The Public Humanist

Sites that Make you Say "Whoaaaaa!"

Nowadays we use the World Wide Web for so many mundane tasks that it is easy to forget the utter joy of encountering a creative, playful, information-rich site, a site that makes you say "whoaaaaaaa!" and keeps you engaged way past lunchtime or bedtime. History fans may remember the thrill of first visiting the DoHistory site with its "Magic Lens" that automagically transcribed 17th century handwriting as you read. Or perhaps you lost yourself for hours in the sheer volume of primary source material in the Making of America collections or in the Library of Congress' American Memory Project. There really is nothing like the serendipitous discovery of a website that is simultaneously a beautiful tool, an expression of creative thinking and a repository of rich content. So, as a lunchbreak special, here are a few more recent, or generally less well-known, treasures you may enjoy.

Muckety is another one of those silly words we end up saying with a straight face (c.f. Yahoo / Blog / Doodle...) because what it offers is so seriously cool. I'm tempted to simply encourage you to go to, pick a book from the list, and then, well, just click around and see what happens. But for those who prefer a preview, let me add that Muckety is a social network visualization tool that represents relationships between and among people, organizations, books, music, and more. The application generates an interactive chart showing the shifting web of connections based on who - or what - you have chosen as the core item. The site organizes its "mucketies" around current news stories, inviting the user to explore the relationships among the powers-that-be. But there's so much to do on this site that it can make your head spin. Try typing in the name of a person, book or organization (Library of Congress? Babbitt? Bette Midler?) into the search box in the upper right of the home screen, and see where it leads. The site lets you follow a trail till you have crafted a visual "Muckety" that you want to share with the world, but you can't - yet - upload your own data and see it Muckety-ized yet. The developers are working on making that possible. There's not much info provided on the site about Muckety's creators or scope, beyond the simple tagline "Exploring the paths of power and influence." The data it maps is by no means exhaustive, but what a fun proof-of-concept this is.

Next stop, The History Browser, a "generative browser" that combines maps, timelines, and data visualizations to encourage exploration of historical events. "The History Browser encourages primary source documents to speak more directly to the audience by providing visualizations of the relationships, chronologies, and causal events." Take for instance its exemplary project Jefferson’s Travels. Described as "an interactive look at Thomas Jefferson’s life organized around where he was and when", the site "offers an opportunity to explore Mr. Jefferson’s life by examining primary source documents and information." Many humanities multimedia projects could be described with similar words, but the level of data visualization here makes it more impressively different. The History Browser combines a timeline, images, and data, in this case info Thomas Jefferson's 1786 trip to England. Click the rather subtle green arrow to start the visualization, and watch a little Tom icon scoot around London. You can stop him at any point, and click to view more information. Jefferson's Letters, a related History Browser project viewable on the same site, is even better. Clicking on the tab opens another visualization, this time of the paths taken by correspondence to and from Jefferson during his sojourn abroad. Click that subtle green arrow to start, and little envelopes will meander on and off the map; click on a little envelope and view a facsimile image of the letter, with transcription! This is one of those tools that make you yearn to apply this application’s capabilities to your own data from other eras, about other topics or people. Project manager Bill Ferster would like to open up the History Browser to wider use; here's hoping that he is successful in that endeavor.

When's the last time you visited the Internet Archive? You may remember paying homage to a vintage version of a favorite website through the Wayback Machine, but have you noted recently how much amazing content is available there, with more added daily? The IA is "a nonprofit organization dedicated to building and maintaining a free and openly accessible online digital library, including an archive of the Web." Now that's a staggering mission, and the resources that Brewster Kahle and his collaborators have solicited, gathered and indexed is staggering too. Books, snapshots of websites over time, a video archive including newsreels, cartoons, propaganda films - this is an actual ALA library, totally digital, with 184,249 movies, 65,680 live concerts, 366,176 other audio recordings, and more than 1,470,600 texts. All free of charge, all publicly accessible, aiming towards "universal access to human knowledge" - now that's worth a lunchtime visit.

The 20th century is so last millennium, and yet it's still fun to spend some time with this early narrative tool and immersive 20th century environment. A Random Walk through the 20th Century presents the history of the period as "a complex mosaic - a system of interacting motivations, events, and personalities." The subject of the story being told is Jerome Wiesner, the charismatic president of MIT from 1971-1980, a man "admired by both poets and politicians". The site itself was built 'way back in the 1990's by the MIT Media Lab using the web delivery tools du jour: Java, Quicktime, AIFF, with the site "optimized for use with Netscape 3.0". And yet it still functions, and is still capable of delighting and amazing the random visitor. Try clicking around to explore how it works, or click on the "help" link if you're the type who reads such things. There you'll learn that the interface is made up of two pieces: the Keyword Grid on the left and the Material Listing on the right. The Keyword Grid (the white square of tiles) has elements that represent five time periods of Wiesner's life down the main diagonal; themes like education, disarmament, peace and people including family members, friends, colleagues. The Material Listing is the dense clumping of text to the right of the Keyword Grid, showing every available multimedia source illustrating the time periods or themes in the Keyword Grid: video clips, images, text documents. "As tiles are activated on the Keyword Grid, the Material Listing responds by emphasizing those materials that are relevant." That description is nowhere near as absorbing as the experience itself - do give it a try!

The narrative framework and the interface in Random Walk are both quite elegant, and even its controlled vocabulary is poetry in action. "Co-conspirators, breakdown, remembering kennedy, after the bomb, on trial, racism @ MIT, test ban, scientists move, who me? community decision, network of women, wednesdays in mississippi..." are just some of the doors into a rich exploration of a century past. History Wired: A Few of Our Favorite Things is an "experimental site [that] introduces visitors to some of the three million objects held by the National Museum of American History." Its multidimensional grid interface is reminiscent of Random Walk, and yet it is somehow not as satisfying an experience, even though it had ten years' of technical advances at its disposal compared to the Random Walk developers. Thinking through what works and what doesn't on each of these sites would be a useful exercise for anyone working in the area.

But enough of the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries! I can think of no better way to pay tribute to our own 21st century's evolving narrative frameworks than by pointing to We Feel Fine, "an exploration of human emotion on a global scale," an "artwork authored by everyone," "a self-organizing particle system, where each particle represents a single feeling posted by a single individual" - all at the same time! Here's how creators Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar describe the process: "Every few minutes, the system searches the world's newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it parses the sentence and identifies the particular feeling expressed, whether happy, sad, curious, depressed, etc. "The interface consists of a mesmerizing field of multicolored particles, and each particle can be clicked to display the full sentence or photograph it contains. "The particles careen wildly around the screen until asked to self-organize along any number of axes, expressing various pictures of human emotion." Again, you really should try this out for yourself to fully experience the dizzy kick of tuning in and out of the cosmic echoes of fellow humans' feelings. The interface can be a bit slow to load, but it's worth the wait. Click around at random, explore, play, and be sure to read about the six formal "movements" that make up this human symphony of emotion: Madness, Murmurs, Montage, Mobs, Metrics, and Mounds.

Along with its content analysis of blog texts, "We Feel Fine" extracts blogs' date, time, and location stamps and uses those to grab weather data, all to situate the particle emotions in time and space, giving the feelings a connection with real humans. It's no secret that "data" is sometimes viewed suspiciously by humanities folks, who generally favor the perceived liveliness of free-form text over the perceived dryness of structured data. But in fact, all of the wonderful sites referred to in this post are backed by structured data that give them their depth and richness. So, let's close with a toast: to data! And cool digital tools! And, not least, to the ever-inventive minds and hearts of humanists.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate