In the summer of 1998, scientists Bill Cheswick and Hal Burch embarked upon a formidable mission. Wanting to understand the structure of the Internet, they began probing the reaches of the online universe, tracing paths connecting thousands of individual networks. Cheswick and Burch decided to create visualisations from their data, and The Internet Mapping Project was born. Their early maps were explosions of colourful, interlinked lines that looked, as Cheswick charmingly put it, “like a peacock smashed into a windshield”. They were hard to decipher and contained no written information, but the visualisations were still remarkable—they allowed us to actually see the Internet.
The work of Cheswick and Burch inspired other budding cyber-cartographers. In the OPTE Project, 2003, programmer Barrett Lyons set similar ‘peacock maps’ against a black background, resulting in a series of galaxy-like images; an apt representation of the online universe. It’s debatable whether the visualisations created in those early days could be classified as information design, but they still served to illustrate the sheer volume of connections contained within the internet, and conveyed its enormity to the viewer.
More sophisticated visualisations soon followed; expanding exponentially, the Internet was a cartographical challenge that neither scientists nor designers could resist. Visualisations of the web have come a long way over the last decade, evolving from sprawling traceroute diagrams into the elegant examples of information design generated today. Of the most recent attempts, some stand out for the quality of their design and the uniqueness of their approach.
As it turns out, one of those recent visualisations can trace its origin back to years before The Internet Mapping Project began. Since 1993, US-based market research firm TeleGeography had been diligently collecting telecommunications data. The growth of the Internet provided them with a new source of information, and in 2001 they too began to create maps using their findings. Their latest Global Internet Map is distinctive as it relates directly to the world’s physical geography, plotting the information superhighways that run between continents, countries and capitals. This grounding in the tangible world makes the information much easier to understand, aided by the clear and considered design of the maps themselves.
The world-map approach worked well for TeleGeography because their information related directly to international bandwidth traffic. However, the problem remained of how to visualise the unique geography that had developed within the Internet itself. This was a kind of geography that didn’t relate to the offline world, and would require an entirely different design solution.
Tokyo-based design firm Information Architects provided a solution to this peculiar problem in 2006. They created the Web Trends Map, which plots the Internet’s most influential domains and people onto a map of the Tokyo Metro. Important sites replace stations on the interconnecting lines, with each line representing a different kind of content—news, entertainment, etc. IA’s idea resonated with the online community and their map has become a phenomenon in itself, with the poster now hanging in the headquarters of giants such as Google - impressive, since it started life as the postcard-sized product of an afternoon’s work. The familiar subway map format seems key to the Web Trends Map’s success, as it’s simple, straightforward, and not governed by traditional conventions of cartography. A subway map portrays a stylised version of reality, conveying information whilst adhering only loosely to the physical position of its subject. It’s the ideal framework for mapping the core of the Internet.
Although the Web Trends Map did include people, the Internet’s main population was effectively ignored by most other visualisations, hidden behind dry terms like ‘traffic’. Yet with the proliferation of personal blogs, the voice of the individual became hard to ignore. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar rose to the challenge in 2006 by creating We Feel Fine, a uniquely humanistic visualisation of the Internet. We Feel Fine is an applet which scours thousands of blogs for any reference to feelings, incorporating the sentences and images it discovers into the applet’s visual interface to generate a swirling cloud of multicoloured dots. Click one, and the corresponding ‘feeling’ is displayed alongside information about the author. It’s beautiful to behold, but charming visuals are only part of the applet’s appeal. Interacting with We Feel Fine provides something that other visualisations have lacked—a personal connection to their content‘s creators.
As the Internet continues to evolve, a definitive visualisation may be impossible to achieve—the challenge for cyber-cartographers is continually changing. Where next, then, in the quest to visualise the web? With the initiation of a new Internet Mapping project in 2009 by Kevin Kelly (the editor of Wired) the endeavour seems to have come full circle. This time he’s inviting everyone to draw their own map, creating a growing collection of “folk cartography”. It seems from his archive that everyone has a unique, internal ‘map’ of the online world; one that can explain as much about its creator as its subject. The challenge of visualising the Internet is no longer laid solely at the feet of scientists and designers—as with so much else online, the focus is firmly upon the users themselves.
Originally published in Grafik magazine, issue 184. All images © their credited owners.