Quick Links:

The digital mapping of the Republic of Letters is probably the most sophisticated visualization produced as of yet that attempts to map out the movement of discourse. This mapping project tracks letters sent by Voltaire to various correspondents between 1700 and 1750. When interacting with this visualization, viewers can filter by correspondents, volume of letters per location, and flow of individual letters' journeys. Part of this project's success stems, of course, from the innovative collaboration of historians, computer scientists, and academic technology specialists led by Dan Edelstein. However, the linear trajectory of the letters also makes it possible to rather accurately trace and visualize the mailing routes of over 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents (Chang et al., 2009).

When it comes to tracking an image that was digitally born and experienced nonlinear circulation, largely due to the internet, however, how do we visualize such circulation, especially when an image such as Obama Hope has traveled across the globe at warp speeds in discontinuous ways? Like many other images, Obama Hope is what Annemarie Mol (2002) calls a body multiple, her term for things that are both single and multiple all at once. As an image that is able to transcend media, Obama Hope, for instance, can surface in multiple pictures on any given day, all of which can circulate across the globe in a matter of minutes, especially if a picture is trending. Visualizing such widespread and distributed circulation is impossible to depict accurately, but as scholars invested in circulation studies, we ought to try to find ways to better map this complex phenomenon.


Visualizing an image's widespread and distributed circulation is impossible to depict accurately, but as scholars invested in circulation studies, we ought try to find ways to better map this complex phenomenon.

The visualizations below are my attempt to do just that. Figure 1 is a simple geographical map produced to identify the various locations in which Obama Hope has materialized. With its ability to represent a spherical shape of the world, this two dimensional Google Map helps make visible (in one glance) just how widespread Obama Hope's travels have been. This map's drag, zoom, and pinpoint functions also make it possible to see in what exact countries Obama Hope has surfaced since 2008. Further, when you create maps based on coded data uploaded to a Google Fusion table, the metadata for each picture appears in an information window that is accessible by clicking on the map's individual marker icons. In Figure 1's case, the metadata identifies not only the exact location data (when available), media, art form, genre in which Obama Hope surfaced but also the function and, when available, the designer of the Obama Hope design and/or photographer who took the picture of Obama Hope. When image urls are available, pictures documenting Obama Hope's materialization will also come up so viewers can see for themselves how Obama Hope has come to be rhetorical in each unique instantiation. In addition, at the bottom of the information window, the web source for each picture is available so that viewers can follow that link to learn more about the exact context in which Obama Hope surfaced. Together with such underlying data, then, this map tells the story of where Obama Hope has been for the last 8 years and how it has transformed with time and space.

To access this metadata in Figure 1, simply zoom in and drag the map to the geographical area in which you are interested. Click on the red marker icons to access the aforementioned metadata. In some cases when Obama Hope has surfaced in different cities within a single country or multiple times within a single city, clicking on the red marker icon will bring up a set of connected red markers, each of which can be clicked.

This visualization was designed for laptop and desktop displays only. It has been removed from tablet and mobile displays to improve webtext readability.

**IF** you are viewing this webtext from a netbook or smaller laptop, reducing the zoom settings for your browser will display this visualization. For example, reduce zoom from 100% to 80%.

Figure 1: Google Map Documenting Obama Hope's Manifestations around the Globe

While Figure 1 is a static depiction of Obama Hope's travels, Figure 2 attempts to present a more dynamic visualization of Obama Hope's distributed emergence and ongoing circulation. As noted previously, such trajectory does not entail a simple route from point A to point B. In some instances, as was the case with Shepard Fairey himself, graphic designers or bloggers find Obama Hope on the internet, remix it, and upload it to their own websites, blogs, or social media sites where others find their remixes and cut and paste them onto their own sites, boosting Obama Hope's circulation in various directions. In other cases, activists find Obama Hope, either reproduce or remix it, and then print it out, integrate it into a protest sign, and take it to a particular rally. Still others use Obama Hope as a model to produce their own designs, which they paint on an urban wall or even their own bodies. In such latter cases, such renditions of Obama Hope are often photographed and uploaded to blogs, Flickr, and Twitter, the photographs of which themselves begin to circulate, thus again accelerating Obama Hope's circulation. Such process of (re)composition, (re)production, and (re)distribution is often going on at similar times and locations across the globe, making it impossible to account for Obama Hope's exact route of circulation. Nonetheless, by using temporal and location data in a dynamic heat map, Figure 2 tries to account for this nonlinear and discontinuous circulation.

Clicking on the play button in Figure 2 will allow you to see how Obama Hope popped up around the world from mid January 2008 to mid June 2015. While the paths of circulation are not depicted, one can get a sense of how Obama Hope circulated as the red bubbles fire in a chronological order at different locations across the world. This visualization is limited in that, again, such chronological depiction is not a true representation of how Obama Hope traveled. However, my hope is that you can at least gain a sense of how quickly and broadly Obama Hope has circulated across the world.

This visualization was designed for laptop and desktop displays only. It has been removed from tablet and mobile displays to improve webtext readability.

**IF** you are viewing this webtext from a netbook or smaller laptop, reducing the zoom settings for your browser will display this visualization. For example, reduce zoom from 100% to 80%.

Figure 2: Timelapse Map Documenting Obama Hope's Manifestations around the Globe

ANALYSISReturn to top

According to these maps, between 2008 and 2015, Obama Hope surfaced in more than 50 countries and 200 cities around the world. From protesting dictators in Egypt to fighting for marijuana legalization in Australia to ridiculing mayors in Iceland, Obama Hope has indeed become a runaway agent, engaging in multiple, diverse activities as it moves across the world. Being able to visualize how broadly a single, multiple image such as Obama Hope has traveled can expand our understanding of just how much of a global reach one image can acquire during its lifetime.

Data visualization techniques prove useful in making visible the actuality of an image's transnational circulation and substantiating claims about an image's global impact that are often based on unquantifiable evidence.

Before embarking upon this data visualization project, I was aware of Obama Hope's global travels to some extent. I knew, for instance, among other events, about its participation in Greenpeace campaigns in places such as Indonesia and Germany and protests in various places such as England, Spain, and Mexico. Yet Figure 1 demonstrates that Obama Hope has traveled much more broadly than I previously conceived (and perhaps even more than Shepard Fairey might have ever anticipated). As visual rhetoric scholars begin to investigate the transnational circulation of various artifacts, then, data visualizations prove useful in making visible the actuality of this global phenomenon and substantiating claims about its global impact that are often based on unquantifiable evidence.

As noticed by the humanities scholars involved with the Letters of Republic mapping project, digital visualizations are not only a productive means to illustrate research findings but also to enhance the research process (Chang et al., 2009). This latter benefit is certainly the case when it comes to the spatio-temporal maps presented above. In one sense, these maps make it possible to zoom in on particular time periods and locations in order to learn more about Obama Hope's collective activities. Notice, for instance, how Obama Hope's circulation accelerates and decelerates in Figure 2. During 2012, Obama Hope's circulation in the U.S. speeds up. Taking a closer look at its genre and rhetorical function during that time (information that is available in information windows) helps account for such explanation, which relates to its role in the 2012 presidential election. During that time, not only were bloggers and every day citizens producing mass amounts of Obamicons to articulate their rhetorical (dis)identifications with Obama and other candidates, political cartoonists were also getting on the rhetorical bandwagon to lampoon Obama's second campaign and the U.S. citizenry's attitudes toward not only Obama but other candidates. While it may seem obvious that Obama Hope's circulation would accelerate during Obama's 2nd presidential election since it was originally designed to help Obama win the oval office, not all increases in acceleration will be so obvious when it comes to tracing other images. Noticing patterns of acceleration can be useful, then, in pushing us to zoom in on specific time periods during an image's rhetorical life that we may have otherwise have overlooked. Such zooming, which can be performed by doing a limited time search on Google Images and other search engines, may, in turn, help discover an image's previously unknown instantiations, collective activities, and rhetorical functions.

Geographical mapping facilitates a comparative approach to visual studies.

In another sense, geographical mapping helps deepen our research processes by facilitating a comparative approach to visual studies. Clicking on the red marker icons within specific regions and comparing what rhetorical functions an image plays within those specific regions, for instance, opens up questions about rhetorical practice. In Africa, for instance, data from Figure 1 shows that in most instances, Obama Hope surfaces to either support Obama in the form of stickers, murals, or posters; celebrate his rise to power via image placement on various items such as t-shirts and totes; or make use of his image to sell various commercial products such as biscuits. In South America, on the other hand, we see Obama Hope surfacing in remixes used to make political commentary about local politicians, to critique Obama, and to create satire about various issues related to his presidency. We might ask what accounts for such differentiating rhetorical functions in Africa and South America. Is the less critical use of Obama Hope in Africa simply due to Obama's African heritage and the wide respect he has earned there, or is, perhaps, remix simply not commonly deployed as a cultural, political practice across African cultures as it seems to be across South America? In addressing such questions, we can develop more nuanced understandings about why an image under study circulates in particular regions across the world.

While comparing rhetorical functions across different geographic locations can help generate such useful questions for our research, identifying gaps in our data can also help open up new research paths when taking a comparative approach. For instance, early on in observing where Obama Hope has shown up around the world in Figure 1, I noticed that Obama Hope was missing from countries such as India and almost entire continents such as South America. Such absence might certainly be due to the fact that an image actually has not traveled to that country in physical form or been reproduced or remixed by someone using the internet in that country. However, when doing iconographic tracking, such absences might certainly be due to complications with this digital research method that limit its potential for locating reproductions and remixes of images, such as lack of image or key word recognition, language translation problems, filter bubbles, etc. When such latter cases occur, geocoded mapping can help us notice geographic absences and move us to conduct targeted research in those areas to see if the image has indeed surfaced there.

In seeing Obama Hope's absence in South America, India, and Middle Eastern countries in early renditions of Figure 1, for example, I began to conduct targeted research to see if Obama Hope had indeed been reproduced or remixed in those areas. Such targeted tracking helped me discover how Obama Hope has been remixed by various graphic designers in places such as Venezuela to make political commentary about local politicians and in Brazil to weigh in on the U.S. government's recently revealed surveillance practices. It also helped me discover how Obama Hope was taken up in India not only in 2010 to protest lingering disengagements with the Bhopal disaster but also how it influenced Nedra Modi's recent campaign for prime minister. In zooming in on areas of absence, then, these maps helped me discover new collective activities of Obama Hope and thus opened up new avenues for future investigation.

When taking a comparative approach, gaps in data can especially lead to productive questions that open up new research paths. As evident in Figure 1 (see also Figure 3) Obama Hope has turned up around the world in various settings for a variety of reasons—advertising banks in Turkey; advocating for gender equality in Brussels; and protesting everything from drones in London to governmental abuses of power in Germany to environmental injustice in Indonesia. Perhaps not surprising, Obama Hope has also shown up to protest against Obama himself or, at least, to raise questions about U.S. foreign and domestic policies. For example, while Obama Hope has shown up during Obama's visits in the Philippines to protest the United States' imperial practices, it has also surfaced on large banners outside of Jerusalem to protest Obama's continued support of Israeli policies. Curiously, however, in other countries, Obama Hope has been completely absent. Such absence ought to make us pause to wonder why, for instance, we do not find Obama Hope or remixes of it on the streets of Yemen or Syria. Is it because the internet is not largely accessible and thus people there have little chance to stumble upon Obama Hope? Is it because more efficacious depictions of Obama than Obama Hope were circulating there for political purposes? Or is it because using visual rhetoric to speak out against political and social issues is a forbidden or taboo practice? Asking and exploring such questions can help us develop new paths for research that may not be connected with our particular project but may be fruitful for our fields of research at large.