Richard Giblett - Mycelium Rhizome (2008)

The Web is progressively becoming the place where we are shaping the image of our society; social interactions, news and official and unofficial documents are increasingly archived online. Any public issue or concern hits the Web, leaving traces of ongoing debates. The emerging questions are: How can we use these traces to investigate social issues, such as the adaptation to climate change? Is it possible to map these traces to create a big picture of the phenomenon? While the Internet is a venue where multiple actors engage in discussions about these issues, several biases affect this medium. Not all the world’s population has equal access to it, not all the debates are public, and the loudness of involved actors can be amplified or weakened by the Web as medium. These conditions make it an unsuitable source of understanding a social issue, as our perceptions can be influenced by such biases. At the same time, the Internet is the perfect site for examining the public discussion about issues. On the Web, it is possible to identify who are the most active actors involved in the debate, which are the factions and fractures among them and how these relationships change over time.

In the fields of social sciences and new media studies, it is possible to discern an emerging approach that regards the Web as a space of discussion that can be mapped. If a cartographic metaphor is adopted, the social scientist is perceived as a cartographer who explores and describes the debate landscape. Outputs of these studies are therefore maps and atlases, which can be shared with involved actors to understand their respective positions in debates. Such approaches provide a sound framework to repurpose digital traces for social research.

There is a demand for new visual languages that are able to express the complexity of these studies; communication design expertise, particularly from the information visualisation field, is needed. Diagrams are powerful tools capable of expressing different layers of debates, allowing a formalisation of results and simultaneously providing a seamless exploration of them, from the macro to the micro view. While these approaches have already been discussed in other fields, few reflections have been done on the role of design in the creation of such artefacts. A European project that gathered researchers from the fields of social sciences, new media studies and design has enabled the analysis of the role of diagrammatic tools in issue and controversy mapping. Two issues have been identified as case studies: the ageing phenomenon in Europe and the adaptation to climate change. A first round of experiments has revealed that design expertise is not only related to public communication but also influences the analysis process. Visual artefacts are indeed used by researchers in the analysis process to validate results and identify errors and pitfalls.

This research is therefore framed to explore the influence of visual artefacts within the analysis of social issues from the Web. It aims to identify needs and critical issues whose solutions are supported by design expertise. Developing visual and interactive artefacts within the project makes it possible to analyse how researchers and end users engage in the use of visual artefacts. The project enables us to follow in vivo the whole process of a social cartography, observing the evolution of the analysis methods and the criticalities related to the data collection and their visual translation. Furthermore, the project allows us to test different design approaches and visual languages, as well as produce several diagrams and a Web platform for controversy explorations. Beyond the achieved results, we also identify design approaches that can improve the analysis.

The first part of this research grounds the mapping of debates from the Web to the literature, identifying the main concepts and relating them to the visual analysis of social phenomena. These concepts should not be seen as background information but useful in defining design directions. From the analysis of issue-mapping studies carried out in recent years, it emerges that most of them are based on the study of “digital objects”, considered the ontological objects provided by each platform (such as websites, social networks and search engines) on the Web. As designers, we need to know the features of the materials we will use to produce artefacts. The process of encoding digital objects into data is therefore investigated. First, the digital object concept is analysed, highlighting the authorial choices that must be made for its translation into data. Then a classification of digital sources is suggested, describing the characteristics of digitised, born-digital and reborn digital objects. From the analysis of already existing tools, five approaches for repurposing and translating digital objects are identified, depending on the access provided by different platforms. For each one, repercussions on design process are analysed. Furthermore, the research draws connections with communication design and information visualisation.

Finally, an analysis of the project experience is proposed, drawing on failures and successes achieved along the process. The limits of the cartographic metaphor are explained, and a new approach for analysis is therefore proposed. The metaphor has strong influences on the design process, as it suggests that maps can be drawn while exploring the territory. From the practical experience, a two-fold movement emerges. The first involves an exploration of the topic, in which researchers use visual artefacts in quick and frequent iterations to validate results, identify errors and point towards a new analysis direction. The second movement guides the way back toward the end user, in which artefacts are repurposed, redesigned and enriched to make explicit all the assumptions made by the researchers in the exploratory phase. From this analysis, two main concepts are argued. The first one is that visual artefacts must be considered semi-finished products or materials supporting the analysis. In relation to researchers as the main users, the artefacts’ core features are quickness of execution, simplicity in reexecuting them and openness to new analysis actions starting from them. Semi-products become outdated at the moment of their reading; their use is purely functional to identify new research directions.

The second concept is closely related to the first one, as the openness of an artefact is not a by-product of visualisations, but it must be designed. Therefore, design actions must be mainly focused on developing unfinished artefacts, which are open for repurposing and editing. Finally, these artefacts can be used at the end of the study to rebuild the analysis evolution and to identify key concepts and findings that should be communicated to the end user.