The videos, images and visualizations of new media provide not only context, but also, I believe, a fundamentally superior understanding of the material being discussed. As I so adamantly defended last week, visualizations capture the imagination of the human mind. In addition, especially with the nature of reading online articles, they serve to keep the attention of the reader.
John Branch’s “Snow Fall” provides an excellent example of the immersive quality of the medium. The article begins with a visualization of snow drifts, and a compelling anecdote of the struggle for survival of Elyse Saugstad after she had been caught in an avalanche. This captures the reader, and prevents the mental malaise that seems to innately affect the lengthy online article. Branch then proceeds to get to the heart of his message: the nature of Tunnel Creek and similar skiing locations, and how the new flock of winter sports enthusiasts threatens a tenuous balance in these locations. Describing the geography of Tunnel Creek provides the reader with the information necessary to understand its risk for avalanches, but the visualization is a captivating depiction, in which the physics of the avalanche becomes a matter of common sense physics. I also appreciated the little tabs next to each important person’s name that provided a picture and a brief description; this makes the character more memorable. I remember names much better with faces to address them.
The “NSA files decoded” article also uses these useful measures. I particularly appreciated the graphic that allowed the user to hover the mouse over important players and how they related to the matter, the visualization of the amount of people included in “three degrees of separation,” and the amount of gigabytes and terabytes the NSA has collected since the user began reading the article. The representation of the votes in Congress on the NSA problem vs. other matters was especially telling. That said, there were a couple irritating problems with the Snowden article that could have been easily avoided. The videos being on auto-play made it very difficult to actually read the article, as other students have acknowledged on this blog; the optional videos in the “Snow Fall” article were perfectly sufficient. Also, I like to highlight my text while I read online: It’s a habit that stuck with me and helps me keep my place. This particular page has the incredibly annoying assumption that the reader would want to link or tweet anything that is highlighted. Not only was this distracting, but it also encouraged the social media habit of quote-mining without proper context. The focus seemed to be on: “Tweet controversial quips from this article so more people will look at the title and form a tactless opinion about it,” rather than on actual education.
An academic writer would surely avoid these rather juvenile problems, however. Using the benefits of new media, historians could provide an interactive and compelling demonstration of their work that would normally be contained in the dry academic paper. The blog, “Invisible Australians,” provides a good example of what something like an academic historical project would look like: hyperlinks to important supporting data and relevant evidence, embedded newspaper articles and images, and graphs, tweets, and videos.