November 22, 2010

Personal essay: CCLaP's "wikicloud" project is back on.

Yes, yes, I know; that because of my proclivity for experimentation, it seems that I am forever announcing the starts of projects that never end up getting finished, which I'm aware drives some people crazy. Take for example the project I first talked about here almost two years ago now, which I called "The Wikicloud Guide to Britain in the 19th Century," inspired by my recent new role and growing enjoyment as amateur historian; in fact, since the initial development of Wikipedia last decade, I find myself now reading hundreds upon hundreds of entries there every year, and am constantly fascinated by how its hyperlinked structure leads me down these interesting, semi-random yet causally connected roads when doing research there, giving me a deep understanding of a subject by the end but through a non-linear, non-heirarchal path that will be slightly different for every person who goes there and reads through this material themselves. And given that technology now allows, say, photography enthusiasts to be their own amateur curators over at Flickr, and movie buffs to cut their own versions of film trailers over at YouTube, I thought that there had to be a way to let amateur historians do their thing too, and to somehow be able to present their particular wanderings at Wikipedia in some sort of finished, useful way, a way that like these other examples ultimately uses the raw content produced by someone else but that still becomes an original document of its own by the end, a reflection of that particular history buff regarding what they themselves find most interesting about the historical subject being examined.

Mind-map by Brandy Agerbeck

That led me to the process known as "mind-mapping," which is pretty much exactly what I'm talking about, a way to present in a graphic format the results of a non-linear, non-heirarchal thought process; the one above, for example, was done by a Chicago acquaintance of mine named Brandy Agerbeck, who gets hired by companies to come and make such images on the fly while listening in real time to board meetings, strategy sessions and the like. And so that led me last winter to playing around with a whole series of mind-mapping computer applications, none of which I was ever entirely happy with; and in fact, by the time the weather started turning warm again, I had learned the hard way that the previous app I had been using doesn't scale well at all, once you get up to the level of 500 entries or more, and are trying to track the complicated ways they all relate to each other. And of course by then it was spring, and I was suddenly out on my bicycle every spare moment of the day, and starting to plan CCLaP's first live events, right when I was realizing that my "Wikicloud" project had gotten so muddled, I was pretty much going to have to start all over again from scratch; and so I decided to just table the entire project for the time being, until the weather finally turned cold again and I would have a lot more time indoors each day to kill.

And so here we are, mid-November, and I indeed find myself starting to think more and more about this project again; although this time I've decided to cut down on some of the complexity right from the get-go, and make the project specifically about the Victorian Age of 1837 to 1900 instead of the entire 19th century, which lets me drop the endlessly digressive section on the Napoleonic Wars that had so dominated previous versions. And lo and behold, I discovered a new piece of mind-mapping software as well, one that this time finally does do exactly all the things I always wanted a mind-mapping app to do; so what a pleasurable shock, then, to discover that it's a free piece of shareware on top of everything else, the astoundingly great Visual Understanding Environment (or VUE) developed by a team of academic researchers at Tufts University, specifically for the same reason I'm doing my own project, as a way of offering a visual alternative to other academes for presenting their data-heavy research projects in a much more dynamic and intuitive way.

So it looks like my project is indeed back on, although this time I'm doing things a little differently; this time I'm actually keeping a creation diary all through the process too, snapping screenshots of the map at the end of each day of work, and describing what exactly went into that day of work and what about the process I learned from it. When I'm done, then, I'll collect all these diary entries up and publish it as a free ebook through CCLaP; plus will provide the VUE file itself for free download; plus a large PDF for those who wish to examine it only statically or print it onto paper; plus will try VUE's experimental "convert to HTML" feature, and see if I can't get an interactive version of the map published here as a webpage. (If I haven't made this clear, each "node" on the map is married to a hyperlink, that when you click will take you directly to the Wikipedia page on that subject; in this respect, then, like I said, you can see the map as nothing more than Wikipedia itself, only presented in a much different way than the usual black and blue text on a white background.) I doubt that I'll be sharing much of the diary in real time as I write it, but wanted today to at least reprint my notes from the first two days of work, just to give you a better idea of the project in general and what the finished 'process book' will be like...

Screenshot from the creation of 'The Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age'

Screenshot from the creation of 'The Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age'

Day One. After several false starts in the past, I started this newest version of my "Wikicloud" project simply by opening the Wikipedia page on the Victorian Age, and starting to pull off the first, most obvious subtopics found there. That's what all the large orange nodes of my map are, basically the topics I consider the most important when it comes to understanding this period of history, and the Wikipedia entries one should go to first if wanting to get a good general overview of the era while doing just a minimal amount of reading. Based on past tests, I've decided to physically split my topics first into two general "hemispheres" -- along the top half will be issues relating to the arts and sciences, culture and sociology, while the bottom half will cover politics, the military and the aristocracy. (This then becomes more and more specialized in each hemisphere as well -- note how in the top half, for example, topics involving the physical arts are found in one cluster, while subjects regarding attitude and mindset are in another. And for those who are curious, topics concerning business and technology will serve as the equator between the two, since most business and tech issues usually have one foot in each of these worlds.) You may notice, then, that the bottom half of my map is still mostly missing its various subtopics; and that's because I'll be spinning most of them off of the main entries on the Conservative and Liberal political parties, which themselves will be spun off the entries on Queen Victoria and the British Empire, so for now I'm tabling the creation of the entire thing in an attempt to avoid clutter.

Since I had the time, I also started detailing one of the subtopics on the first day of work, in this case concerning London's West End, a hugely important British location during the Victorian Age (but more on this tomorrow); as you can see, the way I basically do this is by first reading the Wikipedia entry in question, then simply pulling off various minor topics linked to on that page, easy to do with Tuft's VUE software, in that you literally just drag a page icon from your web browser to your VUE canvas to create a new node with hyperlink. Links remain in red type until they too have been read, a synopsis has been written for the map, and even more minor links have been pulled off it, at which point the text is changed to black, making it easy to see at a glance which nodes still are yet to be examined. (And this is something else important to mention to those who are only viewing this statically -- that in VUE, you can manually add a synopsis to any node in your map, and have the text show up in a floating box whenever you hover your mouse over it, like you're seeing in that second image above. It makes a map like this especially useful for those looking for only a casual understanding of a particular subject.)

Screenshot from the creation of 'The Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age'

Screenshot from the creation of 'The Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age'

Day Two. Day two of my mapping project brought my first close reading of one particular topic -- the West End of London in this case, an important cultural destination in the Victorian Age which also served as the headquarters for many government offices and the burgeoning civil service. What you're looking at in the close-up above represents about three hours of reading and note-taking, which as you can see covered around twenty entries at Wikipedia; don't forget, as an "armchair historian" who means for this project to inspire his fellow amateurs, all my work sessions are designed around such a timeframe, the idea that in a single Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening one can cover exactly one of these major subtopics in a comprehensive way, a legitimate accomplishment that one can then definitively check off their list at the end of that particular session. So in my case, for example, today I read about the "Whitehall" section of the West End, a small street containing so many governmental destinations that the word itself has by now become shorthand for the entire bureaucracy (Americans, think of saying "the White House" to refer to the entire Executive branch); and I read about the various gentlemen's clubs that once populated this area as well, most established back in the Enlightenment of the 1700s but that saw a surge of popularity in the late Victorian Age, as the various Reform Acts of the 1800s granted more and more men the right to vote, and hence the right to consider themselves "gentlemen" and be privy to all the upper-middle-class perks that entailed. And yes, I read up on Trafalgar Square as well, the public plaza honoring the turning point in Britain's war against Napoleon in the years just preceding the Victorian Age; and I read up on Oxford Street too, the London neighborhood that became the premiere shopping district of the Victorian Age, and which to this day is still the location of most modern clothing chains' "flagship" stores. And frankly, there were a lot of other locations within the West End that I read about during this three-hour session as well, just that I didn't find them important enough to include as their own nodes; and this of course is part of the onus of being a good historian, of applying your own filtering skills to what can sometimes be an overwhelming amount of raw information.

For the best example of this subject, though, see the topic that took up most of my reading time regarding the West End, which is the neighborhood's famed theatre district, to this day known as the London version of Broadway and home of the industry's biggest spectacles; because the fact is that there were dozens of theatres and hundreds of personalities involved in the West End in the Victorian Age, each and every one of which are examined in detail at Wikipedia, but with it simply not feasible to create a graphic representation for them all in my own generalized map. In my case, then, I chose just to highlight two of them -- the Royal Theatre at Drury Lane, which with its 1663 founding is the oldest London theatre still in operation, and one of only four theatres before the Restoration permitted by the government to perform non-musicals; and the Savoy Theatre, which from the standpoint of the general culture is arguably the most important Victorian theatre of them all, and not just for being the first building in history lit entirely with electricity. In fact, this was the home of nearly every comic opera written by the famed team of Gilbert and Sullivan, the theatre itself opened by their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte specifically to mount their productions; and they became so popular that they literally formed the basis for an entirely new type of musical entertainment, the "Savoy opera" which was more satirical and less bawdy than the French "operetta" counterpart that inspired it, often featuring crowd-pleasing "patter-song" tongue-twisters and many times reflecting the British public's growing fascination with Asia (known colloquially as "Japonism"). Based on what I read in my own research, I came to believe that an examination of the Savoy would be the best element of the West End theatre scene to help explain the Victorian Age to a generalized audience, which is why I concentrated so much on it in my own map; but then again, this is just one amateur's opinion (and a biased one at that -- I'm a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan), which is why I'm confident that twenty such projects from twenty different researchers on the same subject would produce twenty radically different maps.

Also today, I started instituting my map's color scheme in a little more detail, a deceptively important aspect of this project; after all, I want the map to not only reflect the flowing, causally connected process of reading Wikipedia, but also want there to be an easy way for a person to pick out specific types of information, which in the VUE version will even be separated into different physical layers, so that you can literally show and hide different classes of entries if you want. So as you can see here, for example, important artistic movements and scientific schools of thought are colored a dark purple, and with important artists, scientists and other thinkers painted a light purple; when I start filling in the bottom half of this map in the future, then, the equivalent categories involving famous wars and laws will be colored dark green, and important politicians and military leaders light green. Perhaps my favorite aspect, though, are the black nodes with white writing; these represent especially quirky, especially fascinating footnotes related to all these larger subjects, basically my chance to add a little fun and personality to my map, and a way to further differentiate it from all the other guides to the Victorian Age that are out there. This is one of the most delightful aspects of being an amateur historian, after all, is to stumble across these strange, forgotten little corners of history, the odd and funny moments that make the subject really come alive; and I have to admit, I find it really delightful to be able to include my own list of such quirks embedded here and there in my own map, and hope that they add a little zing to what can sometimes be a very dry process.

So anyway, that's how things stand as of now; and given that I expect this map to eventually reach almost a thousand nodes before I'm done, this will be enough to keep me busy all winter long, with hopefully a finished project for you to check out by this time next spring. Like I said, although I don't plan on publishing my creation journal in real time, I'll probably end up posting small progress reports like today's here and there over the course of the next several months, so I hope you'll have a chance to check those out whenever you have a chance. As always, I encourage you to share your own thoughts about these topics with your fellow readers over at CCLaP's Facebook group.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:48 AM, November 22, 2010. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Design |