Timeline vs. Webs

“Both the readings (McCloud & Berners-Lee, et al.) consider how interfaces shape user experience. For this week’s make, do a brief analysis of time (like McCloud did for comics) as encoded in a digital interface of your choice. For instance, how is time represented on your web browser, smart phone, Apple Watch, Mac or Windows interface, YouTube, Twitter, WordPress, Scholar, or some other digital interface? And what are the implications for how users use the system/object/technology?”    — NMS, Week 12 Make

Even though most of the digital interfaces I use leverage webs of layered data, linear chronology remains central.  Your Twitter timeline, Firefox browsing history, Nike+ activity record — all present a reverse chronology of what has happened and where you have been.

I am not complaining. I believe that sequence matters.  Indeed it is essential to understanding change over time, which is what historians are all about. But the promise and magic of web-based interfaces comes from the explicitly non-linear nature of a web — the linked, infinitely expanding nodes of related material and meaning that add dimension to a sequence (or chronology, or linear narrative, etc.).  The multidimensional crowd-sourced canvas of the web allows us to customize just about anything on a timeline. It gives our chronologies depth and uniqueness, and infuses them with meaning.  But despite the “infinite canvas” potential and foundation of the web, we remain attached to linear chronologies as a first-line ordering of experience and meaning. So when we think about how interfaces shape user experience, we also have to think about how users condition the organization of the interface.  How much do we need that timeline? What are its advantages and costs?


These questions are on my mind as I work with a team at MATRIX to update the interface for a fabulous digital archive of texts, images, music, and video related to Soviet history.  The archive, which was first launched in 2002 has always used a linear organization for the entry-level navigation. The materials in the archive are organized around seventeen salient moments in Soviet History.*  Clicking on one of the “moments” opens up a menu of topics with materials chronologically-related to the year:

expandedchron*17 Moments is an homage to “Seventeen Moments in Spring” — the most beloved Soviet TV series of the seventies.

You can also sort the archive thematically, which offers a quick and powerful way to explore change through different lenses and in counterpoint to the overarching narrative:

ExpandedThemeThis basic layout has worked really well.  Students (and faculty) appreciate the scaffolding the linear / thematic layout provides.  But moving forward, we are thinking about other ways to present “17 moments” that might be more intuitive and even more appealing.  One possibility would be to replace the “line on the left” with a grid of modules.  Hovering over the entry thumbnail would give the user a visual glimpse (via random images or excerpts) of what lies beyond.  So even before you clicked, you would have some sense of what might be ahead.

But I would love to get other suggestions.  How would you like to experience a repository like this one?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of sticking with the old, vs. trying something new?

P.S. Earlier posts re: McCloud and Berners-Lee are here and here.

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