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ThoughtMesh Wires Thinkers across Web
Software aims to transform the way researchers find and publish scholarly writing

ThoughtMesh logo

16_OCTOBER_2007. Finding scholarly writing online used to be a shot in the dark; an academic paper on Cezanne's figure paintings, for example, is unlikely to rank high on a Google search for "nude bathers." Last week, however, Still Water launched a new tool designed to overturn this "lottery" approach by meshing the thoughts of writers from across the Web. Called ThoughtMesh, this software creates clouds of smart keywords that connect excerpts of essays published on different Web sites.

ThoughtMesh map

ThoughtMesh interface closeupHere's how it works: you add your essay to the mesh, and ThoughtMesh gives you a traditional navigation menu plus a tag cloud that enables nonlinear access to text excerpts. You can navigate across excerpts both within the original essay and from related essays distributed across the mesh.

So let's say you are reading an essay on Modern art. You can pick a single word out of that essay's tag cloud--say Picasso--and view a list of all the sections from that essay that relate to Picasso. Or you can view a list of sections of other articles tagged with Picasso, and jump right to one of those sections. You can also combine tags to narrow your search, such as Picasso + Cubism + 1900.

ThoughtMesh interface closeupThoughtMesh is a featured project of the "Difference" issue of USC's Vectors journal, founded to encourage new scholarship in a digital vernacular. Once you've meshed an essay, you can choose to post it in a central repository hosted by the Vectors program, or you can self-archive the essay on your own Web site.

As described in its accompanying essay, ThoughtMesh is designed to:

* Allow navigation by tags as well as essay sections.

Tag clouds are new organizational structures emerging in today's distributed publication communities, most famously in popular social networking sites like del.icio.us, Technorati, and Flickr. In a typical tag cloud, clickable words corresponding to user-defined categories mill or float about on a page, their position and prominence determined by an emergent count of the number of times they have been used rather than by some top-down authorial decision. Clouds allow for overlapping, not dichotomous categories. They visualize relevance as a swarming or bubbling rather than a roll-call or rank.

* Allow dynamic re-organization.

Clicking on a tag should reveal a substructure of relevant points--a particular slice through the essay--without leaving the essay behind.  And readers should be able to choose topics from a single tag (Cezanne) or from combinations of them (Cezanne + nude + bathers).

* Pull in related texts dynamically.

Thanks to John Bell's Telamon software, within the essay interface readers should be able to skim a stream of similarly tagged articles created with the same tool, whether they are hosted on Vectors or Geocities. Unlike  a typical database search, the tool should fetch thematically related excerpts or articles without requiring a page refresh.

* Let authors choose automatic or manual transmission.

An ideal system would let fastidious authors set their own tags for each section, while authors pressed for time could let ThoughtMesh auto-generate their tags based on the most frequently used words in the essay.

* Encourage live conversation.

A presenter using this tool should be able to skip around from one topic to another outside of a pre-ordained order, so as to respond better to live conversation and feedback from others in the room. (Want to see a PowerPoint presenter squirm? Ask her to go back to a slide in the middle of the stack.) And make the tool browser-based, so if anyone asks a question the presenter doesn't know, she can Wikipedia it in another tab!

* Be easy to use.

The must successful Web 2.0 applications (Flickr, del.icio.us, Basecamp) have clean, easy to use interfaces. Inside of fifteen minutes, authors should be able to copy-paste a bunch of paragraphs and watch a navigable cloud of tags emerge.

* Operate in standalone or networked fashion.

One week you're presenting on a laptop in an igloo in Nunavut; the next you're at MIT, where even the bathrooms have WiFi. Either way, the tool should let you strut your stuff--it should be easily networked but not require a network connection.

* Be easily shared with others.

The tool should be lightweight to download and easy to host on your own domain. For maximum reusability, the application should be open source and ideally able to run without a compiler.

ThoughMesh example
Critics call ThoughtMesh:

A dynamic and compelling mode of structuring and interlinking scholarly texts....The cut-and-paste interface and automatic HTML generation allows for very speedy publication....ThoughtMesh is a potentially powerful system through which scholars, students, and other researchers will be able to discover texts related to their interests, and which will allow authors to read and write in collaboration with one another, allowing their texts to develop communally, creating a dense and rich network of discourse. The resulting mesh fruitfully highlights the often under-addressed social nature of reading and writing, as writers react and respond to one another through their texts....this project represents a significant development in the translation of publishing to network settings.
--Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Professor of English and Media Studies, Pomona College.

ThoughtMesh invites you to push beyond the surface of your screen and the modular nature of much of digital culture toward larger enmeshed meanings.
--Tara McPherson, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Critical Studies, USC.

ThoughtMesh is a collaborative project by Vector's Craig Dietrich and Still Water co-director Jon Ippolito, with help from Still Water Research Fellow John Bell.

Updated: 2008-02-05 by Jon Ippolito
Posted 2007-10-20 13:02:59 by Jon Ippolito
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