You could say my thesis is all about webs. In it, the web of life enters the World Wide Web. Technology and nature meet to educate--and hopefully entertain--people.
My thesis combines these two elements by taking scientific articles and adapting them for the World Wide Web. This way, they can be used both for paper publication (which Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution will be producing) and for the electronic medium. (The electronic version is the one which I'm submitting for my thesis project, as it offers me more flexibility in length and variety of media.) This final project will use photographs, video, sound and textual "links" to get across the message in the most effective way.
But to be sure that I am adapting the medium to the message (not the other way around), and using hypermedia effectively, I have also completed a theoretical overview on composing for hypertext. Last semester, I wrote an article on the history and use of hypermedia, including some guidelines for authors. I also explored some of the legalities involved in this new medium concerning digital imaging and copyrights. I even wrote a brief tutorial for writers looking to publish their own World Wide Web documents. In each of these articles (especially the hypermedia piece), I try to establish what makes for an exceptional hypermedia project. Ultimately, a hypermedia piece should well organized, interactive, and make effective use of alternate media. This examination will account for approximately one-half of my thesis.
Now I'm taking those basic principles and applying them practically, creating a series of scientific articles for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that employ all those media: sound, video, pictures and hypertext. These "Coastal Briefs," as they are called in print and electronic publication, are aimed at adults who are interested in--but not professionally trained in--science. Bruce Tripp, Assistant Director of WHOI's Coastal Research Center and editor of the "Coastal Brief" series, writes in his "guidelines for authors":
"A 'Coastal Brief' is a short (1-2 page, 800-1200 words) 'article,' including figures, concerning an aspect of coastal oceanography, which synthesizes the results of recent research of particular concern to a non-scientist audience. A collection of 'Coastal Briefs' is being assembled into an electronic 'mini-journal' that will be publicly available on the Internet...Each article in the collection will presume no specific scientific expertise but will assume a professional interest and basic background."
I am writing a series of four "Coastal Briefs" covering marine mammal acoustics, plastic debris in the ocean, El Niño, and tide pools. Two of the four articles are completed and I am tracking down available photos and audio (of marine mammal sounds) to include in the final documents. Each of these will attempt to meet all the necessary elements of hypermedia, but several will hopefully exemplify at least one aspect:
For the marine mammal acoustic and plastic debris articles, I started out doing general research (magazine articles and books--even children's books!) to familiarize myself with the subject. Then I interviewed several scientists at Wood's Hole to find out about the latest research in that area. For the plastics piece, I've also contacted the Center for Marine Conservation for current statistics and to see if we could post some of their information on starting a coastal cleanup. (They also want to build a web site, so once they get going, we can also make a link to it.) I'm also conducting searches to see if there are other sites on the web that might make for valuable links. Essentially, it's like building a bibliography for people to look deeper into a topic, except all the information is right at their fingertips! At the same time, however, this presents a challenge to the writer who more than ever must worry about losing his or her audience as they follow links right out of your document. It's a dilemma, and one I address in my hypertext article under the subheading "How to write for hypertext."
For the hypertext articles, the web also became a valuable research tool. I could go to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (which created Mosaic) and CERN (the physics lab which created the web) to find out about how the web came about and what it means. I also visited the Second International WWW Conference in Chicago (without leaving the university) to read the latest articles written about hypertext.
To pull together the photographs, audio and video, I am combining resources from Wood's Hole and my own work. WHOI has photographs of plastic debris, and the Center for Marine Conservation has pictures of entangled animals (both of which I can use legally so long as I give them credit). Kurt Fristrup and Bill Watkins from WHOI are helping me sample marine mammal sounds such as humpback whale songs, echolocation by dolphins, and the first recording of a marine mammal. For the El Niño article, I'm relying on photographs and charts owned by WHOI, and for the tide pools article, I'm going to try to do most of the multimedia myself. (I've been an amateur nature photographer for over five years, and would like a chance to finally do something with it!) I already have several good photographs of tide pools, and plan to include a couple of video clips. The "front page" of the tide pools article will be a mapped illustration of a tide pool (which I'm not going to draw). Just click on a critter to go off on a detailed explanation about it and tide pool life. (A text alternative of this main menu will be available for those who are coming in through a non-textual browser like LYNX, or who just don't want to wait for photos to download.)
I'm not really sure how long this project will run, as it's not published in the traditional sense. But each WHOI article runs at least 5-7 pages long (I realize this goes over their length constraints, but that includes hyperlinks, which will not be used in the printed version). All the theoretical information on hypertext runs at least 20-30 pages long, including the HTML tutorials. Throw in the work of programming in HTML, digitizing and linking movies, audio and photos, and I believe this meets the requirements for thesis work.
I really can't tell you how excited I am to be able to do this sort of thing. When I first applied here almost two years ago, I wrote in my essay that I wanted to do multimedia because I believe it is the most effective way of reaching an audience. I was even trying to figure out a way to combine my MA in writing with an MFA in photography. Since then, I've written a short audio documentary, spent a summer in Seattle writing for a kid's science show, and worked as a researcher for a documentary team. Documentary writing is still the ultimate goal for me, but it requires A LOT of money and people. There still wasn't an area that I felt completely comfortable in working by myself (and on my limited budget). Until...
Last summer Greg Stone, director of publications at UMass Dartmouth and my boss, floored all of us by announcing that we would be building a server for the World Wide Web. I hadn't even mastered the art of e-mail yet, so I was a more than little anxious--but definitely excited. After working with Greg and Computer Information Science Prof. Richard Upchurch, I finally learned how to create documents for the web. And slowly, I learned how to incorporate other media--sometimes just by experimenting on my own, and sometimes by assignment. But I did learn. And Greg would always slip me a bit of advice or an article he ran across to get me to see beyond HTML formatting. That there's more to creating effective documents for the web than knowing how to create a headline. And after all the reading, and searching and surfing I did last semester, I think I finally get it. But I am far from finished.
Hypermedia has so many applications--but I especially like this medium when it is used to teach people interactively about the environment. So I would really like to continue my work with Wood's Hole, or perhaps work on projects like the National Park Service's web server. It's exciting. And I see it as a liberating tool for my future. So here I go, ending my college career in a completely different area than I began--but ultimately heading the way I always wanted to go.