June 22, 2009
The Cartography of Cyberspace
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2009
If you thought the Net was confusing, wait until you try to make a map of it. That’s what Oliver Reichenstein has done. Well, sort of.
Reichenstein runs Information Architects (iA), a strategic design firm with offices in Tokyo and Zürich. Last month, the company unveiled its fourth Web Trend Map (http://informationarchitects.jp), which takes the most influential sites and people on the internet and fits them onto the Tokyo Metro map. If you’re into this kind of thing, you’ve probably already seen it, and its predecessors. Earlier iterations of the map were sufficiently popular to crash iA’s servers when they were launched, owing to the amount of traffic they generated.
Reichenstein produced the first one on a whim on Christmas afternoon in 2006, intending it to be nothing more than a gift to his clients. That took four hours; the latest took four months. “In man-months, I think it was probably about ten,” he admits when I meet him for a drink at the standing bar across the road from his office in north Harajuku.
“I’m pretty exhausted,” he says. “I need to read four or five hours of tech news every day to stay on top of this.”
The effort shows. The Web Trend Map 4 is, for want of a better way to put it, pretty mind-blowing stuff. 333 internet domains and 111 people are positioned on a 3D grid where everything is painstakingly thought-out and interconnected.
The lines of this virtual network are organized thematically, ranging from News (The New York Times, The Huffington Post) and Money (eBay, Bloomberg LP) to Opinion (Slashdot, TechCrunch) and Sharing (PirateBay, Creative Commons). Sites are rated for both success and stability, while their positions on the map often have added significance. Facebook, for instance, is in Ikebukuro, at the intersection of the Identity, Application and Entertainment lines. Google is Shinjuku, Wikipedia is down in Ebisu (near the source of the Knowledge line, naturally) and Amazon occupies the bureaucratic stronghold of Kasumigaseki.
Like any good geek, Reichenstein revels in the knowing touches. Social news website Reddit gets Roppongi: an area synonymous with sleaze, but which also boasts some of the best views over the whole of Tokyo (and its web counterpart, correspondingly, over the internet). Microsoft and News Corp’s central positions are as much a testament to how dull they are as how important—just think of the Imperial Palace.
One happy accident was the placement of The New York Times. The venerable broadsheet, nicknamed the “Old Gray Lady,” was awarded the septuagenarian shopping paradise of Sugamo. “Yeah, it’s ‘Harajuku for grannies’,” Oliver says. “I knew that, but I didn’t think about it when I put The New York Times there. I just noticed and was like, ‘Yes!’”
“Skype in Harajuku: that’s kind of a stretch,” he continues. “Funnily enough, nobody pointed that out. People point out, ‘Oh, Twitter’s in Shibuya…’ That’s not a stretch at all. That’s so fucking obvious. If you just open your eyes and read a couple of tech news [articles], you see that that’s where the buzz is right now. Maybe next year it won’t be like that at all, but right now Twitter is Shibuya, by far.”
Mapping the internet is one thing, of course; predicting where it’s all heading is another. Each year, the Trend Map has grown denser as its targets become more diverse. Traditional cartographers have the consolation of knowing that the parameters of their universe seldom shift, but the internet permits no such comfort. It’s all change: blogs are on the way out, while the appeal of the much-hyped Web 2.0 has faded since people realized that “it’s basically a lot of crap. Not everybody is a specialist: everybody thinks he’s a specialist, but most people, when they go online, they’re just dicks,” says Reichenstein.
Sites like Twitter are part of a move towards an internet that’s more personal. “The internet develops at a massive speed—because so many people develop it, and have the tools and knowledge and the information to develop it—that right now we are in a totally different stage already,” Reichenstein says. “There’s no real word for it, but they call it the ‘social graph,’ the ‘semantic web.’ Basically … the internet’s becoming smaller again.”
This is reflected in the prominent positioning of key internet figures on the latest map, from Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, YouTube-plundering musician Kutiman and Barack Obama.
“People are becoming as important as domains right now,” he says. “Actually, domains are pretty much out the window. Nobody would spend $100 million for Sex.com any more, because if you have a really good porn site, they’re going to find you. It doesn’t work like that. What’s much more important, if you want to build steam online, is that you know what you’re talking about—that you get good information.”
Though the Web Trend Map would appear to fit nicely into this picture, he admits that its days might also be numbered. “Maybe it’s the last of its kind, because maybe in a year the internet is going to be so atomized that it’s more about your personal connections than what it used to be.” He smiles. “That would be a great relief, because then I don’t need to make it even better.”