Taking the pulse of the planet: How Twitter erases geography

Real-time social networks like Twitter and Facebook are connecting people around the globe in a myriad of different ways, millions of times every minute, but we hardly ever get to see those connections represented visually. That’s why research projects like a recent study from a team of scientists at the University of Illinois are so valuable — they allow us to see how these networks connect us, and how services like Twitter are making geography less and less relevant.

The study, entitled “Mapping the global Twitter heartbeat,” was published in the university’s peer-reviewed journal First Monday in May, and used what is known as the Twitter “Decahose” — which is made up of one-tenth of all the messages sent across the network. Access to the data was provided by Gnip, one of the companies that is licensed to sell Twitter’s full firehose, as part of a demonstration project with computer maker Silicon Graphics called “Twitter Heartbeat.”

Twitter geo map

For that demonstration, the researchers used the Decahose — which streamed more than 1.5 billion tweets from 71 million unique users during the period from October 23 to November 30 of 2012, an average of 38 million tweets a day — to show a real-time map of global discussion about topics such as Hurricane Sandy and the U.S. federal election. As part of that project, the team created one of the largest databases of global tweets with geographic data included, based both on GPS data and user profiles.

In addition to some interesting data about where most geo-located tweets come from (Jakarta in Indonesia and New York City were two of the top locations), the study looked at what the Twitter data shows about the way that social networks have changed the way we communicate. In many ways, the researchers said, networks like Twitter have “created a world in which a person may speak to another on the other side of the planet with just a few millisecond delay, effectively removing the geographic barrier.”

“Users on Twitter communicate with others both near them and half a world away, illustrating that the role of physical proximity in communication seems to be reduced in the era of social media.”

Twitter geo study3

These maps of real-time connections produced for the Illinois study reminded me of similar maps created with Facebook data, such as the one that Facebook intern Paul Butler produced in 2010 (which appears below) — or the one that data researcher Pete Warden created by scraping Facebook user profiles, a fascinating map of connections that he later had to delete after the social network threatened to sue him for breaching its terms of service.

Facebook connection map

Although Twitter CEO Dick Costolo likes to talk about the service as the “pulse of the planet,” it’s worth noting that most of the world’s population still doesn’t tweet — and even most of those who do aren’t using it all the time: Twitter has about 550 million users, or about eight percent of the world’s population, but the top five percent account for almost half of all tweets sent. Of the sample the U of Illinois researchers looked at, one quarter tweeted only once.

In addition, the study notes that only 8 percent of all users had location data available. About one percent of all users surveyed accounted for more than two-thirds of all geo-referenced tweets, showing that geo-located are created by what the researchers called “an even more extreme subset of users” than overall tweets. They noted that studies relying on these tweets alone would have a “skewed view of the Twitterverse, especially over short periods of time.”

That said, however, it’s fascinating to see tangible evidence of how social networks like Twitter can help to erase geographical barriers and connect users around the globe in real time.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Dunechaser