Every time I work with newcomers to life writing, I bring up the subject of timelines in one form or another. Today I bring news of a new online tool for creating timelines.
In my classes I might discuss the branching points exercise developed by James Birren for Guided Autobiography Groups. He asks life writers to identify turning points in their lives–events, experiences, or insights that affected the flow of a life’s journey. Not only does he ask you to locate your branching points in time; he asks that you graph them according to how you feel about them, positive or negative. It’s a challenging exercise!
For an easier timeline I might bring up Carol Franco’s Legacy Guide, with its simple suggestion that you set up a notebook with dividers for the Seven Stages of Life:
- childhood (birth to beginning of puberty)
- adolescence (puberty to roughly 20)
- young adult (roughly 11-13 to 20)
- adult (roughly 30 to 40 or 45)
- middle adult (roughly 40-45 to 60)
- late adult (roughly 60 to 80)
- elder (roughly 80 plus)
“Stages offer more than a handy way to think about your past,” Franco writes; “they represent points of connection…readers of your story can apply, for example, what you learned facing the challenges of young adulthood, when you were trying to find a place in the world, to the same challenges in their own lives.” She emphasizes that chronological age is not what moves you from one stage to the next, but life events and what you learned from them. Each stage ends not at a specific age, but when you begin to question your life in a particular stage. The questioning begins a process of change and soon, you find your life different in key ways.
A website hosted by Microsoft Research will help people curate their own personal history using a timeline interface. Site users will be able to attach images and other visual content, plus accompanying text, to dates that appear as a timeline. Each entry displays as a thumbnail image that can be clicked to see in full. The site launches in Beta on Monday, October 31st.
According to a description from Microsoft Research, users will be able to compare timelines, embed them in blogs or print them out, and generally create a navigable web of personal history that can connect us across time, experience, and space. “The ability to merge different timelines about, say, people and events creates interesting contrasts between authoritative and personal versions of events,” said developer Richard Banks in the Technology Review article.
Microsoft’s product isn’t the only to offer this kind of interactive user experience, of course. Timeline is another, reviewed here on Lifehacker.
Underlying any of these tools lurks the obvious question: “what will become of it?” If we’re talking about preserving our stories (in rich multi-media detail) for future generations to appreciate, what promise do we have that the medium we choose will still exist, in accessible form, for those future generations? Anyone with a closet full of home movies on Betamax tape knows the answer isn’t simple.
I do think Microsoft will be around for a while. So maybe Greenwich is a good bet. I look forward to checking it out when the site rolls out on Monday. I’ll update this post with a link so you can be one of the first kids on your block to check it out. Who knows, maybe somebody on your block 100 years from now will be delighted to find your timeline.
p.s. Update 11/9/11 — no sign of Greenwich live yet. I believe the “beta” version promised for 10/31/11 is for developers only and has not yet launched. I contacted Microsoft Research asking to be added to the Beta team and received an email saying “we’ll be in touch when we’re ready to launch the beta.” I’ll let you know what happens next. -Sarah W.