“Social media have become a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors – regular citizens, activists, nongovernmental organizations, telecommunications firms, software providers, governments,” said Clay Shirky in an article published by the Council of Foreign Relations in February 2011¹. As that article was being published, the import of its main ideas became reality in the Middle East with the start of the Arab Spring. Starting in Tunisia that January, the Middle East would break into a series of revolutions that were started and fueled by the power of communications made possible by Twitter and Facebook. This social media revolution provided the momentum and world-wide attention that ultimately aided and spread a movement that would cause the overthrow of four Governments and two open civil wars, one of which still is raging.
Social Media has power. It instantly connects people across the globe; it tears down barriers that governments love. Barriers that people in charge have used to impose limits on communications and to control ideas. Social Media has empowered a generation that is no longer constrained by thought within national borders.
This is what makes the map by Kalev H. Leetaru, Shaowen Wang, Guofeng Cao, Anand Padmanabhan, and Eric Shook so thought-provoking. Each dot on this map represents a tweet sent out between two arbitrary dates: October 23, 2012 and November 30, 2012². The map highlights the extent to which large swaths of the modernized world routinely communicates to a global audience filled with different cultures and languages.
What makes this map so powerful is that it successfully labels those places that are sufficiently industrialized to support the wide-spread use of online resources, and where, by intention or default, residents have the freedom to use such social networks as Twitter. Thus, it is not surprising that areas such as the United States, Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan are particularly bright on the map, due to both the heavy investment in internet infrastructure and the democratic ideals that permit free expression. These areas tend to be wealthy, democratic and densely populated. There are also the handful of developed but non-democratic states that have high twitter use. These tend to be the oil-based Sheikdoms of the Middle East, including the United Arab Eremites, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which were the least impacted by the Arab Spring due to their wealth and standard of living³. The final areas of high concentration are perhaps the most noteworthy are located in the developing world where, to some extent, the governments have invested in modern infrastructure such as telephone and internet. In some such areas, the reigning regimes likely would prefer to control the use of the internet and social media, but are not able to do so. Thus, these areas include such non-democratic states as Egypt (especially Cairo), and Thailand (where protests about the sitting government are currently happening); the semi-democratic states where there have been large political protests of Brazil, Turkey (a new internet censorship law has been proposed since the study was taken) and Indonesia; and finally along the coasts of Latin America. China’s government blocks the use of Twitter within most of its territory, which is noted by its dark shading on the map. Remarkably, there is a noticeable number of Chinese language tweets within both South Korea and Japan where proxies for the mainland are available4; therefore, this helps to explain how China is actually the single country with the most active, a user sending at least one tweet a month, number of twitter users (worth noting that it less than 3% of the total population) in the world despite the Governments best efforts5.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this map is the way that language is displayed by each color. Through its intelligent design, the map illustrates language’s ability to traverse political borders while highlighting the power of the old European Empires – not only in their colonial domains, but also on the Continent in which they were formed. The power of language becomes especially clear where whole countries disappear into larger regions and where old Empires remain outlined decades after their collapse. Belgium and Switzerland vanish between the languages that the country is divided into. While in the Mediterranean, Cyprus is evenly split between the Greek and Turkish half. German is spoken all the way into its pre-World War II borders in areas of Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic6 (Hitler’s case for German expansion in the 1930s). Russian can be seen throughout Eastern Europe including the Ukraine (a cultural and political divide that is currently being felt across that country), Belarus and beyond.
Though not as obvious from an initial glimpse, the role of English as a universal language can be seen across the Twitterverse. The study that created the map found the 75% of all worldwide tweets were in English7. Even though most countries have a dominant or native language, they still use English as a secondary language, presumably even more so where the communication is intended to be disseminated. The widespread use of English shows the power and influence of the United States, and perhaps is a lasting testament to the breadth of the British Empire. The same way that language was imposed on conquered peoples of the long- gone empires, English has arisen in the new technology sphere to be the lingua franca of the World, due to both role the United States has and continues to play in the development of social media and new technology. No longer are aircraft carriers or McDonalds spreading US culture, but the power of communications.
Social media has power. It has torn down longstanding regimes (Gaddafi’s lasted for 42 years), ruined careers (Carlos Danger comes to mind), and connected the globe in ways unimaginable just a decade before. That is what makes the map of Twitter so powerful, so gripping. It shows how the world is able to connect with each other and traverse political boundaries. Never before has one invention, one tool, been able to so successfully unite the world.
Brenden P. Carol
1Clay Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media,” Foreign Affairs Magazine, February, 13 2011, accessed February, 13 2014, http://www.gpia.info/files/u1392/Shirky_Political_Poewr_of_Social_Media.pdf
2Kalev H. Leetaru, Shaowen Wang, Guofeng Cao, Anand Padmanabhan, and Eric Shook, “Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter,” First Monday 18 (2013), accessed February, 13, 2014, http://firstmonday.org/article/view/4366/3654
3 Angela Shah, “Why the Arab Spring Never Came to the U.A.E.” Time Magazine, July, 18 201l, accessed February 13, 2014, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2083768,00.html
4Michelle Arrouas, “The Top Four Countries for VPN Use are all Asian,” Time Magazine, February 5, 2014, accessed February 14, 2014, http://world.time.com/2014/02/05/the-top-four-countries-for-vpn-use-are-all-asian
5Victor Lipman, “The World’s Most Active Twitter Country? (Hint: Its Citizens Can’t Use Twitter),” Forbes Magazine, January 5, 2013, Accessed February 25, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/05/01/the-worlds-most-active-twitter-country-hint-its-citizens-cant-use-twitter/
6Max Fisher, “40 More Maps that Explain the World,” Washington Post, January 13, 2014, accessed February 14, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/01/13/40-more-maps-that-explain-the-world/
7Leetaru, Wang, Cao, Padmanabhan, and Shook, “Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter”