browsing the public discourse

Last spring, I talked about showing a news visualizer from MSNBC called Spectra to a group of advanced composition students. And I talked about how none of the students chose to use that tool when they got to the hands-on portion of the class.  I thought about that again this morning because three sections of that same course came in for library instruction.

An aside – these classes aren’t the typical “how to find a scholarly article” sessions that I do.  The students are being asked to engage with the public discourse in these papers.  Instead of the “find three peer-reviewed journal articles” requirement, these students have to find three editorials or letters to the editor, as well as public conversation on websites like blogs or discussion boards.  So what I show is very different than the things I show in most of my sessionstechnorati authority ratings, advanced searches on Lexis-Nexis and the like.

So we want to encourage some broad exploration of the conversations going on online and in the news media in this class.  Especially this term, because in all 3 classes the students were turning in one paper and just beginning to think about the research paper assignment.  Especially with this kind of find-the-public-conversation topic, it is so much easier when they browse the public conversations and find something that catches their interest and sparks their curiosity than it is when they decide on a specific topic and then have to knock themselves out to find discussion about that.

So this year, I pointed them at Wikipedia, which is an obvious place to browse.  But assuming they all knew that and how to use it, I also showed them newsmap.  This visualization tool has been around for several years now (long enough that they describe themselves as being in need of an upgrade).  The information here is just Google News, but displayed (using flash) as a treemap.  It’s a slice of what’s being highlighted right now (or ten minutes ago, or an hour ago) by Google News.  You can’t search it, you can only browse it.  You can browse by some very broad subjects (health, sports, world news, etc.)

And you can also drill down a bit by geographic location.  Newsmap lets you choose to look at stories from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.  You can also display all countries at once and see them next to each other.

newsmap

So here’s the thing – lots and lots of the students chose to use this tool for browsing.  Even though it can’t be searched.  Part of that, I think, is because of where they were in their process.  Most of them hadn’t even taken the time to think of a general topic area – they JUST finished the previous paper last night or this morning.  So they were more amenable to the idea of browsing broadly.  Part of it, though, is that they obviously found the interface intuitive.  They weren’t just clicking on stories, they were using the tool to browse by country and by subject – everyone I saw was very active in how they used the site.

I don’t know if they were getting the larger ideas about the patterns of the data that the treemap re-presentation of information is designed to provide.  I don’t know if they were seeing how the format “ironically accentuates the bias” of the news, as the site creator claims.  They asked me things like “how did you get to that colorful site,” and “where did you find that really visual thing.”  And in each class, at least a third to half of them were using it for at least part of the time.  So compared to last year, I call that a win for visual browsing.