Mapping the 'Geography' of the Internet

The Internet isn't a place where everyone shouts at each other. It's a collection of lots of small places where people are chatting among themselves.

If a conversation happens on the Internet, does it make a sound? (David McNew/Reuters)

In case you didn’t know, muscle-car lovers have a thriving Internet community. Twitter users like @HookupMyRide and @CorvetteBlogger are among the chattiest sports-car enthusiasts, tweeting links and striking up conversations with other fans of fast cars. The influential drivers of the muscle-car blogosphere stick to what they like; they mostly share links and thoughts about cars. For that reason, it’s unlikely that they’d ever interact with Twitter users who focus on environmental issues – in fact, the two groups live in entirely separate neighborhoods of the Internet.

That may seem like a strange metaphor for the non-physical space of the Internet, but to John Kelly, the chief scientist at Morningside Analytics, it's quite apt. He spends his days mapping the “cyber-social geography” of the Internet, anlayzing who is talking to whom and what they’re talking about. While many web analytics companies focus on the users who are most influential across the entire Internet, Kelly said, his data show who’s influential in small, specific communities. This helps uncover a few interesting trends about who really gets heard in the public sphere of the Internet.

First, like the muscle-car lovers, people with shared interests often create isolated communities, talking among themselves about a limited set of topics. That means that people who share certain interests or viewpoints are less likely to interact with people who have different and possibly opposing priorities – for example, car lovers and environmental activists.

But Kelly’s maps also suggest two different models for becoming influential in the digital public sphere: Be like Oprah, who reaches lots of different people on many subjects, or be like the president of a very committed bowling club, who reaches a limited audience that probably cares a lot about that specific topic. The question is, are the “bowling club presidents” of the Internet really regular people who happen to love a certain topic? Data suggest that “traditional” influencers like companies and news organizations still have a lot of power, even in niche digital spheres.

More on that in a minute. First, check out the most visually striking aspect of Kelly’s work: The rainbow balls he uses to map the Internet. In this particular case, each dot represents a Twitter account, and the size of the dot represents how many people are following that account. The closeness of the dots indicates how much those Twitter users pay attention to the same stuff, and people who have statistically similar web surfing habits are grouped by color.

Note how the people in the auto zone (sorry) are completely separate from the people who care about ecological issues:

John Kelly, Morningside Analytics/The Atlantic

What this tells us is that Twitter’s most eco-conscious users aren’t reaching one of the audiences that probably needs to hear from them most: people who love cars. The two groups have different values and priorities, but they’re still connected – gas consumption, car exhaust pollution, and road and highway development are among the important environmental issues related to cars. Instead of putting their perspectives into dialogue, though, these groups stick to their respective corners of the Internet.

Of course, this isn’t some vast conspiracy by car lovers who want to remain blissfully ignorant of environmental issues or by environmentalists who pretend cars don’t exist – people find stuff they like on the Internet, and understandably, that’s the stuff they read and share. But this also means that the digital public sphere is fractured, made up of lots of different nodes that don’t quite connect.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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