While the words "social network" might bring to mind platforms like Twitter, and phrases like "status update" or "check-in" evoke David Fincher's Mark Zuckerberg biopic, a team of researchers from Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon University, respectively, are trying to elucidate how social networks existed before the age of Facebook, all with the help of 16th century British polymath Francis Bacon.
Their project, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, is an ongoing attempt to trace the original British early modern social network," i.e., relationships between philosophers, writers, poets, artists, scientists and other movers and shakers of the day. Vastly recognizable and renowned names that appear on the network include William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton, Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth I of England herself.
Six Degrees of Francis Bacon isn't just for fun: the online network acts as an open database for humanities scholars and can streamline research or help academics make connections of which they wouldn't otherwise think.
"Are you researching Anne Boleyn to find out if she knew Thomas More, author of Utopia? Now, you can see that in an instant," project director Christopher Warren posited. The associate professor of English at CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences continued:
"... you can see all of the people they knew, thus giving you new ways to consider communities, factions, influences and sources. It's critical for scholars because even experts have a hard time keeping so many relations in their heads. Meanwhile, newcomers have nearly instantaneous access to contextual information that's often really difficult to access."
To create the network in the first place, Otis and the rest of the team brought their data to CMU's Department of Statistics, which then proceeded to transform the data from textual to visual, relying on color schemes, layout and general design to make Six Degrees of Francis Bacon navigation-friendly.
The project as is, however, is not set in stone. Like a true social network, either organic or digitalized, the point of the database is to help it expand and grow via crowdsourcing, with users adding connections to the ones already in existence.
"We have an incredibly rich and complex dataset and wanted to create a website that would allow experts to contribute their own knowledge to that data," said CMU researcher Jessica Otis, who, with colleagues, combed through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — 62 million words in total — to figure out who knew who, and then helped digitally map it for the beta version of the database. "The site has the most vital of these features in place, but we also have several new and exciting features already in development."
Learn more about Six Degrees of Francis Bacon in the video below.
Source: Carnegie Mellon University