The Perfect Timeline Tool for Media Makers

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Presenting a series of events in time on the Internet should be easy. You've got unlimited space, photos, videos, links, full-text documents! And there is no shortage of tools, either. Dipity, AllofMe, XTimeline, Timeglider, and a raft of other Web apps allow users to structure information with time.

But there's still something lacking. This past weekend, I attended a session led by ProPublica's Amanda Michel at SparkCamp, a media innovation conference featuring dozens of fascinating doers, on the lack of the perfect tool. Though we couldn't pinpoint precisely why the current set of apps wasn't serving our purposes, everyone around the table agreed that they wanted something a little bit different.

After thinking about what the group, which included Atlantic Tech friends Tim Carmody and Dan Sinker, had to say, here's my personal distillation of what I'd like:

  1. The point of a timeline is to show causation, as Michel so aptly put it. How did one event influence another? It's difficult with the current generation of tools to do so. And even custom-built apps like the Guardian's Arab spring work aren't built to transmit that message.
  2. As such, we need to be able to tag events with different levels of importance as well as topics -- and link them to other events. (The links may be as important as the events, so perhaps they should be treated as their own type of object?)
  3. The app should be able to show different "zoom" states, so that creators and users can ratchet up or down the level of detail in the graphic. (It would also be great if the default zoom state somehow made intuitive sense, but until Apple starts making timeline web apps, I won't count on this.)
  4. In an ideal world, the app could suck in tweets, an RSS feed, or other information in real time, but allow curation in the hyperspeed way that Storify does.
  5. The tool should output the timeline vertically to provide more space. Most websites are, at best, 800 pixels across, so all of the horizontal scrolling sideline tools make you zoom too much and/or turn your head. If you go vertical, you can have a timeline thousands of pixels tall, if need be. 

If you've got a timeline tool that you think meets these criteria, I'd love to check it out. One of the extant tools may already be able to do all this stuff, too, if you just know how to drive the thing correctly. So really, any tips are appreciated.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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