Social Networking the Past with Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

24 Jan

Social media networks are undoubtedly at the forefront of many lives. These tools help us to establish relationships, draw commonalities among users, and expand our professional and social circles. As easy and convenient as this is, we may almost take for granted our ability to draw connections between individuals of the present and recent past. Why limit using technology to draw associations only among the living? What about social circles of early modern Britain? In the fall of last year, collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University made this feasible. Inspired by the popular game connecting celebrities to actor Kevin Bacon, “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” is a humanities project that establishes over 200,000 relationships among over 13,000 individuals between the 16th and 18th centuries.1

While it was initially difficult to draw possible relations with individuals of the past, and even more tasking to keep track of these findings, “Six Degrees” allows all interested a far more convenient and accessible way of conducting and saving this research. It appears to take the general idea of a bubble map, what some historians might use otherwise, but with an innumerable increase in potential. Whether a scholar, student, or history inquisitor, users can navigate the site to learn about potential relationships and influence among prominent figures of the time, from Queen Elizabeth I to Julius Caesar.

Two main options to navigate include below, what looks like an extensive web, or less visually interactive lists. The mapping centers around, of course, Francis Bacon, Former Lord chancellor, politician, and philosopher of the 16th and 17th century. Bacon serves as an optimal basis due not only to his convenient name, but his prominence of the time. The mapping consists of nodes (signifying individuals) and edges (connections between individuals). Nodes of darker colors indicate people with more prominent names and/or more connections to others. The thicker the “edge” or line between people, the stronger the connection. When clicking on a node or line, users are immediately given additional information in a box on the page about the person or connection, such as a more specific time frame, or even the nature of the relationship.

Francis Bacon

Two of the creators, Daniel Shore of Georgetown and Jessica Otis of CMU developed this expansive, innovative resource by mining 62 million words in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Utilizing CMUs department of Statistics and data mining experts, they were able to come up with a visually elaborate and interactive tool.2 The site also employs other resources such as JSTOR, offering links on individuals for additional research.

Though the rough concept of data mining has been around for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that “data mining” became a known and useful tool. Data mining has proven to be a helpful on many fronts, initially serving businesses better analysis of trends and predictions.3 Within the last decade, we have seen an increase in the use of this technology in the field of history.4 Currently, many digital history projects that include mapping and other visualizations are confidently using data and text mining.

The project’s value stands on multiple levels. It was even awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities grant in the summer of 2016.5 Using modern technology, “Six Degrees” allows researchers to answer questions that at one point were unknown or overlooked. Historians are no stranger to the importance of social influence to better understand individuals and groups. One glance at a literary, political, or philosophy figure on any internet site will often show others who influenced or were influenced by the individual. Some influences go unseen, and this site does well to uncover information that can break down preconceived notions about people of the past. Shore was able to demonstrate to a class how John Milton’s social circle was linked to many different people other than poets.6

This project works as a platform to explore areas of the humanities in ways once unheard of. By synthesizing research scattered among thousands of works of literature, historians and others of the like can more easily study how early modern people may have interacted and socialized. Researchers can peruse social groups and members throughout the time and possibly, with further research, come to original conclusions of their own. Perhaps one day, some will manage to unearth profound ideas about prominent figures based upon previously unexplored social interactions with others. It tackles many branches of history, exploring social, cultural, and intellectual history through a public history oriented dynamic.

This project also continues to be highly collaborative. It acts similar to a site like Wikipedia, and once creating an account on the site, members can not only explore these early social networks, they may contribute research and recommendations. The site also offers a section for users to contribute feedback about the site, as well as a blog for users and collaborators to discuss findings and topics in digital history. This does bring about concern regarding credibility of information. Any changes are monitored by other members who have proven themselves to be consistently credible and helpful to the site, but what their accreditation is remains unseen.7 However, team members do seem aware of the potentiality of error in even their own work. In a blog post, Chris Warren discusses how some of these relationships may only be possible relationships. With older and limited resources in some cases, this will stay an issue, as “likelihood” is the only conclusion one can make. Researchers must always proceed with caution under these circumstances.8

For someone who may not be as adept at technology, navigating the site may be quite difficult for the first time. It may deter those who are not as comfortable with the technology, possibly confining the demographic to younger, more scholarly users. While informative, listing a legend for understanding node color and its meaning, or how to scroll in and out to view people and connections at varying degrees, it is not user friendly for beginners such as myself. I would recommend watching their introductory video which can either be found here or on YouTube . This video gives a more in depth overview of the variety of tools on the site, such as altering “confidence” settings, which will limit searches to stronger relationships. The site also contains a section of tutorials on the content. While it initially comes off as intimidating and complex, maybe interactive projects like this will help to further integrate computers and technology into history, making them more approachable. Data and text mining serve an ever expanding purpose that has only recently infiltrated the humanities. It will certainly be interesting to see what future projects may bring.

  1. Reisz, Matthew. “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon: A Social Network for Early Modern Britain.” Times Higher Education (THE), October 23, 2015.
  2. Rea, Shilo. “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon Launches.” Accessed January 24, 2017.
  3. “History of Data Mining |” Accessed January 24, 2017.
  4. Cohen, Dan. “Enhancing Historical Research With Text-Mining and Analysis Tools.” Dan Cohen, February 4, 2008.
  5. Rea, Shilo.“Six Degrees of Francis Bacon Awarded Coveted NEH Grant.” Accessed January 24, 2017.
  6. Ouellette, Jennifer. “Mapping 16th Century Social Networks with Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” Gizmodo. Accessed January 24, 2017.
  7. Green, Anna.“Six Degrees of Francis Bacon Shows Links Between Your Favorite Historical Figures.” Mental Floss. Accessed January 24, 2017.
  8. Warren, Chris. “Toward a Pragmatics of Error in the Digital Humanities.”“Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” Accessed January 24, 2017.

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