In this blog’s introduction, we described Graphika’s conception of online social space as a real and tangible cyber-social geography of the Internet.  This online landscape has its own territories, its rifts, and its bridges, defined by the attitudes and preferences of the people who form its communities.  What are some of the implications of this way of understanding online social structures?

As we explore this new and growing cyber terrain—as we build the ships that will carry us over the oceans of digital thought and expression—what will be the challenges that we face?  Well, for one, we should consider the limitations of the instrument perceiving this new world: the human brain.

Several cognitive limitations of the mind have deep implications for the study of social structures at scale.  One is Dunbar’s number, a cognitive limit proposed by Robin Dunbar which suggests that, for neurological reasons, the number of stable social relationships one person can comfortably maintain is capped at around 150.  It has been suggested recently that the average American personally knows the names of about 600 people.  And since we know that eidetic (photographic) memory is incredibly rare, we can speculate that there is a limit to the number of distinct identities a person can easily recognize at any given time (likely in the low thousands).

Beyond the edges of these cognitive limitations, as far as the brain is concerned, the rest of the world is populated by what Benedict Anderson refers to as imagined communities.  Through our lives, we infer the existence of faceless entities who influence our personal bubble.  Somewhere out there, people are running the numbers on our taxes, farming crops for our food, policing the streets, lobbying in congress, and fighting wars that indirectly relate back to our safety.  Perhaps we get a notification from the IRS, get to know a farmer, or join the military ourselves, but—especially for city-dwellers—our interactions with most of the anonymous figures that shape our lives are third-hand at best, and it is only by the amazing deductive and imaginative powers of the human brain that we are even able to conceive of their existence.

This concept can be extended to online spaces.  When influential bloggers and Twitter personalities have tens of thousands of followers (numbers that already extend beyond the comprehension of any human mind), how can someone managing the accounts for celebrities, international organizations, and political figures with millions of followers know who they’re talking to when they post to a social network like Twitter?

What does this imply for systems of trust?  What does the concept of an “audience” mean at this scale?  What does it mean that, even though so many of these identities are interconnected via the Web, most people cannot conceive of more than a tiny fraction of them?

It means we’re looking at the Internet in grayscale.

At Graphika, we turn on the color.

Take, for instance, the Twitter followers of Neil Patrick Harris (@ActuallyNPH).  When you visit his profile, all you find is a number: 17.6M followers as of today.  However, below you can see Graphika’s map of the most-connected accounts in his Twitter following.

This map shows the major groups among the most-connected followers of @ActuallyNPH.  A few notable niche accounts are highlighted: @MrJasonRBrown, @DanSlott, and @TheYoungTurks.

This map shows the major groups among the most-connected followers of @ActuallyNPH.  A few notable niche accounts are highlighted: @MrJasonRBrown, @DanSlott, and @TheYoungTurks.

The lights come on and it becomes immediately clear that NPH draws together many disparate worlds.  We can see the distinct communities of screenwriters, Glee fans, video game developers, fashion writers, political journalists, and Disney fans—all falling into the major groupings seen above.  All told, Graphika’s network segmentation engine was able to identify 41 unique segments in this network.  With the Graphika platform, we’re able to regularly keep track of the photos, videos, and other content that is most important to the communities following Neil, and what distinguishes them from each other.

The most recent photos and videos shared by the "Indie Video Game Dev" segment in the map of @ActuallyNPH's followers.

The most recent photos and videos shared by the "Indie Video Game Dev" segment in the map of @ActuallyNPH's followers.

As the scale of our online social networks continues to grow, we need new perceptual tools to help us grasp the full immensity of the populations with which we’re interacting—whether they’re a fan base, customers, or a political constituency.

The Graphika platform is a window into a new perception of the world as one big, interconnected social network.