In the physical world, we tend to identify ourselves by nationality. But online, where you can reach across cyberspace and speak directly and instantaneously with someone 6,000 miles away without ever passing through customs, nationality isn’t nearly as meaningful. The real borders are created by language: Language is what makes someone addressable no matter where he is. Language is what you share with strangers above all else. Language is your passport into a new community of people.
Ergo, you can use language to map cultural barriers that transcend political boundaries. The brilliant cartographer Eric Fischer has done just that, by mining the Twitter API to figure out what language people were using on their web browsers. It’s a beautiful, eerie map that shows countries bleeding together at the borders, where culture and language become a murky mash:
The effect, of course, isn’t nearly as pronounced in the good-ol’ monolingual USA. But you do get some lovely little effects here—notice how there are small centers of Spanish speaking in Texas, which seem to have leaped across the U.S./Mexico border:
And when you look at South America, there’s also a telling fade to black toward the sparsely populated interior of the continent:
This idea of looking at the real boundaries that separate us is actually a theme that comes up in much of Fischer’s cartography. Previously, he created some superb maps that showed the racial boundaries in various cities—and in so doing, revealed roughly how racially segregated the cities were. New York, for example, has extremely intermixed borders—a crucial feature of the city’s famed cultural melting pot:
Yet another time, he used geotags from Flickr to figure out where people were taking pictures—and then mapped them alongside geotags from Tweets. Thus, he got roughly a map of where tourists take pictures vs. where residents go home to their computers. Here is what San Francisco looked like: