Time travelling on the World Wide Web

Dec 9, 2008 | Mobile & Web



The web is a constantly changing ephemeral stream of content. Popular pages are typically highly dynamic, changing as new content is added, news breaks or people add or remove links, text and images. This model has been the status quo since the inception of the web. However, it’s likely that as more and more of our daily lives are centered and stored in this medium there will be a desire to maintain a sense of history, reflect upon the past and draw conclusions.

Enter Zoetrope, a project between the University of Washington and The Advanced Technologies Lab at Adobe Systems, that provides a tool for interacting with the extended history of the World Wide Web. From their paper, Zoetrope, Interacting with the Ephemeral Web:

With Zoetrope, one can explore past versions of entire pages or place lenses on any part of a webpage to scan backwards through time (e.g., to see all previous top headlines on CNN’s page). Lenses can be filtered with keyword and other queries or bound together to explore correlated historical data. To support analysis of this data, Zoetrope provides a number of visualizations for the extracted content. Because temporal Web data is not currently available at fine granularity, Zoetrope also includes a set of crawling and indexing technologies for obtaining high-resolution temporal data. By providing a variety of lenses, filters, and visualizations that can be combined and composed in powerful ways, Zoetrope presents a new way to think about historical Web data.

The concept and usefulness is best explained visually and they’ve put together a great 5 minute video that demonstrates the key capabilities and explorations.




With the exception of any self respecting search engine and the ‘Internet Archive‘ there are very few organizations with the mission, resources and interest in storing an accurate snapshot of the web. Search engines are naturally biased to the most relevant (and to some extent more recent) content vs. an historically complete record. Google did acquire Deja.com’s Usenet archive back in 2001 (an archive of 500 million Usenet discussions dating back to 1995) to kickstart its Google Groups offering but there’s no easy way to view or search for most web content from 10 years ago.

The video shows examples of correlating gas prices with news headlines, watching price changes over time, viewing how weather and game days affect local traffic. Our world is a very highly connected environment where cause and affect are everywhere. Providing regular people with simple tools to explore these correlations could lead to insights that academics would have missed leading to new avenues of inquiry, debate and discussion. Trends are impossible to spot without historical context and data and Zoetrope may create many more ‘Al Gore Inconvenient Truth Moments’ with bloggers coming up with off the wall correlations between non-intuitive sets of data.

Obviously Zoetrope is just a research tool at this point but the ideas and methods it illustrates for easily searching and connecting historical data together are likely to end up as common place features in the browsers of the not too distant future.

Congratulation to Eytan Adar, Mira Dontcheva, James Fogarty, Daniel S. Weld for some truly innovative thinking and elegant solutions to a complex problem.

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