Mapping the Social

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The Internet, specifically social media, is often perpetuated as being a new kind of ‘revolution celebrity’ and indeed to some point its played a hefty distributive role in accelerating the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Occupy and even the SOPA protests to name but a recent few. Yet, it simultaneously is this other exploitative entity, capitalizing on our movement through online space and constantly collecting data with often vague, ill-defined intentions.  Can social media’s two dynamic roles—both as a constructive social platform for anti-government efforts and a data aggregating system—be synthesized into a critical and valuable commons? Can personal user data collection be used for more than advertising and increased commodification?

Techno-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci proposes that today, connection and friendship are moving from the ‘ascribed ties’ of inherited local relationships consisting of one’s neighborhood friends, family, etc. to ‘achieved ties’ or relationships located based on the shared affinities of people ‘with whom you interact using multiple means of communication’.  What can such shifts reveal about territorial and even regional interaction? Of neighborhoods, boroughs and its socio-economic behaviors? How can geography be re-defined?

The Livehood Research Project from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University is potentially one example of how data collection can be used in a constructive, illuminating way, by demonstrating how place can be defined by social activity (maybe rather than by jurisdiction).  Livehood uses the data of over 18 million foursquare check-ins to map both geographic distance of frequented venues as well as plotting its ‘social distance’, or ‘the degree of overlap in the people that check-in to them’. Through accumulation of foursquare check-ins, Livehood algorithmically condenses this data into neighborhoods allowing a user to view the pattern sets of other people’s use of space.

Though the project in its current stages is still extremely limited (restricted so far to only three US cities, as well as accessible only to foursquare users) Livehood could develop into an extremely valuable tool for future governments and its citizens, as both a social lubricant and political tool. It also could just as easily fulfill yet another advertiser’s dream.