Mapping Friendships? Facebook Maps Social Networks

The recent growth of web-based “social networks” inspire maps no longer rooted in terrestrial relations, but stand to become vertiginously unmoored from them:   maps often help us to grapple with the distance between them, as much as to orient us spatially to their relationships, but the blobs on this series of maps oddly disaggregates the inhabitants from the land, focussing less on their spatial situation than their relative degree of web-presence.   Indeed, in ways that very inventively rewrite the map as a throbbing surface, rather than a static interface, the attachments of folks to the interactive space of Facebook becomes cast as the subject that is being mapped–as well as being the datasource from which the map’s dataset derives.

Thanks to the creative folks at Stamen design, we have a beautiful interactive global map of Facebook users, whose bold colors offer a neatly clickable index of social networking over space.  The map is not an innovative ordering of space, but illustrates the network’s global reach in a twist on the project of mapping the inhabited world, shared by Ptolemy and Abraham Ortelius alike.  But let’s ask what’s at stake in crafting a visualization culled from archived data gathered from users’ profiles–as much as celebrating the virtuosity of the clickable map as a chart of the social network’s reach, as if it were able to map as previously unquantifiable (and indeed ultimately almost ephemeral) value as ‘friendship’ might be.

World's "Friendships" on Facebook

Many maps employ self-reported data.  In a sense, the map of Facebook use–or the self-identified “Friendship Map”–charts global inter-relations, like the global maps of national distribution of GDP, provenance of coffee beans or even pathways of the migrating whales, both discussed in earlier posts.  But whereas  maps objectively mediate terrestrial inter-relations–and inter-connectivity–the notion of connectivity has been re-appropriated in the images of “Friendship” that Facebook commissioned, as has the meaning of the word “Friendship” itself.  On the one hand, this map is a celebration and triumphal illustration of Facebook’s near-ubiquity.  But it is also with clear limits, even if they are unacknowledged.  Anyone not on Facebook is absent from the map, since connectivity is generated from profiles that are registered online.

Facebook connections allowed the folks at Stamen to generate instantaneous images of web-use, making this sequence of clickable maps a truly interactive treat, as well as a visual feast.  But the effect is also to present the data generated from Facebook use as endowed with the allegedly objective criteria of maps, and to normalize Facebook’s criteria of “friendship” in apparently objective terms.  Although the very notion of geographic connectivity is fundamental to map making, the maps that are used as the templates to indicate the “connections” of friending in the Facebook platform invest a sense of objectivity and meaning in trends of friending that elevates the medium as the basis to generate further information to a degree that boosts Facebook’s criteria of meaning, as much as provides analytic tools:  if “the medium is the message,” the medium is not cartography, although the multiple images echo the authority of cartographical forms, but Facebook itself.

This is particularly pernicious, and bears some examination.  The maps on this site visualize aggregate friendships on Facebook as quivering blobs of connections that pulsate as with life of their own.  Although claiming objective authority of a map, the aggregates map “friendship” as Facebook has defined it, and embody and reify the data FB use itself creates and generates:  this is a map of FB use, in other words (rather than of web use in general), and a vision of the interconnectivity Facebook promises and the very “Friendships” that it creates.

Take a look once again at the snapshot of the connectedness of the Marshall Islanders who use Facebook:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

Such a map is decidedly not a territory–nor could it be confused with one.  But if “all maps are arguments,” in Harley’s words, and conceal interests, as much as show meaning, the interests concealed in these “Maps of the World’s Friendship” demand considerable unpacking.  For to me, the multiple maps that Stamen design unveiled last September 12 are something like post-modern versions of earlier corporate emblems.

The aggregate views of information born of Facebook use essentially trumpet the inter-connected world that Facebook promises as a matrix achieved by corporate interconnectedness, in other words, in ways that update the familiar stream-lined modernist logo of global unity Pan Am once used to promote itself as the “world’s most experienced airline,” able to provided air service to all regions of the world by airline jets.  The Pan Am emblem emptied the familiar format of projection from toponyms or places, as if to illustrate the lack of obstacles to air travel and the global surface that its flights promised to link.  The logo owned by Pan American World Airways erased places in favor of the latitudes that link the world bridged by flight paths and no longer in need of land maps, no doubt intentionally offering the new map the airline corporation promised to provide to its users.

 

277px-Pan_Am_Logo.

The interactive map of Facebook connectivity are constantly evolving and generated at a given moment, and, unlike the static emblem, as if living independently from the viewer, but embodying actual FB use.

The contrast is interesting on iconographic grounds as well as stylistic ones.  The generation between these visions of global interconnectedness has led to a map of greater sophistication and persuasiveness of interactive form, and one that seems, like Facebook, user-friendly and value-free:  but the map of Facebook users is particularly insidious, as ‘friending’ and connections are rendered by the web-based platform itself.  In comparison to the Pan Am logo, rather than merely provide an illusory image of the promise of global unity, the map is a triumphant image of the actual interaction that the web-based platform promised: “friending” provides the metric of global interconnectedness and the sole standard of national interconnectivity.  Although the map can be re-centered at a click in order to map the connectedness from a different point of view, the “point of view” does not really change. In the text above the map, “friendship” doesn’t appear in scare quotes:  it in fact normalizes Facebook use as the sole index of contentedness and inter-connection.

Let’s examine specific cases to ask what is revealed or viewable in these multiple maps, which represent a proliferation of different data visualizations as much as providing a basis for geographical or spatial orientation. To do so, return to the “map” of Facebook connectivity in the Marshall Islands, which maps Islanders’s global connectedness via Facebook friendships:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

 

The notion of mapping an emotion or state of mind–friendship–suggests the sort of positivism of early twentieth-century phrenology, or the comic maps of lands of contentment, like the early modern “Carte du Tendre“–an imagined geography described as a “topographic and allegoric representation” by Mme. de Scudéry in seventeenth-century France–as a geography of Love, complete with a river of Tenderness that runs through towns named after different stages of tender affection.

There’s a wonderful paradox of mapping the intangible as concrete, or mapping the ineffable–how often do we invest deep significance in the word “friend” after fourth grade?–in graphic terms, as if to make manifest the good-will that exists as if it were a physical topography.  (The notion of such mythic lands is re-inforced by dividing the map into color-coded continents, as if an emotional Olympic games between different parties.)  But it is more the hubristic belief of Facebook in their own metrics, doubtful in any event, than a positivistic belief in the ability to locate sites of well-being in the body or on the planet.

What’s the metric here?  Hopes of visualizing interconnectedness among Facebook’s users is more of an advertisement for their web-based platform than a visualization of disinterested data, and it’s not at all certain that this converts to a metric of well-being:  the huge number of connections boasted by residents of the Marshall Islands, Guam, Fiji, and the Philippines may derive from a sense of disconnectedness among the American populations in these regions, and a reliance on FB as a platform to remain in contact with their relatives in a different time-zones.  Although the Marshall Islands were only occupied by the United States until just less than thirty years ago–American forces left in 1986–the 10% of the population of American origin maintain extremely close ties to the US, and, more tellingly, the top destination for Marshallese ex-pats is the US.  “Technology bridges distance and borders,” Mia Newman boasts from Stanford on the FB website itself, as, due to the grace of this platform, “Individuals today can keep in touch with their friends and family in completely new ways — regardless of where they live.”  In a world characterized by dislocation and isolation, Facebook provides social ties.

The appeal of the map is of course to advertise how Facebook trumps geography, and one might do well to return to the interested nature of this map as a corporate logo:  “Immigration is one of the strongest links that seems to bind these Facebook neighbors,” the website informs us, if this was a discovery that the platform allowed; having (and maintaining) a lot of FB connections isn’t that surprising given the dislocations caused by such out-migration over recent years.  Flipping to the site itself,

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/interactive-mapping-the-world-s-friendships#color=continent&story=1&country=MH],

watch with awe as color-coded aggregate bubbles quiver with connectivity,  as folks update social profiles, making new connections, adding “Friends”, or, as I happened to do last night, de-Friending others.  Clicking on the variable of ‘language’ on the site, we can see or imagine close ties between the Marshallese and the Philippines, and note with some surprise that the dominance of red (English) on the map, the improbability that non-English speakers in the islands nonetheless register the greatest number of connections.  This omits the different uses of “Friending” or “FB Friendship” among each region, of course, we failed to add, as it assumes that use of Facebook conventions is as universal as Facebook’s global reach.

The deepest attraction of the site is its interactive feature by which the map at a click newly configures itself from the perspective of dfferent FB users.  The movable centering of the map doesn’t change the geographic distribution of place, but rather  reveals how connectivity is centered in the globe from different national aggregates, which can also be segregated by language.

Experiment at the link here, to explore the fluidity of this new mode of mapping the world’s population, and abstracting one’s web-presence from the world.

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/#color=continent&story=1&country=HT]

In this case Haiti, the “map” correlates the number of Facebook connections in the country and numbers between countries in ranked order that are a bit surprising, given the prominence of Canada, until one imagines the number there of Haitian refugees:

Learn Which Countries Share

The links among active FB users, cast here in terms of language groups, ostensibly responds to the question of who “shares the closest friendship connections,” although the reasons for those connections are not able to be clarified–although the illumination of linguistic ties clearly helps.  The huge prominence of Haitian ties to the Dominican Republic and Canada is not a big surprise; if the slightly lesser ties Haiti enjoys to the United States may be, it is not surprising that the proportional ties to France rank a close fourth.  This is a map, however, of dislocation, and attempts to bridge physical divides, as much as it is of friendship ties–or even a measure of friendship per se–so much as the type of “friendship™”  that Facebook seeks to market and be able to offer:  friendship that is less in, as it were, meatspace than cyberspace.

In contrast, the close ties of Russia to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus might be better explained by their recent division from a formerly united regional territory, albeit one that was ethnically diverse:

Russia's %22Friends%22

These maps display salient ties of economic and linguistic relations, to be sure, yet filtered through the economy of Facebook use.  The dramatically interactive map measures different perspectives of the world through the sum totals of FB users in one region or nation–a self-selected group–based on the criteria that that group imposed on the map.  Unlike other maps, where the data is cherry-picked and chosen and balanced by the mapmaker to conceal or pinpoint interests in an objective manner, Facebook has culled the data for this map–created and devised by Stamen Design–based on data that is not only essentially self-reported, but represents not only a portrait, but Facebook’s ability to mine the data archived by user-preferences and to assemble its own data of the aggregate of regional Facebook communities.

The result is a fantastic vision of totality through the eyes of the Facebook network, in which we can “click” on any country to view its population’s “connections” to other areas of the world.  What else does the map tell us?  Little more than the economic ability to dedicate large amounts of time to FB, or the state of emotional dependence on expanding one’s connections–or, more accurately, the acculturation of FB as a way of maintaining ties.  “Economic links, through trade or investment, also seem to be strong predictors of country connectedness,” Mia Newman informs us as she seeks to interpret the map for readers who have stumbled upon it and seek to understand this new configuration of the globe online.

Since we’re championing interconnectedness, let’s look at the potentially more isolated country of Pakistan:

Pakistan 1

The ever helpful text panel–as the legend that must always be read with care in any map–calls special attention to Pakistanis’ ties to Bangladeshis, an effect of their unity in colonial times, but is less than illuminating about what are the classes of Facebook users in the former South Asian colonies, or what are the groups using the platform:  perhaps the emphasis on the fourth largest aggregate site of connections distracts from the comparable ties to users in Afghanistan, or the surprising permeability of the Indian-Pakistani border.

The multiple FB connections of inhabitants of Greece, however, and the generous radii of countries in Eastern and Central Europe, belies the notion that interconnectedness is a metric of economic vitality.

Greece.

There’s a lot of FB activity in Micronesia–but are Bulgaria and Serbia hotspots of economic vitality or cooperation?  Are Chile and Argentina sites of stability, or is Mexico?  Is Argentina really a center of stable labor relations and a model of free markets that we are instructed to read the map as providing evidence of?

Argentina's Friendship and Labor Market

The arrangement of a configuration of bubbles of different colors are beautiful, and the pulsation of colored blobs dramatic, but the group of users are particularly difficult to identify, as are the habits by which they might “friend” their “friends”–or the networks they create.

Does–to chose a limit case–an absence of FB interconnectedness in China really reveal that the country is moribund economically?  In the manner that North Korea drops off Google Maps, although we all know that North Korea is not known for its open-access, there is no point of reference on which to click or metric to view for the largest of the world’s economies.

The limits of mapping FB use as a form of “friendship” rests on a combination of economic benefits, security, and desires for companionship that jointly contribute to online “friending” and the archiving of “friends.”  Not only is there a uniform level of “friending”–so that the necessity of economic “friendship” is equated with the ties of countries of origin among immigrant communities–but the homogenization of these different gradations of “friendship” obscure the potential benefits of legibility in this dramatically interactive map of Swedish FB users’ ties to geographically proximate and distant members of the FB community.

As the test notes, it shows the close ties of the Swedish market to Norway-not surprisingly–Denmark, and Finland, but also the ties of refugees who have arrived in Sweden, a preferred site, from both to Serbia and Iraq.  These recent settlers in the region, unlike the Scandinavian nexus, document a “friendship” to parents, schoolmates, or extended family– the database FB has culled suggests a deep desire to continue an imaginary with these faceless “connections,” and the lack of ability to make easy contact with these ties among immigrant communities, rather than the depth of their connections.

sweden's friendships

In the end, these are wonderful maps of our own making, whose indices are a better reflection (or projection) of what connectedness means to us–connectedness now being a relation that Facebook has now both defined and designed.  Whereas the old Pan Am logo surely maps geographical interconnectedness, as do all maps, the series of user-generated maps of Facebook connectedness map the extent of networked interconnectivity:   they are less truly maps, in some sense, than data visualization schema, that render in pictorially iconic form the data that Facebook is able to collect.  All maps reflect their makers to be sure; the maps of Facebook connectivity, more than perhaps anything else, illustrate the range of data Facebook is able to mine.  Perhaps this is the real function of the maps, which parade the range of information and “closer looks” that Facebook has access to.

For what goes unsaid–and remains unsaid–in this endless sequence of maps is the variations among the penetration of Facebook within each country–it is assumed to be complete, and to rester anyone that one is interested in taking measure of, as if it were the metric of Who Really Counts.  Yet the wide disparities within the extent of Facebook’s currency (or, if you will, adoption) in different countries not only widely varies but might be itself mapped, as something like a corrective to the data streams that the above maps claim to oh-so-conveniently organize.

The distribution of the differential sin Facebook’s adoption in the population at large might be usefully remembered in this far yet brilliantly colored but useful bubble map, which chats the intensity of Facebook’s penetration in the population, based on site-registered active users around 2012 from a variety of sources, from a project of Elvin Wyly and Larissa Zip, which attempts to map the more socially-networked world that Facebook boasts it can offer access to.  Although the ranking of urbanization of countries is problematic–given the local variation in a largely rural nation as India that possesses large cities–the huge size of connectedness that was privileged in the urbanized areas of brazil, the United States, UK, Uruguay, Chile, France, Columbia, Turkey, Argentina, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as highly urbanized Singapore and Hong Kong–irrespective of actual geography or population size.  (India is the outlier of a largely unorganized country with high FB users, but the undoubted majority of its users are concentrated in cities or urban areas–Facebook does not release or record precise geophysical location; the relatively small user numbers for Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, or China seems to show regional poverty.

 

paste74

The outsized boast of mapping “The World’s Friendships” conceals the very absence of the non-networked, the new disenfranchised who the ideology of Facebook erases from the map–and who are poised to become the unnamed hordes of the inhabited world, whose lives are less visible in a globalized world, although we absent India, Kenya, China, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda at considerable risk.

Unurbanized Low-FB presence

The “Maps of [Facebook] Friendship” are fundamentally ways to advertise the very sort of datasets that Facebook is able to sell to companies that want its records of page-views, if by orienting folks to the very metrics that Facebook has at its fingertips.

What we get is a sense of the reliability and credibility that the data Facebook possesses to orient us to the webspace that Facebook has created, using the trademark of being a “friend”–that crucial desideratum in an economy when credibility seems hopelessly confused with web presence and social connectedness intertwined with virtual contexts and contacts mediated over Facebook and LinkedIn–is able to be mapped with apparent accuracy, of an almost positivistic tenor, albeit allowing for the fluidity that is itself so characteristic of the web as a medium and of Facebook as a virtual interface.

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Filed under bubble maps, data visualization, Facebook, Facebook Friendship Map, Facebook Urban Penetration, FB users, Interactive Maps, social media, social networking

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