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.

This can be good. The Internet has meant that communications can now take place in no other setting but the digital one. "People who are all interested in saving sea turtles," Kelly says, "or voting for some upstart candidate for Congress – all those people can pretty costlessly find each other and affiliate now and find some plan for action."

In other words, anyone can find other people who share her interests, no matter how obscure those interests are. These communities might provide entertainment, but they also provide a place for groups to coordinate and rally offline action. This is especially important because of the low cost of entry – people no longer have to have a printing press and/or a powerful company on their side to find allies and make their voices heard in a public sphere.

But that doesn’t mean that more traditional sources of influence have lost their power. Another look at Kelly’s map shows that traditional companies and publications are some of the biggest, and thus most influential, nodes:

John Kelly, Morningside Analytics/The Atlantic

On a deeper dive, Twitter users like @Toyota, @MazdaUSA, and @Hyundai show up as top influencers on all things auto; Ford-related websites and Twitter handles have their own category. With followers in the hundreds of thousands, major companies and news outlets can reach bigger audiences, offering authoritative information to people outside of the tightly woven community of car lovers. At the same time, these organizations have also been able to infiltrate the micro community of people who really care about their products.

This mix of everyday Twitter users with traditional influencers is interesting for a few reasons. First, it suggests that big companies and traditional news organizations are actively seeking out niche digital audiences – they’re sharing, engaging with, and re-tweeting information created by regular people. As a result, traditional influencers have become embedded in tight-knit, interactive communities. Marketers and magazines are no longer just trying to blast target audiences with a message; they’re trying to engage with and actually become part of their audiences. This allows commercial messages and information to be woven even more seamlessly into the daily lives of regular people.

Second, the lack of overlap between different but connected communities, like car lovers and environmentalists, seems even more problematic when those communities include companies and news outlets that have a lot of power to create change in the real world. It’s one thing for @CorvetteBlogger to come into contact with environmentalists like @ElectricDrive, a Washington organization that advocates electric car use, but what if @ElectricDrive started sharing lots of links with @Toyota? With a broader reach, communities can put their perspectives into dialogue; for example, car lovers might start to understand the environmental effects of their hobby, and environmentalists might start to understand the heart-stopping beauty of a blood red sports car.

Of course, Twitter doesn’t make up the entire public sphere of the Internet – plenty of conversations take place on blogs and other social media platforms, although these trends happen there, too. And the traditional public sphere, meaning live debates, printed publications, coffee shop conversations, etc., isn’t dead – yet. But if these trends continue, it seems inevitable that they will affect the public sphere, shaping it into lots of self-contained nodes and fragmented spheres where anyone can be an expert but few perspectives are heard.