Apart from all the interesting speeches and discussions, there is one other thing I really like about the Universe: every year the conference takes us to another amazing city which I’m always keen to explore. What impressed me most in Prague is the city’s lively atmosphere and active character. Wherever I looked, I saw athletic people jogging and running along the banks of the Moldova with colorful clothes, headbands, earplugs – and of course smartphones. They seem to have become the inevitable accessory for any serious runner. Smartphones not only support sportsmen and women by playing their favorite music or audiobooks, they also allow them to take snapshots during a beautiful nature run. And – increasingly important – they let them quantify their sports activities. As I recently mentioned, my colleague Stephen Brobst gave an interesting talk about the trend towards self-quantification on Tuesday’s Universe keynote and predicted that it might lead to personal data warehousing with cloud technologies.
Many people also like to share their results on Facebook, Twitter or specific sports platforms like Runtastic. Why? Because it motivates them: Just like your real-world running partner will make fun of you if you cancel your weekly running date for the third time in a row, your athletic social media friends are able to virtually survey your fitness activities and can put a little more pressure on your inner couch potato.
Sharing the results of workouts and training sessions is not limited to hobby runners. Professional athletes like the German triathlete and double winner of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii, Normann Stadler also let the world participate in their activities. But while normal people’s postings usually just briefly pop up and then disappear again, celebrities’ updates are often shared and commented by hundreds and thousands of other users. A single post might travel a long journey through the virtual space. Therefore, our Tuesday keynote speaker Jer Thorp, self-proclaimed “artist, educator, thinker” invented his “Cascade” project: it illustrates the way a single tweet evolves in social media by turning texts and pictures, hashtags and links, comments, tweets, and retweets that we see on our one-dimensional timeline into informative yet artistic videos. When passengers on a plane at Kennedy International Airport observed a flight-attendant having a fight and then quitting his job via the emergency-evacuation chute, one of them spread the word on Twitter. You can imagine that this tweet has come a long way of sharing and retweeting. That’s why Cascade created this beautiful impression of the tweet’s journey.
And Jer is not the only person to create art with social media. In the “Phototrails” project, for instance, scientists analyzed millions of Instagram photos taken in major cities around the world and combined them to infographics. They show the urban lifestyle and rhythm of metropolis in a fascinating way, for example a normal day in San Francisco or Bangkok. Even times of crisis can be displayed in an impressive manner, for instance with this graphic of pictures taken in Brooklyn, NY during Hurricane Sandy.
Taking our smartphone with us wherever we go and whatever we do (even for running a marathon), allows us to virtually share our thoughts, activities and emotions 24/7. Be it with status updates on our physical activities or with pictures we take of (more or less) exciting objects. In a sum, that data is much more than just information about an individual person. It allows us to recognize and illustrate cultural contexts and movements, thus displaying our generation’s zeitgeist. And really, isn’t that just what art is all about?