Facebook and Europe’s hidden borders

February 27th, 2011

In December 2010, Paul Butler, an intern at Facebook, released a visualisation of connections between friends on Facebook around the world.

It was a revealing glance global interactions, and it garnered a lot of attention.

[The high-resolution version of the image is available here.]

Facebook global visualisation

One of the aspects of the visualisation — noted in passing, if at all, at the time — was the influence of European and Cold War history on the contours of the map. Although it was obvious that Russia and China were ‘missing’, subtler differences were also visible (though you might need to squint a bit to see them).

For example, the Inner German border, the former border between East and West Germany, was replicated in the Facebook data. Apart from a bright patch corresponding to Berlin, most of the former GDR is noticeably less enthusiastic about Facebook than their western counterparts.

Facebook and the former East Germany

In contrast, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are very clearly represented in the map; it seems that, in vague keeping with the western stance of the post-soviet Baltic states, they have a clear preference for Zuckerberg’s colossus.

Facebook and the Baltic States

And Serbia, the traditional Russian balkan ally, is also a relative dark patch compared to its neighbours.

Facebook and Serbia

Most obviously, however, the ‘missing’ Russian area actually corresponds more accurately with the borders of the late USSR than with the existing Russian Federation. Facebook essentially stops dead at the borders of Belarus and Ukraine, and doesn’t reappear until we get to South Korea and Japan. Russians, and other post-soviet social networkers, generally use VKontakte and Odnoklassniki to keep in touch (much like how Chinese users flock to RenRen and 51.com), and this is much of the reason for the ‘dark continent’ of Facebook’s visualisation:

Facebook and the former USSR

There are many more political and cultural divides illustrated by the information in this map — let us know if you see any good ones. It’s just a pity that Facebook hasn’t released a higher-resolution version of the image!

Red Flag

February 20th, 2011

Of all the revolutions of 1989, the Romanian revolution was the only one which ended with bloodshed and executions. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania with more or less absolute authority since 1965, ended his days in front of a firing squad in Târgoviște, along with his wife Elena. The overall  story of Ceauşescu’s rule and its overthrow is fascinating, but one of the basic levers of government control in the Ceauşescu years was ceaseless propaganda, most obviously through communist newspapers.

In the western Romanian city of Timişoara, the local party paper in the Ceauşescu era was Drapelul rosu (Red Flag), which specialised in reporting non-existent bumper harvests and improbable industrial achievements, and reprinting long speeches by various party bigwigs. Here’s the front page from December 30th, 1967, celebrating twenty years since the foundation of the postwar Romanian communist state:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967

The red headline reads “Long live our beloved homeland, the Socialist Republic of Romania!” and the reprinted speech is by Ion Gheorghe Maurer, member of the Politburo, former Foreign Minister and lifelong party apparatchik. The masthead followed the style of the main communist party newspaper, Scînteia (Spark — aping the pre-soviet Iskra), integrating Stalinist iconography and sloganeering:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967 (masthead)

This supposed celebration of twenty years of communism was in reality a grim time for most Romanians, trapped in the regime of an ardent Stalinist who was nonetheless fêted by east and west alike. Indeed, Ceauşescu’s apparent ability to play a double game in Cold War relations was one of the reasons for his own colossal self-regard, and contributed to his delusion and paranoia. This in turn led to one of the iconic images of Ceauşescu’s fall: his faltering speech on December 21st, 1989, when his confused and baffled reaction to the shouts of the crowd made it clear to all just how deluded and isolated he was.

The media reactions to another twentieth anniversary, that of the founding of the post-communist Romanian state, are, to put it mildly, pretty different. The events of 1989 still exert a powerful fascination for Romanians (and Ceauşescu still has his supporters, most obviously the PCR). Most of the coverage still focuses on the drama of communism’s overthrow. For example, Romania Libera‘s front-page of December 20th, 2010 (admittedly covering what is now the 21st anniversary) leads with “I killed for the revolution,” the story of Corneliu Stoica, champion sharpshooter and participant in the revolution.

Romania Libera, 20th December 2010

Though the differences are obvious, many Romanians are still convinced that the overthrow of Ceauşescu was a palace coup by members of his own entourage. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Tahrir Square and Alexanderplatz

February 13th, 2011

The uprising in Egypt over the last three weeks has already become defined, at least provisionally, as a revolution. The historical irony of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation date, February 11th, has already been noted by plenty of observers — it is the same date as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian Revolution is one of the possible points of historical contrast for the Egyptian uprising, but aside from initial similarities, it’s not a convincing comparison for many.

If there is an appropriate historical analogy, perhaps it is the East German revolution of 1989. This point has already been made (in a somewhat self-serving manner) by Angela Merkel, but it bears a closer look. Most obviously, the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo echo the Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4th, 1989. That demonstration was one of the pivotal moments of the Wende, the process of German unification, and initiated the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe.

Both involved hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens peacefully confronting an obstinate dictatorship; both appealed for democratic pluralism and a transformation of the existing order, and both had a sense of humour. (The Alexanderplatz sign below is a pun in German on ‘unbegrenzt’ (‘unlimited’) and Egon Krenz, the communist leader. The Egyptian guy just loves his memes).

Tahrir Square protester

Alexanderplatz demonstration participant

The revolutions of 1989 led, indirectly but ultimately, to the collapse of the USSR. The Stalinist regimes went into the dustbin of history, and Europe was transformed.

At the moment, no-one knows what clear results will emerge from Egypt’s upheaval. To put it reductively, and bluntly: will Egypt’s transformation be more ‘German’ or more ‘Iranian’?

A.E. Bizottság

February 6th, 2011

It’s difficult to find much out about A.E. Bizottság. They were a band, an art project, a filmmaker’s collective, a state of mind, a threat to the existing order, a total mess and a bunch of losers, depending on who you ask. There’s a bare-bones Wikipedia entry for them which doesn’t give much away: “A. E. Bizottság was a Hungarian underground band formed by a group of visual and multimedia artists and amateur musicians in the early 1980’s.”

The ‘A.E.’ in their name stands for Albert Einstein, and the full name of the band is The Albert Einstein Committee. They had an equally surrealist bent to their album and film titles, releasing the album Kalandra fel! (Adventure Now!) in 1983, and the film (and accompanying soundtrack album) Jégkrémbalett (Ice-cream Ballet) in 1984.

From Kalandra fel!, here’s ‘Baad Schandau':

The band was formed in 1980 in order to enter a local talent contest, with the intention of making it as far as the semi-finals, which would be televised. They succeeded in getting on TV, and as a result they ended up being asked to play another concert, supporting three other popular Hungarian bands of the era (Beatrice, Hobo Blues Band and P. Mobil) to a crowd of 25,000 people. After this they released their debut album, the aforementioned Kalandra fel, and toured in Hungary and around the Eastern Bloc, dealing with the absurdity of petty officialdom (they were asked to change their name by the government) and bringing their surreal vision to the world.

They became successful enough to be able to tour in Western Europe in 1985, but broke up soon afterwards. Their dadaist, Zappa-esque avant-rock is unfortunately mostly unknown outside Hungary, though the 2007 compilation album B-Music Cross Continental Record Raid Road Trip (on Finders Keepers records) uses ‘Baad Schandau’ as a lead-off track. From the same album, here’s ‘Konyhagyelpo':

If anyone has any more information about this wonderful band, please share in the comments!