February 19, 2009

Personal essay: First thoughts on CCLaP's coming "wikicloud" experiment

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

19th-Century Wikicloud detail; click for larger version

Well well, surprise surprise, so guess what -- I've ended up taking on yet another strange little creative experiment as a CCLaP project to be presented later in the year. Of course I have! This is what I do with my free time now, after all, now that I'm no longer a creative writer myself; I take on these strange little creative experiments and document my findings, designed specifically to be recreated on weekends by my fellow hobbyist middle-agers. (You know -- like how last year, I challenged myself to replace all the sad old '80s and '90s music on my iPod Shuffle with brand-new indie-rock as quickly as possible, and all from free legal online sources to boot? And then wrote a book about the experience? Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.) I'm calling this latest project the "19th-Century Wikicloud Experiment," and is simple enough to understand; this year I plan on reading at least a thousand articles at Wikipedia (and probably more like a couple thousand) that in one way or another have to do with the 19th Century, but instead of recording my progress in a linear way, am doing so through a dynamic graphical "mind-map" (or flowchart, or infocloud, or whatever trendy term you want to assign it). I officially started work a couple of weeks ago, and am already further along than I expected to be; here above, for example, is the master layout for the first map I've decided to take on, the one for the British Empire, which so far has roughly 250 or so read and finished and parsed Wikipedia articles logged into it. And I'm of course sorry that overview above is so ridiculously small, because of course that's just what happens when you try to present so much info in such a small space; you will of course want to download either the 800 x 1200 pixel JPEG of the map, or the massive 2200 x 3300 pixel PDF, to look at as you read this essay. That way you can zoom in and out of whichever sections you want to explore further, whenever you want.

19th-Century Wikicloud detail; click for larger version

This particular map is split into two rough ideological halves -- all the articles on the left have to do with domestic issues regarding the Empire, such as politicians and technological breakthroughs, fashion and architecture, while the right side is for events linked with foreign policy, things like wars and treaties -- and as you can see, I've decided at first to deliberately fill in my knowledge of the domestic side of things first, just to at least have a little order to my research. So if we cut out the right-hand side of this map for the remainder of today's essay, so that we can make a slightly larger overview, here above is what we have left; and again, you'll want to download the 1000 x 2400 pixel JPEG if you want any chance of reading what those boxes actually say. So I guess before anything else, a key to the symbols you're seeing is in order...

Obviously the red box in the middle of the bigger map is the starting point, in this case the literal Wikipedia article for the British Empire where I started my research on day one; and then any pink boxes you see are links to other maps to eventually come, based not only on geographical locations (France, US) and the fates of other large societies (the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire), but also separate maps just for the world's artists and philosophers of the 19th Century, the world's scientists, the world's entertainers, the world's statesmen. All the rest of the boxes, then, follow in the order I literally read them at Wikipedia when doing my own research, showing graphically which particular "daughter" links I decided to follow from which particular "mother" pages at which particular moment; they are broken into three sizes of text, to further show my subjective opinion over which I think most important to the general subject of the British Empire that article is. The largest size, in fact, is also emphasized with an orange box, adding up in the end to the two dozen or so topics I most recommend people with just a casual interest in the subject to immediately head to first, when stopping by Wikipedia themselves; the green boxes, then, denote not subjects of more importance necessarily, but rather that the person is a major politician or member of royalty. And a word on the arrows, too, whose purpose is of course self-evident; note that they only reflect the relationship between minor subjects and major ones, in that it's assumed that all major subjects naturally relate to all other major subjects in diverse, profound ways.

19th-Century Wikicloud detail; click for larger version

So to zoom in for the first time, then, so that I can make some specific points about what's been so enjoyable thus far about this project, let's take a look at a period from the early decades of that century, from roughly the 1810s to 1840s when radical politics was first introduced and embraced by the general population, when a whole series of violent riots and domestic terrorist attacks occurred all over Great Britain. (And as with all these closeups, you can click on it if you want to see the larger 800 x 700 pixel version.) And what this closeup shows, I think, is something I've been thinking more and more about in these Web 2.0 days; that just as iMovie plus YouTube has let all of us become half-amateur half-pro filmmakers if we want, and Garage Band plus iTunes has let all of us become half-amateur half-pro DJs if we want, so too has Wikipedia plus a page-tracking system like this given all of us the potential to be half-amatuer half-pro historians if we want, what I suppose society used to call "history buffs" in another age. Because let's face it, out of every link you see there above that I chose to go check out and read, there were ten links in that original article I skipped over; in my particular case, the ones I did choose to click on reflect things I'd heard of before and know are still around in our contemporary times, plus things that obviously played big historic roles in that period, plus sometimes just weirdly-named things that simply seemed inherently interesting to go check out (and usually were). I love that you could start a hundred different Wikipedia enthusiasts at the Chartist Movement page, track where they went, and have a hundred profoundly different sub-maps by the end; I love how Wikipedia here provides me the raw data to make unique creative decisions like this, decisions that I like to think lead to both a highly informative and highly entertaining map at the end.

If you wanted to be snarky about it, I suppose you could call it being a "history dilettante," but as mentioned I like to see it more like a mashup artist playing with a bunch of raw material; I'm not taking credit for any of the actual encylopedic material actually written there, but am merely having fun finding new links and connections within this raw data, new ways of showcasing and displaying this information, so that it hopefully inspires new conclusions in your own head about it all, and about the way all these diverse events relate. That's why in a way, it doesn't actually matter at all which particular order I originally read these articles; that's the whole point of an infocloud, after all, is to show it all in this intuitively grouped way, so that the mere text size and space relationship says loads to the human eye about how they all connect. You can just glance at this, for example, and see immediately what I consider some of the most important things that happened during this period -- the Irish potato famine, for example, that led to such a popular uprising against the Tory-led Corn Laws which favored the rich; and how that led to more and more support among the general working class for the radical Chartist movement, a decentralized ad-hoc organization that was the precursor to every liberal political party that now exists in the UK, fueled in many ways by the initial publication of the Communist Manifesto in the same years; and how all this tension led to such things like the national shame of the Peterloo Massacre, which then made the Tories overreact and pass the infamous Six Acts, draconian restrictions that led ironically to so many of the eventual reforms that were to come, literally pushed through Parliament sometimes by violent mobs.

I think it's great that such a mind-map can so elegantly deliver the same kinds of major topics that any old traditional textbook can, proving that it can at least take the place of a general primer on the subject published in traditional dead-tree linear form; but where I think such a map especially starts shining, then, is when you stop and start looking in more closely at the myriad of tiny topics also littering the landscape. Most of these, after all, were picked by me precisely because of having weird names, or because of still being modern institutions that just happened to have started during these times; if you want to keep using this metaphor I've been employing, for example, of a historian being a new type of creative person in this Information Age of ours, these tiny off-shoot articles being recommended would be the historian's version of a "personal style," of the wonderful little quirks of history I in particular thought would be of most interest to others studying the subject. Or to think of it another way, think of those smallest boxes as the fascinating little sidebars you'd find in a magazine article on such a larger subject; how if you were reading about the Duke of Wellington, for example, a humorous little sidebar might be the one about his massive help in getting King's College London established, and how the school still to this day celebrates a "Duel Day" wherein the Duke actually challenged another politician to a public duel for saying disparaging things about the school. (The men eventually saved face by each firing into the air, then the other issuing a public apology. And that, my friend, is how you effectively deal with flame wars and comment trolls!)

19th-Century Wikicloud detail; click for larger version

So how could all of this be of practical help to an amateur historian? Well, let's pretend that you're a college student, and are just about to take on Jane Austen in a literature class for the first time, and will be tested on it all later and with a major essay eventually required. What you could do, then, is concentrate on the section of my map dealing specifically with Austen's time period (shown in the above screenshot -- and again, just click on it for the 1000 x 700 pixel version); as you can see, it provides what I think is a pretty helpful overview of roughly fifty Wikipedia articles that can help a person deeply understand the times Austen lived in. Using the mind-map format, you can immediately pick up on some of the major things that influenced those times; how the entire period was known as the Regency Era, to cite one good example, because of King George III going insane and King George IV effectively running the country as "regent" for over two decades, before becoming king himself and then croaking right off after a decade too. And I love how once you get out to all those little gray boxes on the edge, you get this nice little Cliffs-Notes-style series of small articles on all the various cultural details of Austen's books themselves; what exactly a bonnet is, what exactly Wellington boots are, when exactly the waltz was invented, why exactly laudanum was able to eat away the inside of King George IV's brain even while he was still sitting on the throne. And then finally, I love how I was able to throw in some fun little trivia about the age too, simply by being selective about what I linked to; using my particular map, you learn who Earl Grey tea was named for, which politician inspired the phrase "Bob's your uncle," why so many contemporary Regency movies are filmed in the English city of Cheltenham. And all of this, of course, would do nothing but help a college student understand more and more about Austen, and therefore do better on the resulting test and essay; and all of this from a mere weekend of reading at Wikipedia, from the same amount of text as perhaps one of those 200-page "Idiot's Guide to..." books you find at your favorite overpriced near-bankrupt neighborhood chain.

19th-Century Wikicloud detail; click for larger version

So if you're an amateur historian yourself and are curious about just how long all this exactly takes, let's take a look at this final close-up; this reflects the entirety of the two hours I spent at Wikipedia earlier today working on the project, first finally reading up on Queen Victoria and all the little offshoots that seemed interesting from that main article (which I had actually put off for awhile, because I knew it was going to be dense -- always remember, the goal here is comprehension and retention, not just to check things off a list), and then also reading the detailed write-up of her husband Prince Albert, for a grand total of 25 articles read in the same amount of time it takes to watch a bad movie on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, the only link I didn't get to was the major one for the entire Victorian Era, which is a whole can of worms unto itself and an entire weekend project unto itself; the left side of my map is still scattered with such unexplored orange boxes, in fact, major topics like political parties and sociological ages that are each entire weekend research mini-projects unto themselves. But eventually all these little tree branches will finally peter out; and then it will be time to start up on the right-hand side of the map; and then finally all 500 or 600 articles about the British Empire in my particular map will be read and marked, and it will be time to move on to the next major map of the overall 19th-Century Wikicloud experiment (either the US or France, I haven't decided yet). After all, this is a major point behind doing this particular project in the first place, and why I chose the mind-map format to begin with; it's the first time in my life that I've decided to study a major period of history as it occurred all the way around the planet at once, and I just thought that a dynamic outline like an infocloud would be a much better way to track the thousands of bits of data that will eventually constitute the entire project.

Anyway, so that's it for now; and like I said, once I finally hit 500 or so articles concerning the British Empire, I'm anticipating being almost completely all read out on the subject and ready to put together the final output. And that's where it gets tricky, of course, because how best to present a project that needs to be experienced in its native dynamic way to get the most out of? For example, I will of course be posting the original mind-map that all these screenshots came from, designed in a remarkable piece of freeware called FreeMind; and in the native version of this file, those boxes you see are even clickable as well, so there won't be anything more to do to follow along than to scroll through the boxes and click on the one you'd like to read more about. But I know that most people won't want to sit and install a new piece of software just to check out this project; and that's why I'm also going to put together a traditional page-based electronic book version of the entire thing, designed just like a city-wide road atlas, with a major overview on the front page split into a series of more detailed insets one can directly turn to farther in the PDF, and including write-ups by me of each closeup explaining what exactly you're looking at (much like today's little paragraphs above, for example). And then if I ask nicely, maybe I'll even convince one of CCLaP's readers to create a version of this in Flash as well, all cool and hip and animated and crap, so that you can spin around these branches and limbs and make certain entries zoom all in and out and crap. Hells yeah! Oh, won't some kind, bored, unemployed Flash designer and CCLaP reader design something like this for online playing-around of this British Empire wikicloud?

As always, more details at another time; and you can expect this to be released in final form through CCLaP Publishing late this summer. I hope you liked my nerd thoughts today, Nerdy McNerd!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:13 PM, February 19, 2009. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Design | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |