21 November 2009

Map of Friends

With social networking sites like Facebook we are able to visualise schemas of our relationships. We know someone who knows someone who knows someone who we, and here a circle is drawn, happen to know too. This social cartography is drawn in the head more than on paper and is easy to imagine as building up into complicated patterns of criss-crossing lines. There will also be a few singular lines that disappear off into unshared personal history, a friend that none of your other friends know or have even meet. They’re special those ones, they might live far away, or be in prison.

Here someone has used InFlow to chart his Twitter contacts. I took the image from here.

InFlow is a graphic programme that enables you to render databases in diagrammatic form. It could be interesting to apply it to your list of Facebook or Twitter friends, and their friends. One degree of separation ought to be enough to produce a lively chart. Large businesses take an interest in tools like InFlow too. They wish to find out how their staffs are intermingling and working together, or failing to. Consultants and companies have popped up to create the charts and help managers interpret them. According to the websites of these service providers there are many advantages to be had by charting staff networks. I will quote a selection of the reasons mainly because the jargon is irresistible, it’s a bit like being smooth-talked by an over-confident android.

Focus attention on the importance of tacit knowledge and intangible assets; Uncover your best knowledge resources and conduits in the organization; Understand what happens in the white space in the organization chart; Discover the holes in your information flows and knowledge exchanges; Identify key connections that must not be broken in reorganizations or downsizing; Develop existing and new leaders in agile and adaptive organizations; Optimize knowledge ecosystems; Expose knowledge bottlenecks, underperformers and overworked employees. Taken from: www.kmcluster.com

Given that all of the above seems an evolution of the internet age it is impressive that John Carson’s Friend Map was created way back in 1976. He used printed maps, ruled lines and glue to produce a pre-digital diagram of his social network.

John Carson, Friend Map, Photographs on map, 1976. It was exhibited in The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, lately.

Carson’s map features three types of connection. “Direct link lines,” going from the artist’s home to the homes of friends. “Indirect link lines,” they link to friend’s homes but also to places where they and the artist associate, for example the pilot station in Carrickfergus. And finally “secondary link lines” that connect friends of the artist who also know each other. Carson has covered his map in these lines, evoking a web of friendship pegged out across the city. It is also worth remembering that 1976 was the height of the Troubles. That was not a time of free-and-easy interaction in Belfast however this map tells an alternative story, one that was going on despite the Troubles.

John Carson lived in Carrickfergus when the map was made and it is given close-up.

Carson's Belfast friends, 1976.

A programme like InFlow could be used to describe the straight facts of the Friend Map. However the total content of this map is not reducible to vector graphics. There is a warmth in that Carson drew every line by hand. He visited every person to take every photograph and printed each in a darkroom. Then he cut each to size and pasted them to his map. A digital diagram may enable the viewer to see “tacit knowledge and intangible assets” but Carson’s handcrafted map gives more. It enables us to see landscape as a place where lives unroll, overlap and run side by side. A place where people do not just live, nor just live together, but live with togetherness.