Review of TrailMeme
As part of the PATHS development process we wanted to identify what types of systems there are available that might be part of the same user landscape. Specifically we wanted to review systems that enable some form of ‘path-creation’ activity, a core feature of the proposed PATHS system.
Online there is a current trend for so-called ‘content curation’, allowing users to collate and repurpose web content in the form of user generated and published stories. Although not directly focused on cultural heritage content or digital library collections, these systems offer a good insight into the path-creation activity and how it might be used. For this review we will focus on Trailmeme , one of the more advanced content curation systems currently available, which also uses the same ‘pathway’ metaphor.
Trailmeme was developed by the Xerox Corporation’s Innovation Team, and has been around for circa two years, one year in private beta, and one in public beta. In its own words, “Trailmeme is a way to tell stories with Web content”. As with other content curation tools, what this means is that the user can collect together a variety of content, in the case of Trailmeme this is limited to web pages, and link them together to create some additional meaning.
There are three main activities supported by Trailmeme: ‘blazing’ or creating trails; publishing and sharing trails; and ‘walking’ or viewing trails creating created by other users. The process of blazing a trail entails finding suitable content on the web, creating a node for each selected web page, including adding descriptions and tags, and then linking nodes together to form a trail map. Once a trail is complete, the user can simply publish it in Trailmeme, or can distribute it more widely using a standard Share facility to send the trail link to a variety of social media and blog sites. Existing trails can be found by browsing lists of all, recent or ‘hot’ trails, by choosing to see a random trail, or via a simple keyword search. Once a trail has been selected, it is ‘walked’ using the trail map, and/or directional arrows to move between nodes.
Additional Tools & Plugins
Trailmeme is well-supported to integrate with wider web-based activities, and now offers several additional tools that can be used outside of the main system to aid the process of trail-making, trail-walking and sharing. A bookmarklet compatible with the majority of web browsers enables the user to collect web pages for future trails as they use the web on a daily basis; a Firefox browser toolbar plugin enhances the trail-walking experience; a WordPress plugin enables the user to rearrange their blog content using trails; and, a Windows 7 Gadget feeds news of the latest trails to your desktop and provides a search facility for finding trails to walk.
Trailmeme is relatively intuitive to use, both in terms of blazing and walking trails. In trail-blazing the system is one of very few content curation tools that offers a more complex mind map structure for trails, with an additional benefit in allowing connections to be multi-directional. Effectively this means that trails can support multiple routes and potentially demonstrate different aspects of a particular topic or story, although how successfully this is achieved depends very much on the skill of the trail blazer. The recent addition of Google web search to the Trailmeme interface, and the availability of a Bookmarklet means that it is now much easier to find content for trails and to create nodes without needing to manage multiple windows at the same time. Content for trails can be added from general web pages, but not from social media such as Twitter, in contrast with many other content curation tools which are designed for re-purposing user-generated content. There are additional limitations in content selection in that Trailmeme uses frames to present the web pages linked to nodes, and unfortunately some sources, including Flickr, do not allow content to be shown via frames. If content is required from digital library collections it is necessary to search outside of the main system and to create nodes manually or via the browser bookmarklet.
Walking trails is relatively straightforward when they are of a simple structure, but becomes more complex when nodes have multiple options for moving on to the next node. This complexity is really in the hands of the trail creator, and it requires some skill to create a map style trail where the user can easily follow all of the nodes and be sure they have seen the whole trail. In practice, some nodes are visited multiple times as the walker back-tracks to a node that supports alternate routes. There is an option to revert back to the overview trail map, but in the main system this means leaving the current content page, rather than showing it in a sidebar, which would make this function more useful, proving context to the content being viewed. The trail map comprises a simplified representation of nodes and connections using boxes and arrows, and may be enhanced by the use of page thumbnails, so that walkers can see a preview of the content before and during use.
All in all, Trailmeme is one of the more sophisticated content curation tools, but requires commitment to become proficient and to create meaningful, interesting trails that are easy for other users to follow.
Trails Created with Trailmeme
There are currently more than 750 trails in Tralimeme, with content ranging from history and science lessons, to news, business, technology, travel guides, health, popular culture and theories about the end of the world. Of these, 108 have been created by one user, and six of the most popular trails have been created by a Trailmeme developer. From our analysis of the Trailmeme API, undertaken as part of the PATHS User Requirements Analysis, we know that trials have been created by more than 320 users, so it would seem that there is a classic Pareto or ‘long tail’ distribution of trails to users, with the majority of users creating only one trail each to date. We also found that whilst there are a small number of very long trails, the majority are of a much more manageable length and the average is closer to 6-10 nodes per trail.
Comparison with PATHS
Unlike Trailmeme, PATHS is designed to work with digital library collections, with built-in search, browse and explore functionality that will enable the user to find high quality content that is normally hidden from search engine results.