Web Technologies for Cultural Studies Research
A couple of weeks back, I blogged on the use of Basecamp as a teaching tool. I want to broaden the topic slightly, to ask what kind of modern web technlogies people are using for their own research and teaching work. I have a feeling that cultural studies types would be a bit more neophilic than in some other areas of the humanities. At the very least, this post could point people to new tools to use to enhance their research or teaching practices.
The most important web tool is a good web browser. And by “good”, I do not mean Internet Explorer. Just say no, guys. Not only does its use open your computer up to the wonderful world of computer viruses and identity theft, it no longer has a particlarly competitive feature set.
My browser of choice is Mozilla Firefox, which is fast, stable, and incredibly extensible. I’ll just point out a couple of cool features and extensions that make web-based research more managable.
- One terrific in-built feature is the seach keywords function. Basically, you can right-click inside any text search box, and “add a keyword” to the search. For instance, you might be using the IMDB to track down production details of a bunch of films that you’re writing about. Go to the site, right-click in the top-left-corner search box, and add a keyword. A window will pop up. Add a name for the search, and the keyword you want—make it short, like “imdb”—and save the window. Now, whenever you want to do a quick search from IMDB, just go to your browser’s address bar, and type in “imdb aliens” to instantly jump to the search results for the term “aliens”.
- The killer ad-on to Firefox for researchers is ScrapBook, which allows you to easily download web pages to your computer, and manage them as a stored collection. What’s more, it preserves as metadata the date you accessed and saved the page, and allows you to append notes to the page, making it an excellent tool to support your bibliography.
Traditionally, web applications were sluggish and hard to use. Much of this was because any time you needed to send data to be processed (for instance, to save a draft of a message through, say, Hotmail), the web application would have to reload the entire web page to update the contents of the page. With new web technologies, this can happen invisibly in the background, making the app more responsive to the user and more interactive. When you add “social” features, like the seamless sharing of data between members of a community, and incredibly vast amounts of hype, you get what’s being called “Web 2.0”, which in its best form is the ideal of democratic, participatory communication, productivity and exchange, and in its worst form is a way for venture capitalists to spend even more of other people’s money than they did before the dot com bubble burst 4 years ago.
All cynicism aside, there are some rather nice tools now available for the storage, management, and analysis of information.
- Forget about using your browser’s bookmarks or favourites. Post your links to Del.icio.us and make them available from any computer that’s connected to the internet. Tag your links with appropriate keywords, and then use the keywords to discover what other people are linking to.
- Amazon.com—with its full-text searches, concordances, and “statistically improbable phrases” you can rapidly build up a working bibliography by taking a book you know, examining its list of improbable phrases, and following the trail to other works with similar concepts. It’s like “nearby on the shelf” on drugs.
- CiteUlike—it’s Del.icio.us reborn as a citation manager. It has all the social features like tagging and sharing, and it can export to Endnote.
The surface is barely scratched. Suggestions and comments welcome.