Audience: TheyRule.net is a website with an interactive application that allows the user to visualize connections between boards of directors of major U. S. companies in 2004. Its potential audience is fairly large, as with any public website on the Internet, since anyone may stumble across it after a late night of aimless clicking. However, its target audience consists of fairly web-savvy users with progressive politics.
Purpose: TheyRule is primarily an information database with a sophisticated interface that enables users to research relationships of the "U.S. ruling class." It keeps track of the relationships between boards of directors, identifying individuals as connecting nodes between corporations. Fundamentally, it aims to serve as a tool for inquiry into the distribution of wealth in America.
Context: On the site "About", the self-described context is: "A few companies control much of the economy and oligopolies exert control in nearly every sector of the economy. The people who head up these companies swap on and off the boards from one company to another, and in and out of government committees and positions. These people run the most powerful institutions on the planet, and we have almost no say in who they are."
From an information design context, however, things are much simpler: TheyRule will primarily be accessed by a link from another website. Due to the technical requirements of the site, requiring Flash Player 7, the user will probably be viewing the site from a relatively late-model computer with high-speed Internet access.
Ethos: Key to TheyRule is the value of wisdom: it is a source of important, crucial, possibly even subversive information. However, it never makes prescriptive statements, nor does it profess to be much more than a tool or a springboard. Other than the first few introductory statements and the "About" section quoted above, the rest of the website is surprisingly devoid of editorial. All the content - and by content, I mean the maps of arranged information - is created by visitors to the site. TheyRule is wise insomuch as it claims to empower you, at your service to help you make yourself wiser. Political self-help, even.
Color and Graphics: The colors of the website are limited to black, white, and various shades of grey. This serves to reinforce the notion that TheyRule is only interested in the facts. Color would be extraneous and frivolous. The icons used to represent board tables and individuals are simple, and the only hint of three-dimensionality (the pudgy directors are a nice touch - all they need are cigars). Repeated again and again, the icons underlines the sameness of the boards and the directors, as opposed to the "small multiples" of Tufte that reveal change over time and space. The overall look and feel of the website, due to the limited color palette, is extremely clinical and impassionate. The grey webbing of the information maps are slightly sinister-looking, surely an intended effect.
Navigation: The website, when first visited, starts off entirely empty, with nothing but the menu bar on the left-hand side. There are various ways to access the information database, the most basic of which is to choose a company from the list. Upon selecting a company, the image of a board table appears in the main frame. When the user mouse-over the image, a menu of choices appears: "Directors," "Search," or "Delete". Choosing "Directors" reveals the board of directors, with each director represented by an image of a man or woman in a suit. Mousing over the image of a director does much the same thing, only this time the menu of choices includes "Companies." Choosing "Companies" reveals all the other boards that the individual serves on, with a line denoting the connection between director and board table. These lines can be moved, stretched, and bent with some mouse action, and the table and director icons can also be moved.
While this is the most basic method, it is also the most fruitless. Unless the user has done prior research and knows exactly what she wants to illustrate, randomly selecting companies and directors will divulge very little information beyond the fact that many individuals who serve as directors on the boards of large corporations are often directors of more than one corporation.
Recognizing this, the designers of the website have incorporated a feature wherein after you have expanded and arranged a map to your liking, you can save it for public consumption. Those precocious users who have done prior research can then educate the users who would otherwise be lost. A list of popular maps is available, the most popular being one about the New York Times board of directors entitled "All the News They See Fit to Print." You can also add notes to your map, providing additional context to the information. Many of the popular maps, however, are too large to be viewed completely on a computer screen with 1024x768 resolution, with paths between boards and directors that are so intricately crossed the map seems to have been more an exercise in clicking in dragging than in purveying valuable information.
The third way to access the database is the "Find Path" option, wherein you can see how two corporations are linked to each other. This is the simplest way for the curious to use TheyRule.
Overall, TheyRule possesses a set of fairly effective ways to interact with the information available in its database. With prior knowledge and patience, one could possibly uncover some strange bedfellows. However, despite its claims of user empowerment, where TheyRule really excels is in hammering home its main argument: America's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a select group of people who know each other, or know of each other.