Everyone Maps the Internet

I'm a big fan of The Internet Mapping Project by artist/futurist Kevin Kelly. I share the collection of user-submitted internet maps with friends and colleagues whenever a project to visualize quasi- or non-spatial information concepts requires a jolt of inspiration. Slide through a few of my favorites below. You can browse all of the submissions through Kelly's Flickr set.  

The Internet Mapping Project asks anyone and everyone to sketch out a map of the internet as they understand it. Rather than help anyone to get from point A to point B, these maps teach us how individuals interpret the internet’s structure and distribution; with a modicum of cartographic vocabulary the project makes a personal, aesthetic experience universally accessible.

Some kind of aesthetic and utilitarian harmony defines the most effective maps (of anywhere or anything). I often fear, however, that exponentially expanding data sets, their modeling technologies, and an eagerness to borrow credibility with loosely applied cartographic best practices increasingly reduces aesthetics to the realms of color choice and line weight. Using a map is--or ought to be--a rich aesthetic experience, especially when that map represents extraspatial concepts and features. When making display choices, prioritizing that experience can still yield quite informative results.

What, after all, is so enriching about a map that imposes the conventional constraints on representing areas and distances of features that have no actual spatial attributes?

Web Trend Map 4 (2009) © Information Architects Inc.

Web Trend Map 4 (2009) © Information Architects Inc.

The annual Web Trend maps created by Information Architects (iA) make for an instructive example. Antithetical to Kelly's project, iA's maps are top-down products of meticulous professional design, were rapturously received online (insofar as they 'went viral'), but left us with no lasting impression of the internet's landscape beyond the hubs that dominate annual pageview counts and the broadest color-coated categories into which they fit. Based graphically on some of the greatest achievements in subway mapping--among the most effective maps ever produced--iA's maps could of course never help users to orient themselves nor navigate anywhere online. More importantly though, and in spite of their visual richness, they do nothing to otherwise convey the experience of traversing this immensely complex information landscape. These are not maps, then, so much as they are very pretty bar graphs with pretenses of scientific accuracy that they do not earn. 

Attempts to map the internet are as old as the internet itself, and seemingly impervious to the paradox of mapping a place without space. With each successive failure the effort seems to become less centralized, more experimental and iterative, and even more playful. iA produced their fourth and final trend map in 2009, the year in which Kelly launched his project. And given the power and ownership relationships that each represents, I'm glad to see the latter continue.