iWAR: The Weird Analytics Review

Why I Am Skeptical about Data Visualizations

with one comment

A visualization was posted recently on gephi.org showing “a preliminary result of the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 at February 11 2011, at the time of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.” Each dot on the visualization is a person with a twitter account. Each line between points is when one of those people retweeted something the other person tweeted that had the hashtag #jan25 in it. The video to which the site links shows about an hour of monitoring the hashtag usage, showing relatively connections at first and then showing a burst of activity about the time that Egypt’s vice-president announced that Mubarak had resigned.

The visualizations themselves look impressive, but I’m just sort of skeptical about how useful they are. Every visualization like this evokes the same response in me: “so…a bunch of people communicate with a bunch of other people? Information spreads through networks?”

I feel like social-media mapping is the new globalization. Back in college when the term “globalization” was first coined, everyone started talking about how we could see globalization everywhere. Look at the

Bedouin with a cell phone! Look at people in Vladivostok selling things to people in Milwaukee! All of the examples only served to drive home the point that, yes, people could interact a lot faster at much less individual cost than they could before. But that’s all.

As people continued to focus on showing examples of globalization, they failed to explore the issues that were actually interesting and important – how does people’s interaction, no matter how or over what distances it takes place, affect the things they actually do? How do previously unavailable resources change the constraints on behavior? Very few people bothered to explore these issues, because (at least, it seemed to me) they felt those were old questions that didn’t fully appreciate the new dynamic of globalization. I feel like social media is falling into the same trap. Like globalization, a focus on social media itself is sort of a stagnant topic. Now, using social media as a tool to look at the same sort of behavior that we’ve always tried to understand, that’s an endeavor I could support…but that would require a recognition that social media itself is not the thing we need to understand. Social media is one way to measure behavior. Over-emphasis on visualizations risks losing sight of that fact.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:49 am

Posted in Analysis

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. Schaun,

    At the ISA conference earlier this month I attended a panel of authors talking about their research on online radicalization. They talked about extremists using youtube.com and other websites to radicalize.

    After their presentations I asked each of them if they had considered the physical environments that users were in when they logged into extremist websites. The reason I asked this is because I don’t think that “online” is the only “place” that needs to be studied. A user connects to the internet and others users via a computer in his own home, friends’ homes, office, cafe, library, other public place, or while using their cell phone in any number of places.

    When researchers study “online radicalization,” I don’t think they should ignore studying the places and relationships that exist in those places, where users get online.

    Where a user gets online and spends time online may be influenced by his/her relationship with parents, siblings, mentors, clergy, teachers, friends, number of people present, relative privacy at the location, cost of access, etc.

    Any study of online radicalization that does not account for these relationships and environments of online access locations is a study that is not accounting for potentially valuable factors that are influencing the phenomenon that researcher is actually interested in.


    March 27, 2011 at 8:58 pm

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