Where Do the World's Tweets Come From?

A visualization of geocoded tweets is a good illustration of how wide is the Twitter world

What does Twitter look like? Well, for me, when I log in I see a lot of journalists, scientists, academics, and friends talking mostly in English about today's news, art, books, feminism, and so on. I know that this stream is the product of my curation and that it's only a tiny fraction of Twitter activity at any given moment, but understanding what Twitter looks like in the parts I don't see requires an act of imagination.

A new "map" of Twitter from researchers Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute and Monica Stephens of Humboldt State gives us a pretty good visual of what's out there. Their graphic shows by size the number of geocoded tweets coming from different countries during a week-long period in March of this year. Their sample covers 20 percent of all geocoded tweets during that time -- amounting to a sample of 4.5 million. (The authors warn that there may be biases in the data, if some countries have a greater propensity to geocode than others. Only one percent of tweets are geocoded overall.) In addition, they've shaded each country's rectangle to represent its level of "Twitter penetration" -- darker boxes are for countries where a larger percentage of Internet users are on Twitter; lighter boxes show countries with few tweeters relative to the size of the Internet-using population.

The map shows that the top six tweet producers (for geocoded tweets, in absolute terms) are the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, the UK, Mexico, and Malaysia. The authors observe that just two of those countries -- the US and the UK -- are from the industrialized West and "are traditional hubs of the production of codified knowledge." They write:

By mapping the distribution of tweets in the world it becomes apparent that Twitter is allowing for broader participation than is possible in most other platforms and media. In other words, it might be allowing for a 'democratisation' of information production and sharing because of its low barriers to entry and adaptability to mobile devices. Similarly barriers to the dissemination of information, such as censorship, are also visible through the small proportion of tweets originating in China (home to the largest population of internet users in the world).

Of course the democratization of content production opens the way for a more diverse stream of content to flow around the world, for people to hear stories and voices from places not normally heard. But measuring the quantity of the content being produced is not the same as measuring what's being heard -- as indicated by numbers of followers -- and where those tweets reach. Perhaps later maps from these Twitter geographers will fill out the picture a bit more, showing not just the relative loci of content production, but also how information travels. As the map's makers write, "This map offers a starting point."