This is Ekisto, a visualization of social networks.

It's what StackOverflow, Github, and Friendfeed would look like if interpreted as cities...

...with people as towers.

The image is painstakingly developed. Here's an early step, where each component is positioned without overlap.

Then, creator Alex Dragulescu explored building the structure out in 3-D.

Eventually, Dragulescu decided on the bar structure...

...which made for a nice visual metaphor. Online communities became little cities.

The result is a metropolis of online friends that adds an element of tangibility to these ephemeral relationships.

Infographic: If Social Networks Were Megacities

What would all of our online friends look like, if organized into physical cities? Let’s just say there would be a lot more urban density.

You have friends, followers, likes, and shares, depicted in icons, avatars, notifications, and numbers. But what would social networks look like if you could peer into the machine and actually see the cliques?

This is exactly what visual artist Alex Dragulescu, formerly of MIT Media Lab, was wondering when he started working on Ekisto--an interactive visualization of the communities behind StackOverflow, Github, and Friendfeed. In Ekisto, you can toggle between these social networks, where each person is his or her own building, grouped by various measurable associations and interactions. The taller the building, the more significant role that person plays in its respective community.

“It started as a research question: How do you design a data portrait either for an individual or a group?” Dragulescu tells Co.Design. “In real life we photograph ourselves and capture the light reflections of us. Can we capture the data trails, painted by the brushes of various algorithms?”

It’s just this sort of impulse that drives data artists to take on the painstaking task of visualizing networks. But what makes Ekisto stand out is that, rather than play out on a 2-D plane, it’s 3-D, embodying the imagery of cities themselves. Though while that city form makes for an intuitive, visceral visual metaphor (a city is obviously a collection of people), the original motivation to go 3-D was one of data density.

“These network diagrams usually start as overlapped 2-D circles of different connected with lines. For millions of nodes that is just a mess,” Dragulescu explains. ”By extruding in 3-D a volume, equivalent with the 2-D circle area, you can add more information. For my thesis, I worked on some sketches, where other types of information could be added on these 3-D volumes, such as time rhythms, types of posts, through more text, colors or photographs.”

In this case, though, the height really depicts general popularity. How that popularity is calculated is fairly technical, and varies by its respective social network. But the core result is the same: In Ekisto, you can see that online cliques do indeed exist, and they tend to revolve around one or more popular folks, much like in a high school; the drum majors might be the most popular guy and gal in the band, while the captain of the football team represents the jocks. Nothing ever changes.

Try it here.

[Hat tip: FlowingData]

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