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Understanding English history through social networking

Creating a social network for historical figures

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost


It all started when Stanford English professor Nicholas Jenkins found out about a bit of gruesome family history: In 1908, his great-great-grandfather had gone berserk and murdered his wife, daughter and servants. Unnerved, Jenkins blogged about the incident and was contacted by a genealogical research hobbyist who offered to look into the story. Before long, Jenkins had asked the researcher to investigate a writer he’d written about professionally: W. H. Auden. Important Auden family connections emerged almost immediately: The poet could be traced back to the Plantagenet kings of the Middle Ages. The same was true of other famous writers, bankers and politicians. It started to seem as if everyone of importance in British history was connected by a sort of familial LinkedIn. So, with the help of digital humanities specialist Elijah Meeks and designer Scott Murray, that’s exactly what Jenkins
created: Kindred Britain, a Facebook-esque website that explains English history through more than half a million family connections. Here’s how they did it.

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1. Jenkins initially organized his findings using standard genealogy software but soon asked his more tech-savvy colleagues to design an explorable website. The resulting data map is organized by familial network, timeline and geography and can be searched by person, connection, profession, family name or place.

2. Because genealogical histories are usually subject to outdated mores, they can leave a lot of stones unturned: Nontraditional marriages, divorces and illegitimate children are often left out of the story. Jenkins has scoured historical papers and books to catch the omitted relationships and put them back in.

3. In order to explain each of the historical figures without using big blocks of text, Jenkins and his coworkers looked at character sheets from online games. “Instead of weapons or health or potions, we included badges for, say, being a politician, or for having been involved in a tragedy,” Jenkins says.

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