We are our own end-points
For me one of the key aspects of the impact that internet and mobile communications have is that it makes it possible to navigate information via human relationships. This because internet/mobile connects us all in a non-geographic way (unlike every other infrastructure, which all have geographically defined end-points). We carry the end-points of these infrastructures in our pockets and in our backpacks. I do not need to know where you are, where you have been or where you will be to be able to reach or find you.

Internet and mobile communications: we carry the end-point with us

Human networks for navigating information and our need for visualization
Using human relationships as a navigational structure is something we’ve been doing since the dawn of mankind. Grooming, gossip, storytelling, literature, anthropology, markets, politics, all revolve around how we humans relate to each other and place information in that relational context. For most of our time these human relationship networks were only usable to navigate a small segment of the world. Our village, our neighbourhood, our guild, our voting district, our extended family, our tribe, our band of brothers. Basically we took geographic boundaries and definitions of our immediate scope of the world as given. We relied on taxonomies, categorization, hierarchies, libraries, party programs and representatives for all the things outside of that scope. The internet/mobile have blown apart that geographic barrier, and made our potential scope in terms of human relationships global. Our basic cognitive abilities to deal with human relationship networks are not enough to deal with that suddenly global scope (Dunbars theory). So we need new tools to help us out, new ways of constructing insights we cannot construct on our own. With language and writing we’ve been neatly able to cope with the increasing complexity of our societies until now. To deal with seeing entire humanity as a network for navigation we need additional tools however. Visualization tools that can convey the complexity, diversity and richness while at the same time helping us making sense.

Trying to find meaningful visualizations for making sense of networks

Several of those tools are popping up and becoming available to us individually, so we can reflect on our own networks and how they help us navigate the information abundance around us.
One of those tools is NodeXL.

Marc Smith, whom I have the pleasure of knowing for some years now, is a sociologist who used to be with Microsoft Research. There he, amongst other things, helped data mine use-net for behavioral patterns (‘answer-persons’, ‘hobby horse riders’, ‘trolls’, ‘noobs’ etc), and helped develop things such as an e-mail triage tool based on how important the sender seems to be to you considering your past e-mailing behavior.
Working independently now at Connected Action he brings us NodeXL, which he is pushing into the direction of providing free and open tools that support the analysis of social media usage. In other words to help us analyze the global networks we weave and see how we use them to navigate the world. Part of that analysis is seeing who is in your network (not everybody might be visible to you, we see most of our network relations as ‘spokes’ in a wheel with us as center, and only for a limited part do we see the connections of our connections), and another is helping us see how your connections are connected between eachother.

The Twitter-users that mention the word ‘digg’
As an example of what NodeXL can do see the pic below, visualizing the people and their connections who used the word ‘digg’ over a certain time frame on Twitter. Can you see yourself doing that for a topic you care about (#opendata e.g.)? Or for your brand (who is talking about it, and how are they clustered)? Well with a bit of effort you can do that by yourself now. See the video for instructions on how to do that (and read this posting by Marc).

Digg mentions in Twitter network

Who is talking about open data?
Marc asked me what topic I would be interested in and helped me to construct a network map of Twitter users for that topic.
So I suggested the topic ‘open data’ and below is a first picture of that network. Marc gave me the data set so I will be exploring that myself in the coming days, and blog about my findings.

The network of people on Twitter talking about Open Data