Mankind loves making maps, and the world wide web, densely interconnected and phenomenally complex, always makes for a nice visual. Typically these take the form of neon blobs floating against black backgrounds, like frames captured from old Winamp plug-ins, and while they’re always nice to look at, they don’t always do much in the way of helping us understand the massive global network we traverse every day. This latest effort, however, is a little different. Called simply Map of the Internet, it’s as informative as it is beautiful.
The map, which takes the form of a free app for Android and iOS, features 22,961 of the Internet’s biggest nodes—not individual websites, but the ISPs, universities, and other places that host them—joined by some 50,000 discrete connections. The app gives you two ways of surveying it all: geographically, on a globe, or by size, which rearranges the nodes into a loose column of points. Both views are interactive; instead of showing the Internet as a static neon blob, the app lets you explore the neon blob in the round, with all the familiar multitouch gestures. It may not look like the Google Maps app, but it instantly feels like it, which makes exploring the underbelly of the web all the easier.
Tapping on any one of the starry points brings up a bit of information on that particular node and displays all its connections to the rest. In each case, Map of the Internet lets you trace the route between you and that node, showing the precise path your device takes to reach it, in real time, as a thick orange line. It’s terrifically cool. And if ISPs and mega-hosts don’t excite you all that much, you’re not out of luck. You can search for a favorite site, and the app will zip you to the node it resides on. Spoiler: Co.Design is hosted by Amazon.
The app was created by Peer 1 Hosting in collaboration with the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, assembled by designer Jeff Johnston and developers at Steamclock software. And while it’s a fantastic bit of eye-candy, it’s not just that. More so than any static map, the interactive model makes it simple to get a sense of what the Internet looks like—and how information flows through it. Rajan Sodhi, Peer 1's senior VP of marketing and communications, says he’s already getting excited tweets from college professors about the project, and he anticipates that the app will see a good deal of use as a teaching tool in coming months.
But you don’t need to be a network-theory nerd to take something away here. Even a quick flick through will give casual surfers a better sense of how their beloved web really works, with a few dozen huge nodes serving as the backbone and several tiers of mid-level nodes filling in the rest. The app also makes it easy for anyone to see, at a glance, how much we can expect the Internet to grow in coming years; another brilliant feature acts as a sort of virtual time machine, showing not only how the web was structured at various points in its two-decade history but also how it might look as far out as 2020. Compared to today? Positively sprawling, with thousands of new medium- and small-sized nodes proliferating as developing countries continue to build up infrastructure. In essence, a web that’s even wider.