Geek Wednesdays: The Ephemeral Web
A modern time machine for data and what we can learn about the web from Victorian toys.
By Maria Popova
With the constant proliferation of data and its spread across the social web, we’re closer than we think to what Kevin Kelly has dubbed the One Machine. The final leap in information systems lies not in accumulating more and more data, but it in making sense of the information that does exist — which, of course, is increasingly hard the more of it there is out there.
That’s why we’re digging Zoetrope, a breakthrough development by four University of Washington students in partnership with Adobe Systems. It’s a revolutionary visualization system that allows interaction with the evolution of data as it changes across the ephemeral web — a set of operations that analyze content stream and extract temporal data.
And when you think about it, that’s pretty damn novel — after all, we’re used to looking at web pages that are nothing but static snapshots that stay a certain way for a given period of time, then update into another static snapshot.
Zoetrope lets you create a “lens” — a dynamic filter that tracks something you’re interested in as it fluctuates over time.
You can set up a lens for a specific topic, bind two lenses together to explore the correlation between two topics, anchor a lens to a specific portion of a web page and track how it changes over time, or even create a lens for the price point of that shiny new gadget you’ve been dying to get your hands on so you can pick the best time to buy it.
Zoetrope is also brilliantly extensible and data extracted by it is usable in many other information services, like the wonderful Swivel (which we’ve featured before) and IBM’s Many Eyes — systems whose forte lies in representing data in slick ways, but not necessarily in tracking the information in the first place, which is where Zoetrope steps in.
The system’s name is an allusion to the Victorian zoetrope device — a cylinder that creates the illusion of action by spinning static images in rapid succession.
Ironic, since the web is actually the complete opposite — action taking place faster than we can process, forcing us to artificially create static safe spots so we can keep up.
No word yet on when we’re to expect Zoetrope in public beta, but something tells us this one won’t have trouble on the VC circuits.
Published December 3, 2008