Graphing text.

  • Alexander Shapiro

    In my opinion, there is no reason why we should continue to write text as we do, in a linear fasion.

    If you think about it, your reading experience would not be much different if you had read what you did on a ticker tape.  The two dimensional nature of the page is not being used at all.

    The reason that text is the way it is is historical.  Writing across and down a page was the best way to record symbolic information on a static page.

    Well, we are constrained to static text no more.  As Richard Stallman said, with the advance of computers everyone is able to edit each other's text. 

    What's more, is that a computer makes it easy to create visually dynamic structures.  The fist step of this is hypertext, and news forums like slashdot.  You begin to see a tree like structure evolve that needs to be navigated by a user. 

    Simultaneously, the concept of micropublishing is taking form, where published output is being reduced from a magazine essay to a post.

    I believe that this trend will culminate in the creation of visual networks, that will allow one to better experience this type of structure.  Networked information is more natural for the mind to process (at least for one of the hemispheres).  So far we have been catering too much to the other one.

    So that's my motivation.  I believe that this trend is inescapable, and I am just placing myself at the head of it with my project.  The more people that join, the better for me.  I believe that eventually, all, or at least a lot, of text will be graphed, so as you can see this creates plenty of work for everyone. 


    • Nobody/Anonymous

      This is really cool - keep up the good work!

    • Stephen Danic

      Stephen Danic - 2001-07-03

      Perhaps you're right. Also, perhaps it's time to create new conventions for representing communication. Common conventions in existence today are:
         whitespace represents new paragraph (idea)
         elipses ... represent continuation
         * * * represent time lapse.
         dashes or brackets to represent tangential ideas or "asides"
         bullet points to represent lists

      Perhaps the easiest convention to replace would be one representing tangential ideas.

      I wonder what groups of English lit phd's are working on developing new typographic conventions. There must be some. We shouldn't be constrained to type anymore.


      • Alexander Shapiro

        I completely agree about tangential comments.

        They are tangential by god.  The word (tangential)is borrowed from geometry.  It's a visual concept.

        Why shouldn't tangential comments go off on a tangent?  Literally, there should be a visual branching.

        The important thing to remember is that written language is a construction.  It is like a man made tool.  There is no reason why it should not evolve, radically.

        But, I feer the concept of changing the structure of sentences is too radical.  It will happen, but that's not what what we should concentrate right now.  I feer doing so will run into the sort of nut-case results as the creation of esperanto.  I bet a lot of time was spent on that.

        I believe the place to start is allowing branching at a paragraph level.  It's an interesting enough task to keep the imagination going, and there is a greater chance that the results will find a practical use.

        In general, I'd like to evolve this project while keeping it close to practical applications at all times.  Utopian ideas will bring in dreamers, but it is practical ones that will bring in the programmers (and the $).


      • Jack Park

        Jack Park - 2002-01-17

        As it turns out, one of the early things I tried with TG was to get it to represent IBIS discussions.  Finally, I'm putting together, using the latest (1.2), a client-server version that will do IBIS using mysql.  I'm getting pretty good with mysql and will soon map that code into nexist ( as well.  Might even put the TouchGraphIBIS project in the nexist cvs as well.

        IBIS gives you just one approach to structuring conversations, including tangential text.


        • Alexander Shapiro

          Hi Jack,

          Nice!  I would love to see a client-server based IBIS tool.  I would really love if TG could be used to visualize, or even as the main interface, to those discussions.

          In fact, I would be willing to contribute heavily to a mySql enabled, TG-based discussion forum.  What's holding me back form implementing something like this myself is a lack of networking + mySQL knowledge. 


    • Victor Volle

      Victor Volle - 2001-07-14

      I am not quite sure that we should not continue to write text in sequential form.
      Habit is difficult to change. But more important: In a sequential "narration" you generally know, what the reader has read before. You can build on it. But in hyperlinked structures you do not know where the reader has been.

      I think, that hyperlinked structures are best for

      ... organizing things for yourself before you put them in a linear form.

      ... organizing things just for yourself, like bookmarks. Every other time when I want to
           store a bookmark, I have difficulties to decide under which "category" to put it.
           ("Object-Relational-Mapping" under OO or under DBMS or under OO-DataBase?)

      ... organize a big body of knowlegde (knowledge management), i.e. multiple "texts"

      I see no use to split a "text" into paragraphs, sentences and display it in a
      non-sequential fashion.


    • Alexander Shapiro

      Sequential text is not going to go away or be replaced.  Just like photography did not replace painting.  The main advantage of normal text is that it is so simple, and does not require a computer to be recorder.  It also directly models speach, and has the "narration" aspect that you've mentioned.

      I agree with your examples, and think that these are the applications that we should initially target.  Also, I think that you'll afree that if people post to a forum like, then they would be happy to see their text graphed.

      However, this statement I disagree with:
      >I see no use to split a "text" into paragraphs, sentences and display it in a non-sequential fashion.

      I see graphing text as a new medium.  And there is always room for a new medium.  Yes, you give up definite knowledge of what the reader has read before.  But you gain the ability to guide the reader in different directions.  You can put in lenghy paranthetical (no more) references, and not worry about distracting the main audience.

      Text is already graphed in the mind.  For instance if you look at your last post, your last sentence could have been the second sentence in your document.  There is a branching structure between your top paragraph, the examples section, and the bottom sentence.  The examples section also has three parts, which could be rearranged in any order.  Are the three examples arranged in order of importance?  Will you still be sure of that order of importance tomorrow?  Will all readers agree with you?

      Also, your first example is that a hyperlinked structure is good for organizing things for yourself before you put them in linear form.  I agree.  But why rob the reader of the associations that he/she does not see?  The associations that were there on paper, but that you were forced to eliminate when putting the text in sequence.

      Instead, why not present a reader with an associative map, with a path drawn on it as to how that map should fist be surveyed.  Maybe a branching path. 

      Also, think of how much easier this makes it to respond to what is written, to rewrite individual sections of text, and to come up with new linear arrangements. 

      What is text?  It is a bunch of symbols put in sequence.  Only sequential relationships are explicit.  The author must work to construct the non-sequential relationships in the mind of the reader.  Why not help him by actually showing some of these non-sequential relationships?  In fact, I don't think non-sequential is even the right term to use. 

      There are problems with this approach.  But like I might have said earlier, they're problems to be solved.  There are a lot of creative and interesting solutions to be considered.  That's why I am here.


    • Jack Park

      Jack Park - 2001-08-23

      I am motivated to ask if anyone here has looked at Ted Nelson's ZigZag -- at and here at

      Nelson's idea was to put concepts, words, etc, in cells and link them together like strings with beads.  That way, the concept, say, Ted Nelson, itself is just one cell and can be strung together in any number of dimensions with other concepts.  Thus, should Ted ever have his name changed, only one instance needs editing and all dimensions are now aware of the new name.

      It strikes me that there is a parallel in ZigZag with the direction that TouchGraph is headed.  I hope to follow this group much closer and quite possibly use TouchGraph in my project


      • Nobody/Anonymous

        Zigzag has moved and been renamed. It is now called Gzz and can be found at

    • Nobody/Anonymous

      cool... I came across a similiar product called Brain..

      I use it as well... but it is not available on Linux.. I would love this TG stuffs to be able to fill the void of that...

      how about something like "WebStart" that allows it to be used offline...

    • Nobody/Anonymous

      Alex, what about using outliners to write non-linearly? Dave Winer's been an advocate forever, and I'm finding myself more and more often writing in Word's Outline View.

      -andrew otwell

      • Alexander Shapiro

        The problem with outliners is that I don't think that it's that easy to make associative (as opposed to hierarchical) links.

        I don't think that there is an implicit mechanism for saying that "this thought relates to these other thoughts", though I guess that you could do this by adding sub categories to the first thought which contain links to the related thoughts.  But then you have to go and create back links on the related thoughs back to the first one.

        Also, the way that I envision non-linear writing, is that you can see all the related thoughts around what you've written.  Basically a graph gives you more flexibility for showing a complex interlinked structure then does an outline.  In a graph you can always display adjacent thoughs next to each other, while an outline may have to be navigated.

        So, I would say that using outliners is quite probably better then writing unformatted text, but I see non-linear writing using graphs as the culmination of the word processor evolution (for certain types of writing).


    • Nobody/Anonymous

      There is an interesting new product which incorporates touchgraph at

      Looks like it could easily evolve into what you are talking about...

    • D Ril

      D Ril - 2004-01-05

      I absolutely agree. Our evolution as a species lies in the understanding and better utilization of BOTH hemispheres of the brain. I believe Einstein was the first to make a significant step forward in this regard. The concept of manipulating visually texts, not just reading, but being able to dynamically create, modify and erase connections, form and disperse concepts within the text, is an excellent conception. There exists a peculiar connection between form and content, and our ability to manipulate both will positively fuel our creativity and productivity.
      I am very much interested in working more closely with you on any project you might have in mind.

    • Nobody/Anonymous

      i am not a programmer, just a friend of Alex. but since your discussing the brain, i thought i'd throw out some integrated ideas.

      the tibetans are a visually oriented tribe. they heavily rely on visual mandalas and visualization meditations for learning. for example, during meditation tantric dieties are used to teach the meditator how to expand concentration to multiple items simultaneously. a simple diety visualization called the 'Compassion Buddha' has four arms: one for 'joy', one for 'compassion', one for 'love', and one for 'equinimity'. during meditation, one attempts to be conscious of all four qualities in the single visualization.

      now marvel at the next technique: expanding consciousness to meditate on the entire deity at once. not only does the Compassion Buddha have four arms, the entire diety visualization has over 20  items symbolizing another "quality of enlightened mind." Further, the advanced practitioner meditates on the 100 armed Compassion Buddha in order to expand one's consciousness to simultaneously be aware of a massive amount of information. (the Kalachakra mandala of 'The Cycle of Time' exhibits hundreds of symbols that aim to teach the entire nature of reality in one visualization.)

      this is the natural way to expand consciousness -- i'm sure you've all tried to expand with a crutch (or two) ;)

      my point is to express the power of information visualization. if a mahayana buddhist had a 100 armed Compassion Buddha "touchgraph" application, and each arm contained a word that could be clicked on to learn more details (and other related teachings), and then collapsed once understood, such a buddhist would be able to simultaneously realize the interconnectedness of all the teachings in one visual input ...

      just thought i'd share. this is all very exciting ...

    • Nobody/Anonymous

      I just ran into this project, I am neither expert in the field, nor do I know Alex. I thought of the project as an interesting exercise, and also like suggest a few thoughts

      Asians traditionally are stronger visually than a typical Westerner. One of the hypotheses is that it is because they use hieroglyphs instead of letters in their alphabet. Their brain is better adapted to visualization, as oppose to ours. And  although this is perceived as to be politically incorrect in US  Asians generally have the highest IQ of all ethnic groups.

      Said that, it is not a given that a typical westerner would want to use visualization tool instead of Word processor (or pen and paper for that matter). More likely, it will be pioneers, visionaries, and crazy followers (typical crowd for a newly released technology). But what you want is to move it into mainstream, and that I believe will be very difficult to do.

      As humans we are moving toward receiving and processing more and more information  and we accept it as fact, unfortunately. It is the information quality that IMHO is more important then representation. Increasingly, our minds are polluted with piles and piles of information that twists the truth, is questionable, untrue, deceiving or simply irrelevant. Ancient religious books contain unlimited amount of knowledge (per ones interpretation, of course) in a very limited form. It is in limiting choices that your tool may flourish.

      Can you tool help provide this information filter? That is what I perceive to be its true niche.

      Good luck


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