driven journalism gain momentum. “So many times I’m contacted by journalists who want to work with open data and have a very strong hypothesis that they want the data to prove or disprove, but the data’s not available, so there’s no way to do it,” she says. “I think that can be quite frustrating. But I think the new data-driven tide in journalism is interesting, and I think these things are going to be much easier to do in the future. As we liberate more data, there’s more pressure on governments to release data, more pressure on companies to release data in the right formats, so I think the future is promising. It’s just that there’s a long way to go before it becomes easier for journalists.”

Change is coming

What does she think is currently the biggest obstacle to making data more open? “Two things, from OpenCorporates’ perspective: one is that we need so many more bodies of volunteers to actually scrape the data sets … And we need to actually find them as well. Finding data in itself is a big, big problem. Some people say that it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as governments and companies are realising that people are making use of this data to do things that they might not like, they start closing them down. So many corporate registers have closed down in the last year.

“There’s not enough incentive for them to release information, so we need to ramp up the pressure on them. But at the same time, there’s something there which they don’t want to get out, which is why it’s not happening.”

“I am glad that there is a conversation happening, and journalists are a big part of it. They put pressure on governments and companies to be more transparent.”

But things in data aren’t all doom and gloom. As previously mentioned, the UK as a whole has a positive approach to making data open, and next year this will improve even further with the launch of a central register of beneficial ownership for UK companies. It will mean that companies have to disclose information on anyone who controls more than 25% of the company’s shares and voting rights, starting in April 2016.

“I think we will definitely see a difference [in the amount of open data] starting from next year,” says Hera, “because the beneficial ownership information will be open in the UK. Other countries have said they will open it as well. For the next two or three years, I think we’re definitely going to see some change.”

Interview: Capioca’s Rebecca Findley on meaningful social networks

A black and white portrait of Capioca co-founder Rebecca Findley

If you’re someone who loves ideas, projects and discovery, you’ll be right at home in the new social network that’s currently creating buzz online. Capioca (Cap-ee-oh-kuh) is a website designed for people to collect things that fascinate them, and to find and discuss new ideas. It was envisioned by its founders, Rebecca Findley and Byron Wong, as an online version of a coffee house in Samuel Pepys’ London: a thriving hub of learning, discovery and discussion.

Discovering niche ideas

“We didn’t set out to create a social media site,” Rebecca Findley tells Interhacktives. “Capioca was a side project that developed over time. As well as a place for people to find their interests and post what they know and love, it’s for discovering new, niche ideas.” She confesses to having always had a passion for connecting people, both professionally and personally. “I even sent my mum on a date with the deputy editor of the first newspaper I worked at! They’re now happily married.”

Rebecca’s background working as a newspaper journalist influences her approach to creating a social network, especially the ‘Editor’s Picks’ section, which is a mix of content that the site’s administrators love. “Many people come to the site just to see our Picks, which we didn’t expect,” says Rebecca. “It’s great to share content with an angle that means a member can enjoy it even if they have no interest in that topic normally. That’s the ‘bringing new ideas and new perspectives to an audience’ aspect of journalism.”

She sees the site as being a great place for journalists to gather, even though it isn’t a network for breaking news like Twitter. “Journalists might find Capioca useful for making contacts, creating a portfolio of work and interests, in-depth discussions and reaching new audiences with their stories,” she says. “We are also a platform for unique ideas; for example, an aeronautical engineer posts his inventions. We have journalists on Capioca using it to share ideas and interests they may not post about on other social sites, because they use Twitter mainly for work, Facebook for friends, and so on.”

A screenshot of the 'Editor's Picks' section of Capioca, prominently showcasing articles about a toucan who is due to receive a 3D-printed beak, living in East Berlin's "death strip", a Cambodian immigrant playing chess in Manhattan and Spain's "neo-rural" generation.
Capioca’s ‘Editor’s Picks’ features a mix of great content from across the site together with specially uploaded articles

Most of the activity on Capioca revolves around Collections, which as it says on the tin, are collections of web content like articles, videos and photos, based around whatever topic or theme you fancy. You can also repost items from other people’s Collections and add them to Collections of your own. It’s a format that’s familiar to anyone who uses Pinterest, but Rebecca insists that Pinterest and Capioca aren’t about to be competing any time soon.

“Pinterest is a great platform, but we’re very different in terms of content, feel and demographic,” she says. “For example, our readers and members are 50/50 male and female.” This is opposed to Pinterest’s vastly female-dominated user base. “We focus on the arts, science and society over lifestyle content; you’re more likely to find a topic on ‘Equality’ or ‘Journalism’ than ‘Style’.”

Capioca is also more of a text-driven site; members can start Discussions, which are like self-contained comment threads, and compose articles of their own. “Our members are a mix of media, science and creative professionals, as well as students. The site is used in a variety of ways, depending on your interest or aim.”

Simple and stylish

Capioca’s words-and-visuals mix comes in part from its two founders, who have different areas of interest when it comes to web content. “Byron Wong, my co-founder and partner, tends to favour videos and pictures, while I prefer text,” Rebecca says. “We mix all types of content in together, and you can choose what you want to see.”

They were united in the overall look of the site, though. Capioca was designed to be “simple and stylish” with a warm feel to it, which resulted in the site’s sunny yellow appearance.

“We are continuously tweaking Capioca – there’s so much more we would love to do,” Rebecca concludes. “Our members tell us it’s a good start though!”

 

A candid black and white shot of Capioca co-founders, Rebecca Findley and Byron Wong, sitting at a large wooden coffee table and laughing together
Capioca co-founders Rebecca Findley and Byron Wong

What does she think of the current state of social networking as a whole? “Social networking continues to adapt and change, and it will be interesting to see what happens this year,” Rebecca says thoughtfully. “If it wasn’t for Facebook, Byron and I wouldn’t be working together now. We met at a dance group, but got chatting properly online – now we live and work together on projects 24/7.

“It expands opportunities and changes lives, but it can also be overwhelming, so I think you have to find and use the networks that work best for you at that point in time. Our members are looking for niche, meaningful content and spaces. They don’t want to come away feeling like they’ve wasted their time, but rather invested it.

“For us it’s about being authentic and listening to what our members want.”

For now, there’s no official launch date as Capioca tries out new things in closed beta and gathers feedback. However, anyone who wants to can request an invite at www.capioca.com, and you can also find Rebecca Findley on Twitter.

Our favourite #AdviceForYoungJournalists

If you were on Twitter yesterday, you probably noticed the trending hashtag #AdviceForYoungJournalists, which was sparked off by a bitingly cynical blog post from financial journalist Felix Salmon. His advice to young wannabe journalists contacting him for guidance is this: don’t become journalists. At least, not if you want to get paid, or have anything that resembles an actual career.

Forty-eight hours on and the hashtag is still going strong, featuring contributions from old veteran hacks, fresh-faced newbies, bitter ex-journos, and – for some weird reason – Joss Whedon. Some of the advice has been funny, some of it obnoxious; many of the advice-givers are clearly pushing an agenda or taking the opportunity to have a sly dig at an industry they hate. But there’s also a lot of genuine, heartfelt advice to be found. And it says something about the state of journalism that a lively debate around its future prospects can spring up so easily and last for so long, with so many people eager to weigh in.

Needless to say, we Interhacktives – as young journalists – don’t buy into the idea that journalism is a doomed career path. Among the wave of bitterness and snark, we found a lot of helpful tips, so we’ve rounded up for you here our favourite #AdviceForYoungJournalists.

Common-sense advice

Some of the best advice given sounds a lot like pure common sense, but at some point every journalist will be learning these things for the first time. For more experienced journalists, it never hurts to have a reminder, either.

This one in particular has been a key point in our interview classes so far:

 

Practical advice

It’s easy to say vague things that sound sage and profound, but how about some solid advice that you can really act on?

A practical tip for students from our own Ben Jackson:

Our Social Media and Community Engagement lecturer, Ben Whitelaw, also gave some advice which almost all of the Interhacktives are happy to be practicing next month:

 

Advice for a changing field

We can’t forget that the reason Felix Salmon wrote his blog post in the first place is because the field of journalism has changed massively with the rise of the internet, and has continued to shift and change ever since. Here is some smart advice on how to stay ahead of the curve in a constantly evolving industry:

My personal favourite series of Tweets came from Randy Lilleston, editor-in-chief of business news site Industry Dive. He managed to succinctly sum up what is currently happening in the journalism industry and why, and how to succeed in the midst of it:

 

And finally, one last piece of practical advice from our Online and Data Journalism lecturer, Paul Bradshaw:

Done and done. Thanks for the tip, Paul!

Header image: Esther Vargas

Facebook alternatives: The Smart Social Networker’s Guide

Throughout most of its ten-year history, people have been threatening to leave Facebook.

There are plenty of good reasons for doing it, from Facebook’s constantly mutating privacy policies to its decision to turn users into test subjects without their knowledge or consent. A few months ago, Facebook came under fire for its “real-names policy”, which requires users to access the site under the name that appears on their passport, credit card or driver’s license. Hundreds of drag queens, who use Facebook under their stage names, had been banned from the site along with DJs, stage performers and members of the LGBTQIA community.

The name controversy sparked off petitions, protests, polls and spoof videos, and some 600 Facebook users pledged to deactivate their accounts and find a new social network in protest of the policy. But with some strategic intervention by Facebook, the whole movement fizzled out with no real changes made, and most of the people who were so up in arms before are… still on Facebook.

It’s easy enough to complain about a site like Facebook, but no matter how valid your complaints are, it’s all so much noise in the newsfeed if at the end of the day you still use the site. If, however, you’re prepared to put your social network where your mouth is, then read on: no matter what your complaint with Facebook, our guide will match you with a social network you can turn to instead.

Continue reading “Facebook alternatives: The Smart Social Networker’s Guide”