The new Encyclopedia of Life: Collections

Sep 05 2011 Published by under Animals, Endangered Species, Environment, Internet, Red Panda

I have to admit, I didn't use the Encyclopedia of Life very frequently in its first incarnation. I perused for media every now and then, or doubled checked the taxonomy for a species, but it was not a touchstone for research. The relaunch, however, gives users new functionality to make the experience more organized for personal and community use.

Like any good application, the startup/front page gives you just about everything you need. The mission statement is obvious, the search field is huge and the row of images tells you exactly what your searches will bring. The main site elements are listed below along with FAQ links, newsfeed tells you this is a busy place full of lots of other people. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr; Impression made. It's all familiar, accessible.

The main piece that I've grown to love is the collections. After you've created your account and start searching around for cute pictures of red pandas, you'll notice an Add to Collection button in the top right-hand corner of the page. Clicking the button displays a popup. Follow the prompts to create a new collection.

Collections allow you to create groups of organisms in EOL. Collections can be as subjective or scientific as you wish. Red panda could be included in a collection of the "Cutest Animals Ever" or a more natural category, maybe "Mammals of China." Once it's created, you can search for and add as many inhabitants of EOL as you wish by clicking the Add to Collection button and selecting one (or more) of your collections in the list. For the Cutest Animals Ever collection, you might want to add the echidna or the wolf spider. For the Mammals of China, you might want to add that other panda, whatever its name is.

I started a collection of monotypic taxa from the red panda, the sole species in the genus Ailurus. I searched for other monotypic taxa off the top of my head: the moose, the African civet cat, the Gingko. Then I started getting some responses from the community via the collection newsfeed. Katja said, "Don't forget the Aardvark!" Cyndy said the Western Osprey was a good candidate for the collection. Bob suggested that I add a description so that people visiting my collection knew exactly what "monotypic taxa" are. So I did:

This is how communities can grow out of collections of organisms, communities based on shared interests of one sort or another. In fact, there's functionality there to support those communities, just click the Create Community button next to your collection, add a description, invite some interested parties and start sharing.

EOL gets me thinking. It started with one of my favorite animals and quickly became a taxonomic scavenger hunt. I started researching: Just how many monotypic taxa are there? Why are they important? What does the classification say about these animals and their evolutionary history? As a writer, the answers become the building blocks for an essay. Usually there's nothing manipulable about those ideas; they spawn from reading papers, from the ideas of others. EOL provides a level of control that allows systems to be constructed that plead for further explanation.

Collection building can create new ideas, but it can also be useful for supplementing existing material. I've written about biomes and ecosystems frequently in the past, and it can be difficult to give readers a good idea of the extent or uniqueness of life in a particular region. I'm thinking about using collections in EOL when I can to create lists of organisms that constitute the ecosystem I describe so that readers can browse through the many unique organisms that live there. Excessive listing and description in prose structurally tedious; often its a choice between prose lists and long strings of bullets, which are ugly and usually scary for a casual reader.

EOL suddenly becomes a very interesting resource for science enthusiasts, educators and writers. I have some thoughts about how it could be used in more creative/artistic ways, but I'll hold off for a future post.

Go sign up and play around. It's Labor Day. The grill isn't ready just yet. EOL is a lot of fun.

3 responses so far

Obvious troll is obvious

Dec 02 2010 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

I don't think Julie Zhuo knows exactly what trolling is. She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times supposedly about trolling, but it ended up being more about anonymity, "unethical" behavior and how Facebook is a bastion of hope in this world of mean, mean trolls. She defines trolling in the article as "the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums." If that were true, then three-quarters of the content posted on the internet could qualify as trolling.

She comes close with the word "provocative" but it's insufficient. Trolling is better defined this way:

That's the important part. Intention. It's not just Joe Tea Party shooting off his mouth about Obamacare or bank bailouts with enough expletives and epithets to smother you, it can be as simple as this, which is one of my favorites:

Troll: why do they call it an xbox 360?
Chatter1: inc troll
Chatter2: cuz they want to
Chatter3: idk, why?
Troll: because when you see it you want to turn 360 degrees and walk away
Chatter3: but if you turn 360 degrees, you're still facing the xbox

Chatter3 has fallen into the trap, despite the obviousness of it. Chatter3 has been trolled, and will continue to be as long as they take the time to respond and correct and eventually argue. It's much more satisfying for the troll if Chatter3 becomes angry in the process; the win comes in misspelled, incoherent all-caps responses.

I like good trolling. There's an art to it. It reminds people that get it that the internet - and everything else - isn't as serious of business as it seems sometimes. Obviously this is taken to the extreme by abusive people, harassing the parents of suicide victims (which has happened on several occasions, not just the one Zhou brings up) or making light of very disturbing, horrible circumstances, but those are outliers. With anonymity comes less inhibition for most perhaps, but most people would not stoop to that level of moral depravity. It's similar to my favorite criticism of atheism: without God, you're free to set your moral compass to Licentious Murderer and have at it. That comment always makes me wonder what's really holding the finger-pointer back, if anything.

Removing anonymity, as Zhou suggests, will not fix it. There are plenty of trolls on Facebook who do a damn good job of making the uninitiated angry and pulling them in to loops of intentional fallacies. Just because their real name or an approximation is next to their comment doesn't stop the giant White House threads from blowing up. People will get Real Mad and Comment no matter if their name is attached to it, or they'll just not put their real name in their profile at all. That's always a possibility.

I don't think there's a problem here. If families are being harassed, there are ways for the police to handle it. If you fell for the Xbox 360 joke or took the time to correct someone's spelling of Richard Dawkins' name (Dwakins) and then posted epic defenses of atheism, you may have just wasted time defending atheism to an atheist who happens to like making you mad.

The only thing that will stop trolls from trolling is when people stop feeding them, when people stop falling for the baits, stop taking everything so damn seriously. There's no application or software solution that will fix gullibility. Now, the sticky thing for me to figure out is if Zhou was actually trolling, and this post in response, clarifying her supposed error, is me falling for it, stepping right into the trap. I do so willingly.

6 responses so far