That map you see above isn't a picture of the earth, seen from space. Rather, it's a map of the locations attached to every tweet and Flickr photo. What results is a remarkable picture of how each service has spread across the globe.
The maps were created by Eric Fischer, who is something of a mapping savant: Previously, he created these amazing maps of racial segregation and these maps of Flickr geotags. But this time, there's a new level of insight and richness that results from mapping Flickr and Twitter against each other.
At the very broadest levels, you have a map of the very different ways that Flickr and Twitter have spread across the world. Take a minute to look at this map of America, where Flickr use is shown in orange and Twitter use is shown in blue:
And here's how Europe compares:
What you notice is that Flickr is everywhere, but Twitter is still creeping across certain swathes of land: In particular, the eastern seaboard of the United States. You might have expected the Twitter and Flickr maps to have overlapped quite nicely, since they both serve an audience of plugged-in techies. But it's not the case, and there's some interesting reasons why that might be.
First off, Twitter is about two years younger than Flickr, having been founded in 2006. But then again, Twitter has exploded, so growth and maturity isn't the whole story. Why would Twitter seem to be expanding more organically, while Flickr use pops up evenly all around the world?
We talk with people we know, and they tend to live close.
Well, assuming that Fischer's data is fresh, remember that Flickr is at its foremost a service. If you take photos and want to upload them to the web, you're going to find equal utility for Flickr no matter where you are in the world or what language you speak. And as a result, Flickr-use can catch on anywhere, independent of social ties.
Contrast that with Twitter. Twitter is a conversation platform. And we tend to have conversations with people we know — and these people tend to be those who live close to us. For all of Twitter's global reach, our social networks are still defined by physical proximity (as yesterday's Infographic of the Day shows). If some techie sociologist took a long hard look at how Twitter and Flickr spread, I'll bet she'd find that this crucial distinction defined the growth patterns of each service. Flickr's growth might look more like mushrooms sprouting all across a forrest floor, while Twitter would more closely resemble the spread of a virus.
But wait! Fischer's maps reveal an entirely different narrative when you look at them up close. Here's the maps for San Francisco, New York, and Tokyo:
Twitter and Flickr tags again fail to overlap. In these three cities, it's clearly not an issue of how much penetration each service has: They're both really popular. But the geographies don't overlap because the places people take pictures of aren't the places they tweet from. That is, people take pictures of tourist destinations; people tweet from where they live.
If you were, say, Italo Calvino or Jorge Borges, you could wax philosophical about the astonishing poetry of what we're looking at: It's no less than a visual map of how differently cities look when you view them through the eyes of a tourist or a native. Sometimes, those visions line up. But having been a New Yorker for 10 years, I can vouch for the fact that the city I love isn't the one that tourists ever get to see. So much of what I experience remains invisible unless you've been here for a while — and that, I'd argue, is the greatest mystery of city life.
Click here for another Fischer work, showing the racial segregation in various cities.