Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus: Mapping Pre-defined Association

On: September 21, 2008
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About Inge Ploum
- MA New Media @ University of Amsterdam - Research: mashing aesthetics and media philosophy to question every cultural object related to digital technology. Particular emphasis is placed on the construction of images of the future. - Spare Time: founder Science Denied (, independent film director/producer, graphical artist & musician 'Die Samplemännchen' & 'Guitar & the Melodies'


In an information overloaded society our focus should shift from ways to store data to new ways to retrieve stored data. Due to rapidly evolving technologies new information-gathering tools have been developed to support our ‘information retrieval needs’. Just think about search engines like Google and Yahoo, or online encyclopaedia like Wikipedia or Britannica. Because times have changed, information retrieval systems will have to change too. The Virtual Thesaurus is an example of how an application not only reflects what’s going on in society, but also what’s going on inside our heads.

The Visual Thesaurus

The Visual Thesaurus

The Virtual Thesaurus is an interactive online dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words ( For instance, you want to understand the meaning of the word ‘web’. The Virtual Thesaurus will help you find related words, from ‘www’ to ‘vane’ (see larger image). These other meanings are linked to the word ‘web’ through nodes in a graphical interface which allows you to explore the interrelationship between text-meaning and word-word.

Thinkmap, the developer of the Visual Thesaurus, has proudly presented its imaginary information retrieval system.


“The best part is that the Virtual Thesaurus works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. […] You’ll discover – and learn – naturally and intuitively. You’ll find the right word, write more descriptively, free associate – and gain a more precise understanding of the English language.” (


In this quote Thinkmap stresses the limitations of other online dictionaries. According to Thinkmap these applications use text-based taxonomies which disrupts ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive’ cognitive processes. Compared to other online dictionaries the Virtual Thesaurus seems less dependent on predefined rules and textual hierarchy, and instead seems to focus on the relationships or links between words. This quality of pointing out the interrelatedness between words enables the user to ‘associate freely’, because he/she uses both the left and right hemisphere of the brain (e.g. the left hemisphere seems linked to language – text and speech- and the right hemisphere manages spatial reasoning, symbolic processing and pictorial interpretation).

Bush’ Memex instantaneously comes to mind when human information processing is based on association and the left-brain/right-brain model (Bush, 1945). In ‘As We May Think’ Bush underlined the need to create associative knowledge administration systems instead of hierarchical systems. His imaginary Memex (memory extension machine) was the embodiment of this idea. This comparison between the Memex and the Virtual Thesaurus demonstrates that Bush’ ideas on ‘associative thinking’ are still relevant today, when it comes to building information retrieval and information storage applications.

While the Virtual Thesaurus to some extent may avoid a hierarchical index system, it still relies on pre-defined structures and pre-defined relationships among concepts. This reliance on rules not only can be found in the code of the software, but also in its structure. Because a user is unable to create his/her word web, he/she is forced to follow pre-determined nodes. The advantage of predefining search paths is that it’s relatively easy to quickly find what you are looking for. In other words: this application is based on a ‘user-centered design paradigm’. This paradigm interprets the user experience in terms of the ease-of-use and functionality. The problem of this design paradigm, however, is that it ignores the emotional and subjective side of the user. Instead of interpreting the user as a multi-layered and contextual dependent individual, the user is understood as a machine whose behaviour can be reduced to mathematical formulas. Even though implementing structures in the design of an information storage/retrieval application isn’t terrible, it ignores some important user experience issues. If the Virtual Thesaurus, for example, had integrated an additional tool which allowed users to create their own text webs and text relationships, it would have been less dependent on predefined taxonomies, textual hierarchies, intended uses and intended users.

In addition to this shortcoming, another backlash should be addressed. Even though the Virtual Thesaurus has over 145.000 English words, 115.000 meanings and uses a 2 and 3D interface, it is still highly reliant on text-based representations. The Virtual Thesaurus uses words instead of images which limits its potential as a constructive information retrieval tool. If Thinkmap wants to stimulate ‘free association’ it should have included images as well as text to restore the balance in the functions between the right- and left side of the brain. When text and images are interrelated (and the brain functions are equally distributed), it will probably increase ‘free association’ and ‘creative thinking’. But as with text-based representations, one should be aware of the fact that no universal image taxonomy exists and that the interpretation of meaning is contextually defined.

Notwithstanding that the Virtual Thesaurus is less based on the paper-book format than other online dictionaries (like or the Thsrs), it is still highly dependent on text-based representations and taxonomies. In my opinion the Virtual Thesaurus has to enhance its design and functions in order for it to be a helpful and more neutral information retrieval/storage system.

Biography: Bush, V. (1945) ‘As We May Think’. Atlantic Monthly, July; reprinted in Interactions, vol. 3, no. 2, Mar. 1996, pp. 35–46.
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