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Author Archives: Erin Glass

Turning an idea into a tool

jotleaf

Unless you are blessed with better party invites than I, chances are you know just as little about what goes on in the minds of our toolmakers.  All of us, at some point or another, wish that we were BFFs with a coder so that we could finally build our brilliant self-destructing media app that would erase — with the swipe of the screen — all personal messages released into the eternal preserve of digital correspondence.  Oh yeah, or RateMyDate.

Kidding aside, regardless of whether digital tools trigger your personal faculties of enthusiasm or ennui, they powerfully shape the way scholars work and the way that work enters both the scholarly and public conversation.  And while I have preferred reading little poems composed when poetry was still meant to be sung, I too, have fallen charmed by the potential of tools to shape not just the way we communicate, but the way we think.

And so, in attempt to begin bridging the gap between tool makers and tool users, I begged the kind and illustrious programmer Andrew Badr to answer a few questions via email.  Thus far, Andrew has worked on an array of interesting projects, such as the art site Your World of Text which was misattributed to Miranda July and gushed about on Reddit.  Currently, he’s working on a start up project called Jotleaf — an interactive web canvas.  Though not built specifically with academics in mind, one never knows exactly what prototypes will become tomorrow’s fork and knife.  In his answers below, Andrew kindly spills the beans on what it’s like to turn an idea into tool.

1.  What is JotLeaf?
A Jotleaf page is an interactive canvas for the web. You can click anywhere on it to starting writing, add pictures, or embed videos or music players. You can style it in different ways, with custom colors and fonts, or invite people to collaborate on a page with you. It’s like a new creative medium. (See jotleaf.com and andrewbadr.com for other descriptions.)

Some ways people are using it:

To make art:

-To talk to their friends & fans:

To some degree, we are trying to let the community guide our understanding of what this new medium is best suited for. But we also think things are possible that it isn’t being used for much yet, like creating more general-purpose websites, which guides some of the feature development.

The idea for it came out of a previous site I did, called Your World of Text. See http://yourworldoftext.com/home/ and the description on my homepage (under “Some Things I’ve Done”). Your World of Text is an art project, and I want to keep it that way. But for the past couple years, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to turn the same kind of interactivity into a “startup”. Jotleaf is the answer to that question. And that’s just as much about my attitude towards the project, and how the site is presented and marketing, as it is about features.

I first saw Jotleaf in my mind some time in April of last year (2012). I started working on it part-time for a few months, then more seriously starting in September. In December, a friend from college joined the project, and we committed ourselves to it full-time. He lives in Italy, so in January I moved out here for three months to work more closely with him. We got some funding from friends and family — enough for a few months, to try to get the site to the next level and then raise a real round. In May, he’s moving to San Francisco for three months, and we’ll continue our work there.

2.  What does building such a tool entail?
A day’s work, at this point, is mostly writing code. Code to make the site do new things; make it look better; make it more reliable; and fix any problems that come up. There’s also marketing and customer support: Facebook and Twitter accounts, a monthly newsletter, and constantly talking to our users to see what they like and don’t like about the site.One challenge is that people can’t really tell you what they want. The best thing for your startup might be to radically change the product, but a user will never say that. Or say your site is slow — that will drive people away, but people don’t necessarily consciously realize that. So that’s where measurement and intuition come in.

3. How did you personally get involved in this line of work? Have you worked on any other similar projects?
I’ve been making websites since high school, and experimenting with the medium from the start. I didn’t know it was “what I wanted to do” until late in college though. The big appeal to me is how you can put something out there, and then the next day — you make the right thing  — the whole world could see it. You aren’t limited by who you know, or your credentials, or your hourly wage. It’s an exponential game.

4.  Tell us about what’s most exciting in digital innovation today! 
For the most exciting things today, Chris Dixon pretty much lists them out in this blog post.

But programming is always exciting, because it builds upon itself in a way that no other human endeavor has done. Something that took a year to program ten years ago is now a page of code that you could write in a day. And it’s been happening like that for decades, building layers of abstraction on top of each other, and it’s going to keep happening. The amount of leverage that one person has is amazing, and is going to keep getting more so.

5.  How might academics better collaborate with digital folk to improve upon or create new tools?
Re: academia, to be honest it’s hard to imagine new tools coming fromthat direction. The best people to create the tools are the people who use them. Academics should create tools insofar as they are practitioners. The most useful stuff I see out of academia is studies about user behavior.

6.  You’re in Turin right now.  Anything interesting to report about the international digital scene, or how exactly you started collaborating with an international partner?
I don’t know nothing about no international digital scene. I’m in Turin because my friend from college lives here. I don’t really hang out with anyone besides him, his wife, and their two year old daughter. 🙂

7. And perhaps not-relevant, but have to ask:   Are you socially-engaged with any academics in a way that influences the way you think about the potential of technology?
The only way I can think of that I’m socially involved with academics is that I follow @golan on Twitter and he posts interesting stuff sometimes.

8.  What inspires you?
What inspires me? Well, if you mean what’s my source of ideas, I’m just thinking about the web all the time. I have at least one idea. I’ve literally dreamt several website ideas. If you mean motivation… I want to push the web forward, and change people’s conception of what it could be, and create a space for new kinds of creativity and communication, and make something big.

9.  If time and money weren’t an issue, what would you build?
If money weren’t an issue, I’d hire my friend Brian. If time stopped, I’d first write a framework in which to write a framework in which to write my website. But basically I’m doing what I want to be doing right now.

Photo Credit: Joe Aranda, from JotLeaf.com.

Text mining at the GC

Back in December, GC English student Sarah Ruth Jacobs posted about the possibility of losing software that might be of interest to English students:

There are 5 installations of a text mining software that can be used for qualitative and quantitative textual analysis called QDA Miner with WordStat and Simstat in room 5487 at the Grad Center. The IT person at the meeting said that it has only been used ONCE, and so if we want to keep it we need to use it.

Having absolutely zero experience with text mining software, I decided to ask the person responsible for using it ONCE if the rest of us folk were missing out on anything.

Enter the English department’s very own digital guru Amanda Licastro, who used text mining tools for a paper in Spring 2011 in order to analyze 36 digitized prefaces published between 1600 to 1800.   Drawing from Franco Moretti’s 2009 Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740–1850), Amanda used these tools to identify frequent keywords in her sample selection.  By analyzing these keywords and their contexts — with both new tools and traditional methods — she makes several suggestions about the role of the preface in the 18th century.

genrepie

But the other interesting thing about her paper is her comparison of two different types of text mining tools.  Amanda experimented with both QDA Miner with Wordstat 6.1 (which clocks in around $4000 for commercial use) and also a similar (though free and open source) tool,  Intelligent Archive.   Though Intelligent Archive did not come with all the bells and whistles of QDA Miner (such as automatically outputting charts like the one shown above), Amanda did recommend the open source tool as a respectable alternative.  Just remember, regardless of which tool one uses, to “always clean up your data!”

I thank Amanda for her full comparison here:

There are remarkable differences between the two programs, and as part of this  experiment I would like to point to several that are significant in terms of textual analysis. The  Intelligent Archive allows the user to filter out common words such as prepositions and articles,  WordStat does not. It also allows you to search coded text if you have a text uploaded in the  Textual Coding Initiative (TEI) format. As of May 2011, TCP has released thousands of TEI  encoded eighteenth century texts, but they are still not publicly available to download. 6 The  QDA Miner solves this problem by allowing you to code text easily within the program. The  user can encode any amount of text and designate it as a part of a user generated category. The coded text can overlap and be coded as more than one category. The coded text is searchable,  and the user can perform content and statistical analysis using the data from one category of  coded text, or can compare multiple sets of data. For instance, you can do a word frequency on  one set of coded text and the results will show that word in the context of a sentence or  paragraph, determined by the user before the search. The user can then eliminate uses of the  word that do not fit the experiment before opening the list in WordStat to create graphs or charts  that display the results. This gives the user more control over their results by adding a process  that at this time still necessitates human intervention, because the program cannot yet identify  the meaning of a word by the context in which it is used. It would be impossible to create valid  codes and properly narrow the results without a strong understanding of the original material. In  other words, it is at this point when traditional literary scholarship is necessary.