On Monday, Paul Butler published his “friendship map” on Facebook. As a designer/collector/enthusiast, I have seen my share of beautiful maps and diagrams, but this map is so astonishingly beautiful that it prompted me to write a long overdue blogpost.
Fifty Years ago, McLuhan coined the phrase “global village,” not many could imagine that a new international “superpower” would now exist virtually and knit almost one tenth of the world’s population together. Obviously there are some boundaries – the map silently protests China’s Facebook (and internet) ban, and celebrates resilience of internet freedom in Taiwan (my home country) and Hong Kong.
Quoting Paul, “What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships. Each line might represent a friendship made while travelling, a family member abroad, or an old college friend pulled away by the various forces of life.” This is indeed the most impressive aspect of a map – we are each featured as 1-five-hundred-millionth of the composition.
We’ve been talking about the power of Geographic Information Systems and working with GIS for a while now. We constantly generate maps as precursors of or conclusions for our design, and a sometimes the maps we make are single-layered direct translation of a set of data. What we start to see from FlowingData and other websites are ways of visualizing statistical sets, so that data technologies such as GIS are also tools that are graphic, that communicates visually, and that gives new ideas. In this drawing, moreover, I see a map that becomes a diagram which then can be read as a map – a drawing that has the power to break down geographic boundaries.
My wishful thinking and suggestion for Paul and Facebook, of course, would be a portal beyond a 2D drawing – that is, to turn this into a 4D interface with time component, allowing us to explore the history of Facebook and visualize its development in the past 6 years. In a way it can be similar to the U.S. Flight Traffic Animation done a few years ago.
For me, this map is a testament to power beyond technology. Technology advances as data aggregates, but it is the concept and ability to implement, combined with data ownership, that makes a drawing beautiful.