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A View from Kristina Grifantini

A Retweet Revolution Visualized

Interactive visualization shows flow of Twitter conversations during the 2009 Iranian election.

  • August 31, 2009

During the Iranian elections in June, microblogging site Twitter became a way for protesters to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world. Stories of oppression, police brutality, and violence spread via 140-character tweets despite the government’s efforts to filter Web content and control Web traffic inside the country.

A new visualization tool developed by Gilad Lotan, a programmer and designer at Microsoft Startup Labs, shows just how information related to the elections spread through Twitter, via the most popular Twitter conversations and retweets. Lotan used the open-source processing language Processing (recently reviewed here by TR) to show 372 “threads,” or related messages, out of 230,000 messages dated between June 14 and June 24. In his visualization, a growing bar represents a message thread over time, growing taller as more tweets and retweets are added. Clicking on a bar shows a glowing yellow orb, which represents the earliest found tweet of the thread.

While it’s unclear exactly how much of a difference Twitter made for people inside Iran, Lotan says, “It is unquestionable that Twitter’s unique characteristics prompted distributed reactions on a scale never seen before, engaging people all around the world.”

During the elections, many retweets dropped the attribution (@username) to protect dissenters’ identities. Interestingly, the retweet button that Twitter plans to implement wouldn’t allow users to drop attribution like this, and so might have prevented the same kind of anonymous diffusion of information.

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