What Twitter Really Looks Like

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I just watched the West Coast wake up. On Twitter.

I did it by watching the lights come on on Tweetping, which visualizes Twitter activity in real time, on a global scale. When I looked at the site earlier this morning, the left half of North America was largely dark. I returned a little later, though, and watched -- in real time -- the lights slowly turn on, burst after burst after burst, as West Coasters started their Mondays. And, more specifically, as they started tweeting about them.

Like many such visualizations, Tweetping's primary effect is aesthetic: Tweetping is a visual reminder of the distribution of Twitter, the flow of it, the scale of it. It tracks straight-from-the-API info like total tweets (and words, and characters) per second, as well as latest hashtags and latest @-mentions -- all of those broken down by global geographic area. The map reveals Twitter's digital movements through the physical world via stark explosions of light -- but it reveals just as much through its stagnant swaths of darkness. We talk a lot about the connective power of our new communications technologies -- the flattening effect of the Internet, the democratizing abilities of the web. Tweetping, though, is above all a reminder of how far we have to go until we are truly, and meaningfully, connected.

But it's also a reminder of the global scale of Twitter -- and of the fact that Twitter has its own inclinations and energies. What's maybe most striking about Tweetping is its presentation of data in pulses and punctuations: boomboomboomboom-PAUSE. That's largely an accident of interface, but it also suggests something profound about Twitter and the social web: This stuff has a beat. It has rhythms and rushes and respites. It's its own kind of organism, with its own kind of pulses -- its own kind of heartbeat.

Hat tip Chris Heller