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Internet Subway

July 20th, 2007

I’m a fan of maps. Done well, nothing conveys information as well, or shows the connections between things as quickly, or brings clarity beyond the power of words.

The clever people over at Information Architects Japan have almost done it right. Sadly, they’ve dripped globs of annoying hipness on top of what’s otherwise a fun and informative effort.

Web Trends 2007 Map: 200 most popular sites on the Internet

Version 2 of their Web Trend Map 2007 shows the 200 most popular websites (sort of, see discussion below) as if they were stops on the London Underground. At least that’s what I thought at first. But IA says they based it on the Tokyo Metro (PDF), and the sites match the locations in Tokyo. “You” are the Emperor’s place, for instance (lower center). As well as the interactive version (click the thumbnail above), there are also printable versions and a Mac screensaver version here.

The map is fascinating viewing, and it’s easy to appreciate the ingenuity of overlaying the Internet on to a metro subway map. It is a great birds-eye view of the Internet. Tracing the connections between the sites is fun, and by adding information about what kind of site it is, from news to music to community to technology, you get a quick view of what’s happening on the Internet. And, in a real contribution, they’ve added the category of “Chinese,” also knows as “the other Internet.” I think it’s a major step to show the Chinese Internet so plainly.

Unfortunately, much of the map is not a quick view of the Internet, but a quick view of what the designers happen to think is hip. Real information is mixed with fashionable opinion. And that leads to confusion, which is a Mortal Sin where maps are concerned.

Distortions are unavoidable in any map, especially a graphical treatment of a subway. Gothamist glossily discusses some of the issues in a review of a proposed new NYC subway map, and many New Yorkers will remember the much admired (and much reviled) highly-stylized Massimo Vignelli NYC Subway map.

But in a good map, distortions are the result of trading off accuracy for clarity. The IA blog post on the map lets on (by omission and inference) that these aren’t actually the Top 200 sites by volume of visitors: it’s a combination of that, plus larger sites in Japan and Germany that they liked. So it isn’t accurate, and adding inaccurate information doesn’t make things clearer. “Web Trends” quickly becomes “Web Trendy.”

The key shows some specifics:

Web Trends 2007 map key

First, sites are rated (top right) from Web 0.5 all the way up to Web 2.5. Web 0.5 is represented by Jakob Nielsen, the (desperately unhip) usability guru, while Web 2.5 is presumably embodied by IA themselves, if only they had a bigger site. Whatever you may think of Jakob Nielsen, this is not information, it’s opinion, and it dates and muddies the information that is presented, and makes it seem less reliable.

Worse, each site is given a forecast, from “unreal” (great) to “stormy” (not so great). In other words, hot or not. If attaching a cool-factor to a present site is opinion, then reading tea leaves about how it’s going to do in the future is sheer bunkum. Prophecizing is fine, but in my opinion it harms the real qualities of this effort. (By the way, is “unreal” a good thing?)

But I suspect, in the best Web-of-any-generation way, this isn’t about information, it’s about marketing. The map is made available in any number of formats; it will be downloaded endlessly — and lo and behold! — I learn, at the bottom of their blog post about the map, that IA is selling “ten free spaces” for ads that aren’t free at all, they’re $2,000! What a relief! I thought for a short moment that IA was actually trying to produce something people could use…

All in all, this is a cheery and well-done effort, but the noise and hype undermine what could have been something real.

I wasn’t able to find much substantive discussion on the Web, but here are a few fillips:

Finally, it’s almost impossible to think about this without reference to Edward R. Tufte’s wonderful book Envisioning Information, which makes extensive use of train schedules and Japanese maps to illustrate his points about information design.

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HaCked By ENIMA-DZ

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