Mapping the online mind: how Twingl’s Trailblazer extension plans to smash tabs and improve learning

We live in social times. And it’s easier than ever to share information with fellow humans. It’s also easier than ever to get stuck in a Google/Wikipedia/YouTube/hyperlink rabbit hole and end up with 42 tabs open on your browser. So Kiwi start-up Twingl is trying to make it easier to share knowledge—and to see the journey people take to get there—with a clever Chrome extension called Trailblazer

Trailblazer, which is in beta mode, draws inspiration from the Memex, a personal library that categorises interconnected knowledge and is inbuilt into a computer (it was first envisioned by inventor Vannevar Bush in his 1945 essay As We May Think, which some believe predicted the internet). Often there are so many tabs open after a knowledge seeking bender you might just start afresh. And that journey is lost in the browser history. But the extension aims to “show you where you are, where you came from, and what was useful, so you can return the next day—or the next week—and instead of a mess of tabs, you can see what you were thinking.” It does this by recording and stitching together all the pages viewed during the research process, creating visual maps of the way internet users find information and allowing that to be shared. 

As chief executive and self-proclaimed Mad Scientist Andy Wilkinson told Wired’s Clive Thompson“Browser histories are too flat. This lets you, at a glance, figure out where an idea emerged from. You’re plucking off a part of your mind and handing it to someone else.” 

And as it explains on the site: “You can see where to go next. And when a friend shares your curiosity? Just flick them your map, and they can pick up where you left off.” 

As Wilkinson explains in this story about his friend, the extension was originally designed to share knowledge more efficiently. But, in something of an unexpected consequence, he believes it can also play an important role in modern education because teachers and parents are able to see how kids are learning. 

“The interesting thing about these maps—and we didn’t expect it when we started out—is that these maps show you not just what someone found, but how they found it. You can see how someone thinks. It’s like “showing your work” in maths, or art.​

I learned the most at school during lunch-time. I’d “forget” my sunhat and thus get sent to the library—where I could go on the computer and get lost in Encarta and the web. (Oh Netscape 3; we had a lot of fun.)

Times have changed. Students have laptops. The internet comes out of the air. A growing tribe of educators are reshaping their role to that of a guide. Not there to teach rote knowledge—but to teach students how to learn.

… If you’re an educator (hi! we love you.), you’ve probably found it hard to see how well students are learning to learn. If a kid hands in, say, a Minecraft gulag for their social studies project, how do you know that they didn’t just spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia and 10 hours in Minecraft?

How can you shape your students into better learners if you can’t see their bad habits?

There have been a few stories recently about Vint Cerf’s concerns about a digital dark age, where a whole generation of knowledge stuck on computers and mobile devices could be lost as the software and hardware we use changes and is unable to display them (one study showed that one year after a major event, on average, 11 percent of the online content referenced by social media had been lost and just 20 percent archived). Twingl wants to help get that knowledge out. 

“The free sharing of ideas and knowledge between people is what drives the human race forward. When we improve our tools for storing and sharing knowledge, ideas evolve faster. Humanity advances faster. We saw it with the invention of language; writing; the printing press and the internet. There’s a lot of knowledge locked up in people’s brains. The more we keep outside our heads, the less of a barrier there is to sharing that knowledge with other people. At Twingl, we build tools that get your knowledge out of your head. We think this helps you become a better thinker. But more importantly, it makes others better thinkers as well.” 

And there could be some interesting uses for this technology. As Thompson dreams: “Imagine if trail sharing became routine. Reporters could enrich their stories by showing how they came to their conclusions. You could send funny or jokey pathways, like cognitive emoji. Trails are like Proustian cookies, teleporting us back to mental states from weeks ago. Vannevar Bush was right: The journey is a destination.” 

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