Visualizing an Arab Revolution

Visualizing an Arab Revolution

Experts say Egypt is the crystal ball in which the Arab world sees its future. Now that Mubarak has stepped down, I can share the work I've done making that metaphor tangible, and visualizing the pro-democracy movement in Egypt and across the Middle East. It is based on their Twitter activity, capturing the freedom of expression and association that is possible in that medium, and which is representative of a new collective consciousness taking form.

Twitter users are said to influence each other if they follow each other. These relationships are shown with lines. Individual users are placed near the individuals they influence, and factions near the factions they influence. Node size represents the extent of a user's influence across the entire network. Color, meanwhile, is based on the language they tweet in — a choice that itself can be meaningful, and clearly separates different strata of society.

Many fascinating structures can be seen. Wael Ghonim, a pivotal figure in this self-organizing system who instigated the initial protests on January 25th, is prominently located near the bottom of the network, straddling two factions as well as two languages. The size of his node reflects his influence on the entire network.

The lump on the left is dominated by journalists, NGO- and foreign-policy types; it seems nearly grafted on, and goes through an intermediary buffer layer before making contact with the true Egyptian activists on the ground. However, this process of translation and aggregation is key: It is how those in Egypt are finally getting a voice in Western society, and an insurance policy against regime violence. Many of the prominent nodes in this network were at some point arrested, but their deep connectivity help ensure they were not "disappeared."

Most of those in this network speak both English and Arabic, and their choice of language says a lot about both the movement and about Twitter. Some may choose to primarily communicate with their friends, while others make an effort to be visible to the rest of the world on purpose. They want to reach out, and connect with, the rest of the global society. The structure on the bottom, near Ghonim, seems entirely composed of this free intermingling.

In a case of ironic symbolism, the far left-most satellites are the Whitehouse, State Department, and Wael Ghonim's employeer, Eric Schmidt, who is merely a speck on the map. And that's probably how everyone in the rest of the network would like this future to look. The activists are cooperating with the west, but on their own terms and in a constructive way.

The activists are also not embarrassed to be tweeting in English — in fact, this key element is what allows the much bigger exoskeleton of democratic protest to tightly interface to the core. Contrast this to what happened in the 2009 "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, where the connections between those in Iran and the rest of the world were very thin and easily severed. In Egypt, digital traces reveal robust global links that bode well for the birth of a new democracy.

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