Does Form Ever Follow Function?
Tweeting politics – preaching to the choir?
Citizen Journalism in Egypt: The Newsfeed of the Revolution an example of a private online community

Does Form Ever Follow Function?

March 14, 2013

I was lucky enough to attend to the Infographic Congress, in Zeist, on March 1st 2013. Dedicated to data visualization, this congress featured numerous speakers whom all presented data visualizations. Some of these graphic works were so old that it is maybe inappropriate to refer to them as data visualizations, and maybe the term fact visualization might be a more accurate description. And even the more recent visualizations we were shown that day, were striking by their apparent simplicity. Every facts, phenomena that were visualized that day, were in such an obvious manner that we all forgot about the underlying data for figures were not welcome in most of the visualizations. The meaning of data was translated by shapes, volumes, colors, lines, and even objects combined in a way that was representing the data in the most simple, clarified and effective way.

A simple answer to how these visualization can be so effective and powerful was given by both Reif Larsen, an american author and Alberto Cairo, a journalist, information graphics teacher and maker. Reif Larsen’s novel is filled with graphics, maps, and sketches, which make him say he entered the world of data visualization through the “back door”. Alberto Cairo is author of the book The Functional Art: An Introduction to Graphics and Visualization. Their common answer to the above mentioned question, the common point between all these efficient yet beautiful visualizations, was that they had been conceived following the adage “form follows function”. It addresses the shared feeling among some designers and journalists that over the last years, data visualization becoming a trendy practice, the overall quality of graphics being both low and inadequate, if not simply wrong.

The phrase “form ever follows function” appeared in Louis Sullivan’s article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered in 1896, but a simpler version of the sentence was remembered, and today is regarded as a pillar of Functionalism, later represented by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Sullivan’s assistants. Considered to be Moderns, the Functionalists believed that the shape of a building should be designed according to its purpose(s). Other characteristics of modern architects are their perpetual quest for more simplicity and clarity. Another architect from the early XXth century, Adolf Loos, published the essay Ornament and Crime, where he conveys the idea of eliminating ornaments from objects since they are responsible of the “going too soon out of style” phenomenon. Within the realm of architecture itself, the claim has rapidly been discussed. Although close to Sullivan’s ideas, Frank Lloyd Wright, while being firmly attached to simplicity, noted the misunderstanding of his mentor’s sentence which he interpreted as follows: “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”. Deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida also nuanced Sullivan’s law, insisting on the importance of the in-between of the dualism, without prioritizing any of the components.

This insight into the origins of “form follows function” help us to understand one of the components of what is a good visualization, in the words of Alberto Cairo and Reif Larsen. Before looking deeper into Alberto Cairo’s functional art we will have a quick glance at what kind of visualizations architects perform.

Architects happen to be using infographics and visualizations to a significant extent, although they call these works diagrams. Diagrams can be used to work on shapes, programmes (commercial briefs), and big urban scenarios, and are divided in two categories: generative and analytical. The first ones are used to generate new ideas upon a context and known elements, while analytical diagrams provide a study of an existing ground, breaking it into parts. They focus on resolving spatial layout issues hence not only represent actual physical elements but also flows (people, wind…). Diagrams are made of symbols, and are usually about concepts and clarifying relationships between flows and elements. They represent in an abstract way a combination of components and characteristics of human behavior.

MVRDV Diagram

Architects share with designers of (interactive) visualizations that their discipline combines concept and experience, image and use. “Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically” wrote Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. We can say that the same applies to (interactive) visualizations. This parallel can be drawn since we understand that the relationship between the eye and the hand does not correspond to the model where the hands execute and the eye judges but, as explained by Deleuze, a much more complex relation enriched by “dynamic tensions, logical reversals, and organic exchanges, and substitutions”. (Vito Campanelli, Web Aesthetics, How Digital Media Affect Culture and Society) Architecture is an answer to the problem of making people living together. Information graphics and visualizations are also solving a problem: they detect pattern, tendencies, draw comparisons and highlight connections, or use large amount of data. It reveals stories that the viewer could not detect or read with the figures only.

Alberto Cairo has precise ideas on how to make good information graphics and visualizations, in each of which he further develops the adage “form follows function”. In his book’s introduction he claims that “The first goal of an infographic is not to be beautiful just for the sake of eye appeal, but, above all, to be understandable first, and beautiful after that; or to be beautiful thanks to its exquisite functionality.” (Alberto Cairo, The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization) However, Alberto Cairo does not follow the adage blindly, and further explains it in the second chapter of his book. His demonstration is manifold, and he uses various examples to explain that Sullivan’s law should not be applied strictly (sometimes, “the connection between form and function must be learned”), that the correlation seems unidirectional where in the field of biology, evolution has shown that some natural slightly better predispositions due to DNA variations help to proceed to a natural selection within species. Hence, the reason for giraffes having a long neck is not because their food is located on treetops as would suggest “form follows function”.

Alberto Cairo

Although the adage deserves to be nuanced, some truth remains and this is the reason why Albert Cairo argues that not only “the form of a technological object must depend on the tasks it should help with”, but above all, ‘the form should be constrained by the functions of [the] presentation.” How do these reflections impact the practice of information graphic and visualizations? Above all, Cairo recommends to learn to deal with information, and have a critical and clear approach. The visualization will be greatly improved if the goals, the stories, are well defined. Simple graphs are usually a good start, but one should not restrain his creativity and be afraid of innovation.

For more thoughts on Functional Art, check Mathias Schuh's article The Not-So-Functional Art: Putting Information Visualization Back Into Context.

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Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media Cairo, Alberto. The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization Campanelli, Vito. Web Aesthetics, How Digital Media Affect Culture and Society Tschumi, Bernard. Six Concepts. Yi-Luen Do, Ellen and Gros, Mark. Thinking with Diagrams in Architectural Design.

Tweeting politics – preaching to the choir?

October 19, 2012

In May 2012, the French chose Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate, to replace Nicolas Sarkozy as president. François Mitterand lost power in 1995, and since then the government majority had been right wing. After his defeat, Nicolas Sarkozy decided to quit politics, leaving his party (UMP; Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) without a leader.The generation of politicians currently in power have by and large never been in opposition. In addition to a new position and its challenges for both sides (e.g. for the right wing how to regain the power rather than keeping it), the political parties are faced with new technologies and media. Many politicians make a point of maintaining online visibility.

Since US president Barack Obama’s first election in 2008, social media have been broadly used and discussed politically, even if we lack hard and undisputed knowledge of what effect this has on people. It goes without saying that quite a lot of French politicians have started using both Facebook and Twitter. Some, like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (@n_km) and Cécile Duflot (@CecileDuflot), are quite well known and respected for their measured, conscious, and accurate use of the media. Others have been accumulating mistakes (including ones as big as “DM fails”;  the action of sending a message to all followers publicly instead of sending it privately to one user), and were eventually turned to ridicule by the Twitter community.

This blog post is seeking to decipher how politicians use Twitter, and what they write about. To what extend do their conversations and posts match with their political discourse? Are right wing traditional topics appearing in right wing politicians’ tweets? Ultimately, this blog post is written to find out what politicians think is a compelling incitement for people to vote from them – and whether it is possible to use Twitter for these means. In order to do so, I selected 30 active twitter users, most from the right wing UMP party, but also users from more radical right wing parties. They all mention their role or activism in their twitter biography, thereby allowing us to perceive their use of Twitter in relation to their public function. Thanks to Twitonomy, I was able to gather all their tweets written between May 6th 2012, the day of François Hollande’s election, and October 10th. These periods are divided in three in order to be able to compare statements in time.

Before expounding further on this dissection, the graph above shows that most Twitter users slowed down their activity during summer. There are few notable differences between the May-and-June period and the September-and-October period, despite the result of the second round of the presidential elections and the two rounds of legislative elections in June. It can mean that Twitter is not considered by these politicians merely as a tool to use only during campaigns, but something to be used everyday. In a way, these figures give proof of a basic understanding of the platform. (But it is still important not to forget that these people are in a permanent position of representation.)

The tag clouds presented here are made from the panels’ tweets. The first word cloud, whose period embrace the presidential election day and both rounds of the legislative elections, display “UMP” – the abbreviation of Union pour un Mouvement Populaire – as the word most used by the examined users. Keep in mind that this is not only used in the tweets themselves, but also as a hashtag. The FN party (Front National, whose orientation is far right wing) is also well represented, with the words “FN”, “Marine” (the name of the leader) and “Pen” (her surname). The right wing parties UMP and FN evoked a collaboration during the second round of the legislative elections. Hollande, the newly elected French president, is represented with the same importance in this cloud as the “PS” (the Socialist Party) which he represents, whereas former president Sarkozy is not very prominent.

During the summer, “UMP” remains the main concern. The city of Cannes makes an apparition – the UMP had already been present with their “caravane” (field campaign)  there for some time. While the party was looking for a new leader, the name “Sarkozy" was getting bigger. “Fillion”, the name of a candidate to the presidency of the UMP, appears.  Hollande was still well represented, whereas the far right wing-party FN and their leader Marine Le Pen were disappearing from view.

“UMP” and “Hollande” were still the most used words, but François Fillon’s tag was becoming increasingly present. His rival’s name, Jean-François Copé, also made an appearance. Sarkozy’s tag had by this time become quite small, and Marine Le Pen and her party disappeared from the cloud all together. “France” is an important word on all of the three clouds, as discussed later.

All of the demonstrated trends can be seen on the chart presented below. There are three distinct trends concerning the use of tags: “Hollande” and  “UMP” bounced after a period of increased use, and can now be found at the same level as before the summer. The summer has was not good for tags “Marine Le Pen” and “FN”, while the frequency of “Copé” and “Fillon”  increased.

Trends and clouds tell us one thing: our panel of users use Twitter for self promotion. The Front National and Marine Le Pen were part of the UMP actuality in May and June, and for the second round of the presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy could expect some extreme right wing supporters to vote for him. During the legislative elections’ last round, alliances were evoked. Then the parties parted ways, resulting in the UMP taking the FN out of its talks and actuality.

The word “France” appears in quite big in all the word clouds. One could argue that France is traditionally leaning towards having right wing conservative values. But Pascal Marchand  shows in this chart that the word “France” appears with a high frequency in several  politicians’ speeches, whatever their political affiliation might be.

What, then, relates these tweets to todays’ political discourse? It is hard to say. There is next to no mention of the crisis in the European Union or of any traditional right wing topics (like security and immigration), nor of broader political topics (like economics).

The feeds of the users hereby examined do not intrinsically relay political messages that would bring anything to the debate, but are in a large scale showing either auto-satisfaction or criticizing the “enemy”. It can be argued these tweets don’t have much significance to speak of. The politicians are not able to reach out to users who do not already share their political conviction (and therefore presumably already following them if they are users of the platform). For why would a left wing user – or even a “neutral” user – bother to look for a right wing politician’s stream (perhaps apart from when the intention is to ridicule or provoke said politician)? The French politicians discussed here seem overall content to stay within their comfort zone. They are, so to speak, preaching to the choir.

This presents a big obstacle for people seeking to advertise or advocate using Twitter. The platform is based on each users’ active monitoring, search of hashtags or profiles to follow; thereby making him or her harder to reach for someone not sharing the same fields of interest, topics of conversation or even subjective take on the same matter. For the political tweets to hit intended target – if we assume the aim is ultimately to gain more votes – politicians might need to broaden their field of discourse, making it easier for “ordinary” users to stumble upon them.

Citizen Journalism in Egypt: The Newsfeed of the Revolution

October 5, 2012

with Mathias Schuh

What does it need to launch a successful media outlet? Probably a good deal of start-up capital, a team of editors, a business plan and some advertising clients. Cairo's Rassd News Network started with two things: a Facebook page and a revolution.

It takes a lot of scrolling to find the first status update of Cairo's Rassd News Network (RNN), one of the biggest citizen journalism projects of today. Dozens of links, photos and updates are published on the project's Facebook page every day, and tens of thousands since the page was launched just over a year and a half ago. Back then, in the turbulent days of January 2011, RNN's mission was clear: providing alternative media coverage from Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The Arab Spring is one of the most prominent success stories of how social media can help to gather people, inform both local activists and journalists worldwide, and bypass traditional media and ways of communication that could be either controlled by governments or were not efficient (on this note, we invite you to take a look at this beautifully animated Arab Spring timeline by The Guardian).

A screenshot of the RNN Facebook wall during the 2011 Cairo uprising

Two years earlier, the protests in Iran had already shown the political importance of social networks: harder to control and faster than any other ways of communication, social networks quickly became allies of the protesters. The 2011 uprisings however also tremendously changed the media landscape, explains RNN co-founder Abdullah Al-Fakharany in an email: “The aim has been to create an alternative form of journalism covering events subject to state censorship, or the self-censorship of established media, that are prevalent in the Middle East”.

The story

A quick historical reminder: On June 6, 2010, Khaled Saeed is beaten to death by two police officers in Alexandria. A disturbing photo of his corpse gets viral and eventually is seen by Wael Ghonim, who sets up the Facebook page We are all Khaled Said, which gradually becomes a platform of protest.

On January, 17th, an Egyptian man sets fire to himself outside an administration building, emulating Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, and triggering a similar chain of events. On January 25th, a long series of protests starts in Cairo’s streets, aiming - and eventually achieving - to remove the power from Mubarak’s hands.

The network

RNN’s predecessor was a Facebook page dedicated to monitoring the 2010 parliamentary elections in November and December, which have been troubled by fraud suspicions. “Egyptian media largely failed to report the widespread fraud and intimidation that characterized the elections”, explains Abdullah. During the elections, the platform received up to 700 contributions a day from citizens, about 400 of which were published on Facebook. The core team grew to 30 editors.

By sunset on 25 January 2011, the platform launches a new page: Rassd News Network, Rassd being a blend of the Arabic words Rakeb, Sawwar and Dawwan (Observe, Photograph, Blog). Its first update: a reference to the Khaled Said page, with which RNN forms a vital cooperation: “Rassd was endorsed as the “official” news-source for the online community of activists and concerned youths who were deeply involved in the momentous events rocking Egypt”, explains Abdullah.

“RNN functions on the basis of a vast network of volunteering reporters, and a small core of volunteering editorial staff. Besides RNN’s volunteering reporters, members of the public are encouraged to send in text messages, pictures and videos documenting events they witness”, says Abdullah Fakharany. A staff of almost 200 volunteers is in charge of checking, formatting and publishing the news they are receiving. In the 18 days following January 25th, RNN received an average of 6500 reports a day and published 4 000 of them, attracting every day an average of 40 000 new followers.

The network keeps growing, and can be a bit confusing at the first look. It went global, with pages emerging for Marroco, Algeria and Turkey. These networks are still active, and today, and even though their role has changed and protests have declined, RNN still shows passion and dedication to citizen journalism, encouraging its users to contribute:

The question of bias

Compared to traditional media, the objectivity of civil journalism initiatives like RNN is probably disputable. Rassd News has been accused of partiality and inaccuracy in reporting from the uprisings. But how much objectivity can be demanded from a medium that essentially is a part of the revolution it reports from?

For journalist and blogger Jilian C. York, the benefits of citizen journalism outweigh the risk of false or biased information, especially in a context like the Arab Spring: After all, argues York, the young, tech-savvy Egyptians probably know their country better than the foreign correspondents of global media networks. And while some international reporters were covering the events at Tahrir square from their hotel rooms, Cairo’s civic journalists blogged, taped and tweeted from the very centre of the clashes.

Is, thus, civic journalism the better alternative or even a replacement for traditional media outlets? Quite the contrary, argues Elizabeth Iskender in a journal article on the role of Facebook in the Egypt 2011 uprising. Only in close collaboration and exchange with traditional media, the full potential of Egypt’s grassroots journalism could unfold : “If social media are to continue to play a role other than acting as a separate communicative space, the flow of communication between different forms of media and between the different “audiences” within Egypt is crucial.” 1

Whatever the future relation of traditional and alternative media will look like, the success of Rassd News Network shows that web-based civic journalism is not just a temporary phenomenon in turbulent times, but a real “empowering tool for ordinary citizens”, as Abdullah puts it: "Rassd News Network continues to grow thanks to the passion, dedication and self-reliance of a new generation, the strong civic spirit and the desire for truth that animates it.”

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Iskander, Elizabeth (2011) Connecting the national and the virtual: can Facebook activism remain relevant after Egypt’s January 25 uprising? International Journal of Communication, 5 pp. 13-15. an example of a private online community

September 11, 2012

Underskog (directly translated from Norwegian meaning "undergrowth" or "underwoods") is a phenomenon I heard about even before moving to Oslo. Sometime in 2008, my Norwegian friend, being only too happy about being a part of it all, described with almost indecent enthusiasm a closed Internet community one can access by invite only. Facebook was becoming mainstream, Twitter was getting over 4 million users; the social platforms were no longer you and me (e-mail) or the universe and me (chatrooms) — it was you and me and everyone we know.

The creators of describe it as "A website for people who are interested in the underground of Norwegian culture and can help each other find information that is worth checking out." The aim is to gather people who are interested or involved in art, music, literature, etc, and who are willing to contribute with discussions, events and information about non mainstream cultural happenings in the biggest Norwegian cities. The initial idea of the creators was to make a list of niche culture events for their friends, and later a small community to update. In 2004, the founding members gathered a small number of friends and got started. To begin with it was open to all, but used only by the founders' extended group of friends. Today we count about 28 000 foresters (registered members), but it's hard to know how many of them are active users.

Underskog is now mainly two things: the non-member user can access a daily calendar of happenings and events, while a registered member can access the forums and update the calendar. One becomes a member after being invited, and only the most active members have invites to distribute. On the forum, there are conversations within a wide range of topics; from political discussions and DIY-tutorials to (badly) disguised online dating. It’s a standing joke that the currency of Underskog is Macbook chargers or red wine (note: the value of red wine increases after 8 p.m, when it's not legal to buy alcohol in Norway). One of the two can get you pretty far since trading is a common practice among the users.

n.b. From this point, when I’ll write Underskog it will mean the part of it that only registered users can access


Screenshot of underskog's landing page

Contribution is a key word, and essentially what runs the site. The moderators — called "gardeners" — interfere as little as possible. And there is rarely a need for them either; bad behavior such as trolling, whining or out-of-scale self promotion will result in public lynching, courtesy of the other members. The creators admit it themselves in a text intended to policy makers: ”Today's culture of Underskog is so established that there is no longer any reason for us to play policemen or officials. The culture is robust and self-regulating; for the gardeners it’s enough just being a little observant and otherwise enjoy ourselves with using the service as ordinary members.” There is a strong sense of correct etiquette. For a fresh member, the rights and wrongs of Underskog can seem a bit confusing — perhaps even intimidating. But in my opinion, what distinguish Underskog from other social platforms is — for lack of a better word — how nice people are to one another. If you ask for help, you will receive. In comparison, you would get any help from strangers on Twitter without having thousands of followers. People will help you when you are in search of information, when you need help with moving, or if you're just after the name of the cute girl you saw last Saturday but never dared talking to.

Underskog is organized like a forum where the threads are ordered by date of creation. Nevertheless, thanks to a system of starring to follow conversation, some threads go through the years: the conversation “trashbildetråden!” (directly translated by “trashy pictures-thread”) was created in 2008 but is still fed with daily posts and counts a total of almost 28 000 messages.

One of the characteristics of Underskog is how attached and devoted the members are to the page. I think there are different reasons behind this relationship, and we have to look at the regulations of the website to understand it. Andrew Morrison, Even Westvang and Simen Svale Skogsrud noted in Whisperings in the Undergrowth: Communication Design, Online Social Networking and Discursive Performativity (2010) that “knowing that everyone can see who you know and may connect them to real life persons adds gravity to the act of uttering”. This tolerance/peace, which — let’s be frank — is not a tradition in online communities, is no doubt a strength of Underskog. Howard Rheingold wrote about the viritual community The WELL that people were “rediscover[ing] the power of cooperation, turning cooperation into a game, a way of life” (in Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy, Fred Turner, 2005). The exact same thing is happening on Underskog, decades later.

Underskog somehow belongs to its users. They decide who is going to join the community, they give feedback about design and other changes, and they feel like it matters. They keep the site alive; the users are Underskog.

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 note: I can't unfortunately show screenshots of the webpage only members can access