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Last Updated: Monday, 18 February 2008, 17:54 GMT
Listening to internet chatter
Picture by David Allison

By Torin Douglas
BBC News

Thousands of people chat online every day - but what does it actually sound like?

A new electronic art installation at the Science Museum in London endeavours to show just that.

Listening Post allows its audience to eavesdrop on the online world. Sampling text from thousands of chatrooms, message boards and forums, the artists have created a huge display that attempts to "hear the internet".

Artists Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen have forged a giant curved stand that is built out of 231 small electronic screens.

Those screens display text fragments, which are accompanied by the rhythm of computer-synthesized voices reading - or as some put it "singing" - the words that surge and flicker over the screens.

Those words are uncensored and unedited: they may be four letters but they are predominantly "clean ones", such as "skin" and "bone".

Picture by Graham Peet
Samples live text from the internet
Displayed in US galleries for past five years
Words rotate on 231 small screens
Installation stands 4m high and 5m wide
A computer programme - designed by statistician Mark Hansen - collects, samples and processes thousands of live online public conversations, which are then sorted to become the raw material.

Then sound artist Ben Rubin has programmed a voice synthesizer to create tones and sound effects that respond to shifts in the data-streams, building up a musical score of online activity.

The artwork then plays out through a series of seven cycles, lasting 25 minutes in all.

The display has been funded by money from the Art Fund and the Science Museum.

Hannah Redler, head of arts at the Science Museum, said the artwork offered an insight into public chatter online.

"It is an awe-inspiring 'portrait of chat' that reveals people's most personal thoughts and most universal concerns."

And David Barrie, director of the Art Fund, said the installation saw art and technology meet.

"Its interest lies, not only in its almost mesmeric visual and auditory impact, but in the poetry it generates from the often banal traffic on the internet," he added.

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