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CMU's Francis Bacon Project Is Facebook for 16th Century

You’ve heard of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? This CMU interactive project uses 21st century technology to track the social networks of a similarly named 16th-century author.

Photo: shutterstock


If the advanced technology of the 21st Century had been around in the 16th and 17th centuries, early modernist scholars wouldn’t need to wonder if Sir Francis Bacon knew William Shakespeare — they’d probably be friends on Facebook.

Unfortunately for scholars, technology in the 16th and 17th centuries was just beginning to advance past rudimentary stages and Facebook was about 500 years away from existing. To track social relationship networks between early modern figures such as Bacon, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and others well-known (and unknown) in their day, scholars can turn to the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project.

Launched by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in 2015, the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project (a play on the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) is an online network that maps the social relationships by using data mining. It combines centuries of documents, articles and books to show the dense and often vague network of social relationships from those eras.

The project was revamped in December with key new features added to the interactive site’s interface. Users can now submit their own entries to the network, and scholars can download all relationship and network data from those they’re studying. Users can also set up parameters to organize and visualize the data. For example, you can narrow the scope to just Jesuits and their relationships to one degree of separation. New filters show the network by confidence level about any given relationship.

Early modern relationships aside, the website is a seriously cool bit of technology. It’s also similar to technology used by commercial social media sites and government surveillance programs.

Christopher Warren, CMU associate professor of English, spoke about the approaches they used in designing Bacon at the relaunch event in December.

“The superficial ways in which inferring historic social networks from co-mentions in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography resembled processes at the NSA and MI6 dedicated to mapping terrorist networks has never exactly been lost on us,” said Warren.

With technology this sophisticated, it stands that commercial social media or government surveillance would be interested in the quantitation analysis behind Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, something the humanists would never fully cede, says Warren.

“Our design pushed back against some of the expectations set by Facebook and Twitter,” said Warren. “Facebook and Twitter never show you the whole social graph, and we aim to show as much of the social structure as is feasible.”

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