Back in 2007 we started working on ThisIsLike.Com – an online tool to collect, retain, and share knowledge using network visualizations. One of the main challenges was to create the interface that would be easy to use and we are still working on that. A few days ago Friends of the Web announced their new product called Wikiweb App, which seems like a really well-done implementation of network interface for navigating Wikipedia data. We purchased the app and here are some first impressions.
First of all, Wikiweb iPhone app has a very easy-to-use and clear interface, which is a real relief, because many of the similar apps are just too bulky, unresponsive and heavy. The way it works is very simple: you search for something on Wikipedia, it shows you the article you found and all the related articles that it links to. You then can explore Wikipedia associatively starting from something you already know and ending up somewhere you are curious about. This is the greatest potential of network interfaces: they can transform the way we read and learn by emphasizing relationships over the actual entities and thus bringing us to a more holistic and interconnected way of seeing things.
Another great feature is that you can delete some of the nodes in the resulting map and share it with the others. This can be a great tool for teachers who want to share a topic with their class. When you click on the node, you can see its Wikipedia article and then navigate further using the network or the links in the article as the guide.
Despite the fact that we really love the app, there are also some disadvantages, which the developers should really address if they want to make Wikiweb useful. For instance, it’s not clear how the app ranges the size of the nodes in the network. It would make sense to introduce some simple transparent guiding principle that could indicate potentially interesting articles related to the one we’re viewing. We’d also love to see how the nodes that are connected to the main one are also connected between each other. This would give us a much better visual representation of further possibilities for visual exploration of a certain topic. Finally, and that’s the main problem, all existing tools use the existing relationship data to provide semantic maps. However, it would be great to see them opening up to external input, sort of like Wikipedia of relationships between the terms. We would then see people using the app not only to navigate the existing data constellations but also creating their own, building on top of the already available knowledge and harnessing the power of networks to offer a different way of seeing things, learning, and sharing ideas.