There are a lot of things in life that can be solved with a good timeline. While most people tend to think of them as a specialized way of visualizing data, or something they learned about in elementary school, I love them. I think all my major research projects have involved creating timelines — they provide a level of organization to any project that is valuable. This could be just keeping track of when you interviewed who, or it could be to keep track of a complex case study. It could just be to keep track of when your exam papers are due. Basically, since you exist in time, the visual display of time will always be useful.
I’ve personally always been fascinated by the history of anthropology, and how telling stories about our past enables or disables certain futures for our discipline. At some point about ten years ago, I began a history of anthropology timeline and blogged about it on Savage Minds. I kept working on it, and did another post in 2010.
Since then my timeline has grown and now contains over 600 events! And in the course of doing this work, I’ve shifted between different software. After a decade of looking for Mac software to create timelines, I’ve found — and stuck with — Aeon Timeline.
Partially, Aeon Timeline is the best because there are few competitors — especially for Mac. But even if there were, I think Aeon Timeline would be head and shoulders above the competition. The program was written with fiction authors in mind, so it’s incredibly customizable. Vernor Vinge could create a timeline using the decimal timekeeping system he uses in some of his books, if he wanted to. You can create people, institutions, or other entities and then link timeline entries to them. You can add tags to events. You can filter events to visualize your timeline in different ways. All of this was very important to me, since with 600 entries you can’t really look at the raw timeline anymore, you can only pull particular ways of visualizing it. And to be honest, I haven’t even used the full power of this timeline.
Aeon Timeline does have some downsides. It is a bit harder than it needs to be to get data into it. If you are a novice user, all of the entities, arcs, metadata, other forms might be intimidating. It can be difficult to just get the thing to zoom in to exactly what time period yo want to go. But these are minor issues. Overall, the program is a lot of fun to use, especially once the data are in there and you can start playing around with them. Who knew that Malinowski and American Anthropologist were born in the same year? Visualization allows you to explore relationships in your data you wouldn’t otherwise see, and timelines are no exception to this fact.
Aeon Timeline is also definitely indie. As far as I can tell it is designed, written, and owned by one guy. So you don’t feel like you’re supporting a faceless megacorp when you buy it. In fact, since I believe in supporting independent software developers, I don’t feel at all guilty using this space to push his product. With the release of Aeon Timeline 2 this month, he is offering a 50% discount on the product, so you can get a great timeline program for only US$25.
So if you are interested in experimenting with timeline software, I’d recommend Aeon Timeline 2. And hey, if you do buy a copy are are interested in the history of anthropology, shoot me an email — I’ll throw in a free timeline into the deal for you as well.