Reflection

We know when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sleeps

April 19, 2013
April 19, 2013

It is a strange reality of our times that we have no idea what motivated Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to attack the Boston Marathon, if indeed he was involved, but we do know when he sleeps:

Tap image to zoom

That’s our visualization of tweets by @J_tsar, a Twitter account that has been linked to Dzhokhar, one of the alleged Boston bombers. The darker the pink, the more tweets. What it tells us, quite mundanely, is that Dzhokhar stays up late, often smoking weed, and sleeps past noon. Like so many other college students.

Less than 12 hours ago, we had never heard of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Now we know that he did not like haircuts but did like Game of Thrones. We know he was a wrestler and that he won a $2,500 scholarship while at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. We know he liked fast cars, ate lots of waffles, and probably used an iPhone from AT&T (but it broke in December).

Nor had we heard of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar’s brother who was killed in a gunfight overnight. But now we know his taste in YouTube videos, his fondness for Borat, the sort of books he may have once have wanted to buy on Amazon, and that he worked out at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center.

We know the brothers Tsarnaev lived at Apartment 3, 410 Norfolk Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we know what the house looks like.

We know all this not because the FBI told us or because journalists went out and spoke to people—though there is a lot that the media has revealed in the same 12-hour-period—but because it can all be pieced together with some decent Googling. If you read Russian and know how to use Yandex and V Kontake, there is more public information yet.

Where it was once only reporters and the police who dug up information about people of interest, a whole nation is at it today. And for all the myriad concerns about privacy settings, cookies, data protection, automated surveillance, and Facebook, we reveal immense amounts of information about ourselves publicly, unthinkingly, and sometimes involuntarily.

Of course, we don’t really know whether we know the things about the Tsarnaev brothers that we think we do. It is entirely possible that the Amazon wishlist belongs to another person with an interest in document forgery, criminal empires, and Chechen grammar, who used the handle “Tamerlan” because he admired the founder of the Timurid dynasty. Already two Twitter accounts registered in Dzhokhar’s name have turned out to be fakes, though the one we analyzed shows all signs of being genuine.

But those caveats are almost beside the point. We don’t know what we think we know because these digital details don’t connect the dots; they merely draw the dots. They offer trivia but not insight.

We know when Dzhokhar sleeps but not what he dreams about.

*  *  *

Note about the Twitter data: We examined the @j_tsar account this afternoon and downloaded all 1,056 of its tweets. That dataset is available here. You’ll note that Dzhokhar did, in fact, occasionally tweet about his dreams. —Data analysis by Ritchie King and David Yanofsky

More coverage: The Boston manhunt from start to finish: how and where it played out

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