October 25, 2007

Vectors: ThoughtMesh

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:11 am
ThoughtMesh logo

It’s time to get hands-on with the future of scholarship. This is the message of ThoughtMesh, one of the intriguing projects in the new “Difference” issue of Vectors. I decided to give it a try.

ThoughtMesh is a project from Jon Ippolito and Craig Dietrich. As Jon describes the project:

When Craig Dietrich and I set out to build ThoughtMesh, we asked ourselves how an ideal publishing tool for scholars would behave. We decided that we wanted a system that was distributed — not siloed away in a single database, but able to be published on any Web site anywhere. We also wanted all the essays to be connected to each other, by something less random than search returns, but more serendipitous than intentional hyperlinks.

The result, ThoughtMesh, is designed to:

* Allow navigation by tags as well as essay sections.
* Allow dynamic re-organization.
* Pull in related texts dynamically.
* Let authors choose automatic or manual transmission.
* Encourage live conversation.
* Be easy to use.
* Operate in standalone or networked fashion.
* Be easily shared with others.

I haven’t found many responses to the ThoughtMesh beta online (not counting a blog post from Jon or a totally different Thought Mesh). But Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a thoughtful response on the Vectors forums. She writes:

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. However, in ThoughtMesh, the texts themselves remain closed systems, allowing their authors to interact, but restricting others to read-only access. For a fully social publishing network to emerge, it would be useful for future development of ThoughtMesh to include possibilities for reader response or interaction beyond simply clicking and reading. What if readers could add tags that enable their own uses and interpretations of these texts? What if texts were open to commenting and discussion, allowing authors to receive feedback from a broader readership?

Jon and Craig have, apparently, been thinking a bit about this. They mention the Re:Poste system. But Kathleen, I’m guessing, has something like CommentPress in mind. If you don’t yet know about CommentPress, I highly recommend Kathleen’s essay about CommentPress, presented using CommentPress.

So, as I said, I gave ThoughtMesh a try. If you’re interested in doing so yourself, I suggest you check out the tutorial movie. As advertised, it was easy. As for the results, I’m waiting to see. It was pleasing to notice the connections made between the essay I submitted and one of Alex Galloway’s, but right now ThoughtMesh doesn’t have enough submissions to live up to its potential. So I urge you to give it a try — it’s worth your time to be part of the experiment in seeing how this could work. It’s also important to share your thoughts (in the comments here, or in the Vectors forum for ThoughtMesh) so that the developers of ThoughtMesh, and the developers of future platforms for our work, can learn the most possible from this experiment.

In that spirit — and not meaning to discourage anyone — here’s what the critical part of me thought. The biggest problem with ThoughtMesh (that is visible to me at this moment) is the time it takes to make contributions. However, I think that this can likely be addressed with some further development. For example, one thing the system really needs is a way to edit tags at a higher level. Right now authors have to review and edit the tags for each small section of text individually. Instead, I should be able to look at the complete list of auto-generated tags and remove all the inappropriate ones at once. I should be able to choose several sections of my writing (or the whole current contribution) and apply a tag to the each element of the group. Improvements like this will increase the willingness of scholars, already feeling pressed for time, to make the speculative investment in ThoughtMesh that I hope they will.

3 Responses to “Vectors: ThoughtMesh”

  1. noah Says:

    I’ve been thinking more about ThoughtMesh — and I realize that my initial impressions were very much from my perspective as a scholar who has no trouble putting my work online. In fact, the essay I added to ThoughtMesh was already on the web elsewhere (and ThoughtMesh gave me a way to point to that permanent home).

    But, thinking back on what I’ve read and heard about ThoughtMesh, I realize that I represent only one audience for the project … and arguably not the most important audience. ThoughtMesh is also a simple and (compared to other methods) fast way for scholars who don’t have a lot of web savvy to get new material online.

    So, while I certainly still urge blogging, tech-engaged authors to experiment with ThoughtMesh, I now think the main thing I should have been doing is urging my less technically-inclined colleagues to use it as a way of becoming part of online scholarship. So that’s the plan from here…

  2. Mark Says:

    This is a pretty interesting idea! It actually reminds me of one of the main reasons I like Wikipedia, although it isn’t really Wikipedia’s main distinguishing feature. Reading traditional academic publications is a very linear knowledge-acquisition process, and switching sources is high-latency, so you basically just read or skim a paper or book, then look up some references, read or skim those, etc.

    With Wikipedia the typical way I use it is instead to maintain a “knowledge frontier” around the topic I’m researching as a set of open tabs. As I read about stuff in the frontier, I can expand it more in that direction (open new tabs for articles that it points to), both in a broad direction (related topics) and deep direction (more detailed sub-articles), etc. Unlike with traditional publications I have much more control over precisely which part of the frontier I want to expand next, how deep to go in each possible direction, etc. ThoughtMesh seems like an interesting attempt to bring some of that style of navigation to academic writing, which would be cool if it turns out to work well.

  3. Jon Ippolito Says:

    Noah (and Mark),

    Thanks for this excellent article and feedback on ThoughtMesh. My Craig Dietrich and I agree that your suggestion of a global tag editor would make it easier for authors to finesse the metadata associated with their essays, and therefore the links between their essays and others in the mesh.

    So we’re going to try it! Craig has a significant editor upgrade coming out soon; I’m not sure this feature will make it into this next release, but it’s now on our To Do list.

    You’re also spot-on about the need to snare a critical mass of good writing. Craig and I have been working with USC to encourage authors of previous Vectors issues to retrofit their articles with meshed dopplegangers; since most of the Vectors publications end up in Flash, this re-publication would also serve to expose more of Vectors scholarship to Google. (This side benefit is a bit ironic, since one of the motivations behind ThoughtMesh was to provide an end-run around Google.)

    I was also glad to hear that ThoughtMesh mirrors Mark’s online research style, as it does mine. A multi-tab interface is also my presentation style, as it’s a lot easier to respond to an audience’s questions and comments by opening a new tab in Firefox than in vainly searching for a relevant slide in your PowerPoint stack.

    In fact, Mark’s suggestion makes me wonder if some future iteration of ThoughtMesh should include a bookmarking / citation feature to facilitate research based on lateral thinking…?

    Anyway, good food for thought(mesh)!


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