Timelines have a relatively negative connotation compared to other, more multimodal forms of genres. They usually simply present information to the audience with informational purposes and a broad audience in mind, boring the students tasked with memorizing and analyzing them. But timelines are misunderstood. There is a story of humans being told behind all of those dates and events that every human can relate to. Having such a powerful idea at its core, means timelines deserve a more exciting, purposeful structure.
As I went about crafting my own timeline of the history of misinformation and fake news I constantly reflected to see if a story was being told. While the issue of fake news has gained more attention in light of recent events these past few years, I wanted to present larger themes about misinformation that have been constants over the course of centuries, showing how foundational this issue really is. As I went about studying the methods other timelines use to present information, comparing effective and boring timelines, my outlook on what a timeline could be changed. Here’s what I gathered:
- Explain the meaning more than the events: Where a timeline has the opportunity to push past what is expected of it and become something offering a larger message is in the analysis of the events it has put in chronological order. A brief explanation of what occurred on the date is necessary to give educated and uneducated readers an even playing field, but the majority of the text on the page should be about offering insights into what these dates mean, and how they connect. Fleshing out larger themes of humanity is how we can make timelines relevant to the challenges we face today. When there is little to no analysis of the dates listed the timeline loses a major opportunity, instead becoming a backdrop for other more specific sources. Two of the articles I examined, both of which I would consider timelines, offered completely different academic experiences because of differing levels of analysis. “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News” didn’t have the traditional appearance of a timeline, instead taking article form, but delivered an incredible recount by jumping through the centuries, stopping to connect past and future dates. This allowed the author to make an argument about the sequence of events instead of just sharing what has happened with the reader. “American History Timeline” acts as a more traditional timeline, covering events over the past millennium. What the reader wants to walk away from it with is constrained by the page and their prior knowledge.
- Separate the dates and events from any analysis: It’s worth noting that sometimes the reader is not looking for a sizable analysis of the dates or events given and instead opens up a timeline to just find a specific date. Consequently, a visually appealing and viewer-friendly timeline makes the dates/events the backbone of the text. The reader’s eyes should bounce from date to date, only diving into the subsequent analysis accompanying each date if they care to. In this way “American History timeline” outperforms “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News” as the latter makes it difficult for the reader to find the events/dates being highlighted. This also makes transitions easier to follow as when dates are separated by literal space on the page and not hiding within paragraphs, the reader can follow the story and make those crucial connections.
- Make it multimodal: A large complaint of timelines, especially from young students, is that they are boring and hard to read. Adding images and videos can enhance the timeline experience. It not only adds color and structure to a bland, simple design, but it offers a visual for the story being told. The audience, who may have a difficult time picturing what a certain historical figure looked like or what a location looked like hundreds of years ago now has an image to build their imagined story off of. The interactive “United States History” timeline from World Digital Library exemplifies the power of adding images. The site gives users the ability to move back and forth between events, moving out of the traditional line format. In this way the user is moving through time, following patterns, mentally picturing history unfold.
All of these realizations about how to make an effective, unique timeline come back to the idea that a timeline is a story. Luckily we love hearing stories s0 there is no reason why a timeline should fail at gaining and maintaining the attention of a reader. Timeline creators just need to push past the traditional expectation of a long, straight line with a sequence of dates branching off to be successful. Timelines need to be dynamic because we utilize them for dynamic reasons. We open them up to tell the story of how we got here, find connections across centuries, and gather conclusions about ourselves. Since there is literally a history of everything, there can be a timeline for everything. It’s up to the creators of these timelines to continue to challenge the status quo on what a timeline should look like and tell a story which connects the larger recurring themes, moving forward and backward through time. In this way, as I found with the history of misinformation, it’s a circle more than a line.