Ethan Zuckerman, a visiting research scholar at the Knight Institute, was seeking inspiration last year for his “Mapping Social Media” initiative, a project with research fellow Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci designed to capture a complex array of potential social media models, or “logics,” beyond the surveillance capitalism approach of Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube. 

It was not just an organizing principle Zuckerman was looking for. He was also seeking an innovative way to illustrate the complicated landscape he would map.

Then he found his inspiration: the classic field guide to birds. 

Much as a field guide helps viewers look more closely at the birds encountered on a walk through the woods, Zuckerman later explained, this modern-day twist on the illustrated guides of yore might encourage a new view of social media. 

So Zuckerman and the Institute’s Communications Director Lorraine Kenny reached out to Paris-based artist Fiammetta Ghedini, who specializes in illustrating science research. 

Ghedini wasted no time saying yes to the proposition. “When Ethan told me about the project, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s really super interesting,’” recalled Ghedini.  “It kind of clicked with me. It’s something that really fits with what I want to do.” 

For months, the trio brainstormed frequently, swapping countless images of birds to ID species that might best exemplify different social media “logics,” and trading multi-lingual puns to arrive at the faux Latin names that would help the artwork mimic pseudo-scientific illustrations.

More than six months later, earlier in May, the results were ready to share publicly with attendees at the “Reimagine the Internet” virtual conference, sponsored by the Knight Institute and UMass Amherst School of Public Policy. The book, An Illustrated Field Guide to Social Media, features a set of provocative essays written by Rajendra-Nicolucci, Zuckerman, and a series of expert guest authors on ways to rethink online community. 

Embedded within is Ghedini’s whimsical portfolio of avian species symbolizing different approaches to social media, whether a preening “creator” peacock, gabbing “civic” pigeons, QR code-reading “commerce” cranes, or bitcoin-swapping “crypto” robins.

‘Mutual exchange’ between art, science

The Italian-born Ghedini admits she doesn’t think of herself as an artist and, in fact, she trained as a researcher in London, where she wrote her thesis on optical illusion. She later moved to Paris to parlay her research background into science communications work. “I know the mindset of researchers,” she said. “I can talk to them.”

But Ghedini had always liked to draw in her free time, so it was natural for her to put the two things—science and art—together. “Art can really profit from science,” she explained. “There are a lot of inspiring and interesting ideas coming from research that should be made available to artists.”

Following work on an innovative European Union project to popularize science through comics, she and a partner set up a studio, RIVA Illustrations (for research and innovation through visual arts).  “We work together with artists and scientists or researchers or institutions, to create artworks that are really tailor-made for research, for communicating about science, about innovation, about research,” she explained.

For Rajendra-Nicolucci and Zuckerman’s notion of a social media field guide, Ghedini drew inspiration from the aesthetics of 18th- and 19th-century scientific illustrators, like ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, with their scholarly attention to detail in a pre-photographic age.

“I loved the idea of choosing birds to talk about humans,” she said. “There is something which is really unique about birds. Birds carry a lot of symbolic meanings that can be exploited.” Peacocks bring to mind vanity, for instance, making them apt for a “creator” social media logic, while parrots are a garrulous species perfect for representing chat logic and adorning the cover for the guide.

The process of landing on the right bird was an improvisational one, explained Ghedini. For instance, the first illustration she created for the project was for a chapter about building digital spaces that enhance our social and civic lives. 

Ghedini remembers reading a passage in the “civic logic” essay that described moving from a commercially oriented space in the digital sphere to the more socially minded online park. 

“I really loved this idea of entering the park,” explained Ghedini. “It made me think immediately, what are the birds inhabiting the park? They are pigeons, of course. And so I imagined all these pigeons chatting with each other, discussing.” The illustration holds a hidden reference as well—the Greek bust like those often found in public parks is a nod to Greek philosophers who would gather in ancient Athens’ public places to discuss their ideas. 

For Zuckerman, working with an artist was transformative. “It’s been one of the highlights of my pandemic year,” said Zuckerman at the book’s virtual launch at “Reimagine the Internet.” “I’ve never had the chance to work with an illustrator before. It is just one of the greatest experiences and has really let us produce something very special.”