Between podcasts, newspapers, blogs, journals, books, and video, I have access to far more media than I could possibly consume. Rather than having to search for information, I swim through a vast sea of it. The labor comes in deciding what I want to think about right now and then charting a path through good information.
These pathways through information are big business. Google’s algorithms and personalization through data collection are built to provide a path. Amazon is not so much a store but a service to guide you through the vast array of products to discover the one widget you can’t live without. Now JSTOR, Gale, and the other academic warehouses are investing in algorithms and tools to guide you through their dark waters.
Lately, I’ve been collaborating on a project that builds a visual pathway through the thematic connections between blog posts, creating a map for this cluster of information. ‘Inhabiting the Anthropocene‘ is an interdisciplinary, group blog started here at the University of Oklahoma “in order to understand better how humans’ transform the Earth through their habitation of it, and to imagine how the processes and results of habitation might better contribute to the Earth’s habitability.”
In 2015, this group pulled together a selection of their blog posts and tagged theme with information about the intellectual approaches and thematic content. The project leader, philosophy professor Zev Trachtenberg teamed up with James Adams (at that time an Emerging Technologies Librarian at the University of Oklahoma’s Bizzell Library & now a Data and Visualization Librarian at Dartmouth College) to develop a web app to visualize these connections. ‘Habitation in the Anthropocene: An Interdisciplinary Interaction‘ uses Cytoscape to produce seven graphs illustrating the connections between the blog posts. Selecting any one of these graphs triggers changes throughout the web apps’ three main frames. For each graph there is a description and legend. Within the graph, you can select any of the posts, represented as nodes to pull up the text of the original blog post and information about the author. You can also mouse over the graphs’ edges to pull up more information about the connections being represented.
I find this project exciting because it provides a visual grammar for the traditional humanist’s research strategy of crawling through footnotes. By adding thematic tags, we can transform the traditional bibliography into a map of a research field. We could take the tags and categories from larger sets of blog posts and drop them into similar visualizations. We could use text analysis to create thematic tags for a corpus of primary texts or use Hypothes.is to tag online readings. These curated paths can restore a sense of connectivity between writers and readers. This thematic visualization is one tool for restoring rational choice to the process of information consumption.