Monday, 26 August 2013

Wikis, blogs and clipping

I've recently gotten interested in Thomas Herbert - who had a walk on part during the trial and execution of Charles I in 1648-9. That isn't why I'm interested in him - it's more because he is one of the first documented early modern travellers to Persia, and one of the first to bring back a copy of cuneiform text to England.

Of course he didn't just wake up one day and think "I think I'll go to Persia and look for ancient writing", his voyage is part of a much larger story of the development of the East India Company, and how England went from what was frankly a backward and rather poor place where people wore wool and linen and ate apples to somewhere where people drank tea and could aspire to wear silk.

That is not however what this post is about, rather it's about blogging, building a story and assembling material.

The first part of any activity like this is collecting notes. Once one would have xeroxed interesting things and made notes on index cards but now one creates a heap of vaguely related material suitably tagged in evernote - it doesn't have to be evernote, zotero might well do, but I use evernote.

Tags are used (or not) to create a folksonomy - often and idiosyncratic and inconsistent folksonomy, but a folksonomy.

I've known people write little notes on index cards in the old days to achive much the same effect. What one ends up with is a pile of thematically related material from which one could make something - a novel, a history paper or something.

I'm talking about Thomas Herbert here, but the process is similar to designing a project with notes on exemplars, problems, relevant bits of code etc.

And then at some point one needs to organise it - and this is where wikis come in.

Folksonomies can only take you so far. Organising material is largely about identifying linkages and the gaps and inconsistencies between chunks of the material.

However, help is at hand. Wikis are great for documentation. They are great for documentation as they allow you to put all the relevant bits of documentation required into an organised structure and crucially change that structure if it's not right.

What they are also great for is organising material. This is something that isn't touted as a virtue of wikis but think back to those 9x6 index cards. You could lay them out (in fact I used to do this years ago when I was a research student) with the most closely related facts next to each other and less related further away. You could then turn this into a connectedness diagram by writing down the titles of the notes as a list in each of the blobs and drawing connections to each of them.

Wikis let you do this because you don't need to think about the underlying file structure. For example look at my East India Company page:

  • click on people under 'early contacts' and it will take you to Thomas Herbert
  • click on 'early engagement' under Persia and you can find your way to the same place.

There's obviously a relation between the various bits of text, but if you look at the url's the structure is flat. I could at this stage go all computer science and say I've abstracted the structure from the file system, but what I really mean is that you can make up the relationship between the individual bits of text and change it with out having to poke about in the file system.

Now quite a few researchers have blogs where they write about their research. Blogs are by their nature linear and are like a personal journal or a series of letters between oneself and the world, a bit like nineteenth century naturalists used to send letters to learned societies. Blogs clearly have an importtant role in communication but they are not about building ideas and understanding out of material. They might well be about communicating the results, but not about the material that gets you there.

Wikis on the other hand are not linear, and not sequential, and as such allow one to develop a document describing something over time.

The puzzle for me is - they don't seem to be much used in this way - am I missing something?

Written with StackEdit.

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