April 7, 2011

Personal essay: CCLaP's wikicloud guide, a mid-project report.

(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.)

I'm happy to announce that this week, I finally reached the halfway point of CCLaP's "Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age" project I started back in November, although it made me realize that I'm going to have to get a lot more on the ball if I want to have the entire thing done and published by Memorial Day, like the plan has always been. For people new to the center, perhaps I should take a paragraph or two and get you up to speed...

I find myself in middle-age becoming an amateur historian for the first time, and have discovered that I can now easily spend entire afternoons at Wikipedia without even noticing it, fascinated as I am with the way that contextualized hyperlinks there let you do your research in any way or pattern you wish, with all of it still being causally related to what just came before. And just like how film buffs now cut their own trailers together at YouTube, and music fans create their own mixtapes at Soundcloud, so too did I think that it'd be really cool for all those "Wikipedia historians" like me to somehow record and share the stream-of-consciousness journey they go through when at the site and researching a specific topic, with no two maps (or graphical "clouds") exactly alike, and all of them reflecting the particular personalities and quirks of the person who put it together.

Screenshot from CCLaP's Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age

Screenshot from CCLaP's Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age

So that's had me playing around for several years with various types of so-called "mind-mapping" software, which do pretty much exactly what I just described, until finding one I really liked called "Visual Understanding Environment" or VUE, a freeware academic project by a bunch of smarties at Tufts University. And so did I sit down last November and officially start, first by placing the Wikipedia entry for the Victorian Age in general in the middle of my map, then spinning off the most major subtopics on the subject into their own orange nodes. (For those who missed the introductory essay to this project, each rounded box you're seeing in the map represents a page at Wikipedia; VUE lets you actually include the hyperlink, so that merely clicking on it will open the page in your browser, and lets you include your own pop-up notes if you want and multimedia elements like photos and videos, as well as giving you fine-tuned control over the look, feel, size, shape, color and text style of each node.) And thus did I get into evermore nitty-gritty details as I continued, timing each of my "research sessions" to be in the two- to three-hour range, which I figure is all the free time my fellow middle-aged creative-class armchair historians usually get in their own lives, a Tuesday evening here or a Saturday afternoon here, when they're not busy being slaves to their boss, spouse and children.

Screenshot from CCLaP's Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age

(Click the small image above for the gigantic 1800 x 1200 pixel version.)

So what you're seeing here in this image, then, at the project's halfway point, represents 17 of these three-hour sessions, which has yielded a total of 220 fully read entries (the ones with black type; the red-type entries are ones still waiting to be read), or an average of 13 entries per session; so in other words, if you were to work on something like this every evening instead of watching television, it'd take you a little over three weeks to put together what you see here, while if you only get to do this on Sunday afternoons, it'd be more like four months, with the entire project probably taking more like an entire school year. (Don't forget, the whole point of a project like this is to actually learn something, not just rush through entries scanning for links, which is why the per-day average might seem low at first.) For those who missed it the first time, I've essentially split my own map first into two halves -- the arts and sciences in purple on the top, and then government, royalty and the military in green on the bottom, with subjects like ethics, business and the civil-service bureaucracy bridging the two at the equator -- and then split each half even further in these sometimes complicated ways; for example, in the arts and science half that's now complete, individual nodes can be broken down by color into regular major topics (orange) and minor ones (gray), important movements and schools of thought (dark purple), important people (light purple), famous locations (blue), and trivia (black), while thematically we travel slowly from the West End to the East End of London as we cross the map, with the various accoutrements attached to each (opera and fashion on the West End, crime and bohemians on the East, etc) generally lining up with them. (And why do they appear geographically backwards, when traditionally we portray the west and east of a map on the respective left and right sides of an image? Well, because they need to match up with the political nodes there in the bottom half, which are in the correct traditional order -- liberals on the left, conservatives on the right -- which means that the radical social reforms and experimental arts of the East End actually need to appear on the left side of this particular layout. And yes, the green nodes on the bottom relate directly to the purple ones on the top -- dark boxes represent significant laws, battles and political movements, light boxes significant politicians, military leaders and members of the aristocracy.)

One of the things I really love, then, is how the map is coming out just like I envisioned when it comes to being able to navigate it by causal connection, just like you would while at Wikipedia; because let's face it, if you were to publish all the content found in this map as a traditional textbook, by definition that information would have to come in a specific, predetermined, unchanging and linear order. And so, just to use a good example, even though a person like Richard D'Oyly Carte had a heavy hand in such diverse industries as light opera, luxury hotels and author tours, a traditional book must still choose one of these subjects to come right after the section on Carte, and one to not appear until at least three chapters later, making the decision for the audience to falsely associate him with one of these more than the others; while in my map you can merely glance at his location and understand the complex role he played in shaping all kinds of aspects of the Victorian arts, just one of the many surprises I've learned about this era in the course of doing this project.

Screenshot from CCLaP's Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age

And so if we were to take just one random subject from what's currently there, say for example the topic of fine-art painting and other decorative arts, I really love how you can just glance at it and automatically start absorbing what's most important to know, by going straight to the dark purple nodes -- how the Victorian decorative arts were mostly shaped by such movements as Aethesticism, Arts & Crafts, Japonism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of how these in turn were related to things like Renaissance Revival in architecture, Gilbert & Sullivan in music, Liberty & Co. in fashion and retail. I love how a heightened interest in the subject might lead you to the light purple boxes scattered in between, people like Dante Rosetti and John Ruskin, and how their locations in the map give you further clues as well to how they relate to these overall subjects, well before starting to read about any of these subjects in detail. And of course, as I've said before, what especially tickles me is the opportunity to drop in some of the fascinating trivia and bizarre anecdotes I myself have been learning along the way, which after all is one of the main pleasures in being an amateur historian in the first place, and is the one part of this map most reflective of my particular personality -- so in this example, reading up on people like Walter Sickert, one of the only British painters of those years to understand the shocking importance of the Impressionism going on in France and Italy at the time, and whose fascination with prostitutes made him the subject of a bizarre Jack The Ripper conspiracy theory in the 1970s involving a royal-family coverup; or perhaps pteridomania, the short-lived fad for ferns in British interior design in those years, inspired by the new rail lines of those years letting more and more tourists visit the northern wilds of England where such plants thrived, which when combined with the invention of plate glass in those years led to the widespread construction of greenhouses across Britain, which in turn would fuel the much better-known orchid craze that came later in history.

This is one of the things I most enjoy about being an amateur historian, after all, is learning enough obscure stuff about a big subject to be able to put two and two together in my head in new ways, ways maybe others mostly don't, ways that make me understand how various weird details are actually linked to more general trends that were happening at the time, a thought process that a graphical map like this excels at encouraging, making it easy to see both the big picture and all its quirky little details at once; so for example, how the Victorian middle-class was a bit obsessed with ghosts and other forms of spiritualism, right at the same time as modern science was starting to make more and more "impossible" things like a steam-fueled world come true every day, right as the fascination for Gothic Revival architecture exploded, right as the Weird genre was invented in literature, right as "slumming it" for a night in such notorious neighborhoods as Limehouse first became a popular activity among the bored bourgeoisie, because of becoming entranced by their dark corners through lurid stories in penny dreadfuls. It might be difficult with a regular paper textbook to understand how these scattered topics might relate to each other; see them all at once in a big graphic cloud, however, and you suddenly understand a crucial part of what everyday life for the average 19th-century Briton was like.

Screenshot from CCLaP's Wikicloud Guide to the Victorian Age

Anyway, like I said, work continues apace, although I'm going to have to step it up if I want to release the final project by my goal of Memorial Day; for those who don't know, that release will consist of the map itself (which you'll be able to open on your own computer by downloading the free VUE software), plus an experimental HTML version of the map which I'm going to try posting online, plus of course full-sized PDFs and JPEGs of the static map, plus a new electronic book I've been writing about the making of the map, in which each day I've been journaling what exactly I did in that session, taking copious screenshots along the way, which when it's done will not only explain this map's subjects in greater detail but also offer tips and advice to those trying their own. And that is what I hope will happen, of course, that this map when it's finished will inspire my fellow weekend historians to create their own, and that we can maybe create a shared space online for everyone to post and swap these maps with each other and the public. If you're interested in doing so, please drop me a line at [cclapcenter at gmail.com] and let me know; otherwise, I hope you enjoy the final project when it's finished and out at the end of next month. Er, hopefully.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:17 PM, April 7, 2011. Filed under: CCLaP news | Design | Literature |