When David Bowie died on January 10, 2016, the Internet mourned. If you were sitting in Cubo, an Italian multimedia center located in Bologna, you could have watched it happen, as thousands of tweets per minute with the #ripdavidbowie hashtag were parsed for meaning, then visualized as a somber light and sound show representing the Internet's emotional pulse played out in an outdoor garden.
This powerful Twitter brain is called Amygdala, and it was created by Italian digital arts studio fuse. Its name is a reference to the the human brain's own amygdala, two almond-shaped nuclei that process memory and help generate emotional reactions. Fuse's project tries to tap into the Twittersphere's synthetic amygdala, visualizing the emotional content of tweets and then storing them into memory, where they are archived.
In Amygdala, about 30 tweets per second are examined in real time using a database of over 5,000 lexical terms. The tweets are then assigned weights for how much happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, or anger they are expressing, not unlike other visualization projects that seek to analyze the "mood" of a vast group of users. But once the emotion behind the tweet has been properly weighted, Amygdala visualizes in real time in the physical world, in an ever-changing installation that flickers to life and darkens alongside trending topics and major news events.
In Cubo's outdoor media garden, the tweet is pushed to a circular arrangement of 41 columns. There, it plays as an ephemeral blast of sound and light from a specific column, according to where it falls on the wheel of emotions. Then, it makes its way back inside the Cubo center, where the tweet is processed by one of 12 video walls, divided across the six emotions Amygdala tracks. These screens represent memory, with each tweet becoming part of an on-going long-term visualization of Twitter's emotional make-up since Amygdala was first turned on.
It's a heady project, one that fuse's designers tell me they hope will not just help us understand Twitter better, but maybe even illuminate patterns that will allow them to predict surges of feeling on Twitter before they happen.
It's also meant to be a bit of a warning to people about what they share on Twitter.
"We see the web as a place where we are all connected, but at the same time we think people should be more aware about the accessibility of sensible information about private lives and emotions," says fuse's Filippo Aldovini. "The fact we used these datas to create an installation means that private companies can do the same for their interests."