Web of Stories

I’ve already discussed new media and Web 2.0 a little bit here; it is the contemporary version of the internet that is more participatory and user-generated. As usually, the internet has a way of taking on older traditional means of communication and social interaction and making them digital and dynamic. This is no different when to comes to storytelling which is surely one of the oldest forms of communal entertainment. From tall tales to the “back in my day” stories, people have always been interested in each others’ experiences or imaginations.

Author Bryan Alexander’s book The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media explores what are the current relationships between new media and storytelling. In the fourth chapter of his book, “Web 2.0 Storytelling”, he discusses blogs, Twitter, wikis (which are web applications which allow for users to collaborate and create content), Facebook, and “social images” (images that might be on the image-based website like Flickr, for instance). Each of these sites or applications allow for people to create stories or narratives and for people to not only share them but perhaps comment on or adapt them. While I’m not completely sold on Alexander’s belief that Twitter can be a place of storytelling, I suppose it is possible to grasp a story from the short vain messages that make up the site. I’m more convinced by things like blogs (perhaps I am slightly textually biased) but I’m even more certain that images can tell as much of a story as a “tweet”, if not more. Of course, many images have led many people astray, and we all know the fantasy world of computer edited images.

Of course, digital storytelling can be a useful tool in the museum for exhibitions and museum education. Freeman Tilden said that interpretation is “not instruction but provocation”. Interpretation in the museum setting means sharing a narrative to demonstrate meaning, significance, and feeling. In other words, I can hand you a list of factual of historic dates or can I tell you an account from history. One historical story is told on Flickr through the creation of edited photos that are historic World War II images merged with the same location in contemporary times called Ghosts of War. I enjoy many of the images because the creator goal is to show that “history is all around us”. The creator has adapted images to tell another story of change over time while making audiences see locations in a different way. Check out this one depicting a SS recruitment office from the war era merged with a current image of a diverse Amsterdam:

Ghosts of war

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Mining the Public?

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy; my belief is that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge and we public historians should recognize it, analyze it, critique, and contextualize it with our specialized learning. Call it shared authority, if you want, I call it respect.

Recently I discovered two websites that are related to this concept. The Experience Project is a social media website that has millions of users and was founded in 2007 as a platform for people to share their experiences on a particular subject with others. Those experiences are categorized under subject headings such as food, health, travel, etc. Responses range from short and lighthearted to deep insightful reflections. Sometimes users ask others about their experiences. The site is an exemplar of web 2.0: social media, interaction, and user-generated. While this site doesn’t have anything to do with history exactly I did find another site that operates on a similar premise but as a digital archive of social history.

Indian Memory Project
was founded in February 2010 by Anusha Yadav as a way to allow “regular” Indians the chance to digitally archive their family stories, letters, and images as an open repository of Indian history. The site reads like an open scrapbook of a whole country. Stories relate to the history of Indian independence or a widowed great-grandmother who educated herself. While the site could profit from objective historical context or commentary, this site is the brain-child of social history and web 2.0. Yadav noted that archives in first-world countries are successful but archives are very different in India and Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India (a Indian folk music site) also complains of Indian archives criticizing that they:”lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus” [1]. Formalized memory isn’t just for the elite and its an archaic message that is clearly being challenged around the world.

Neither Yadav or Bhushan are public historians but we can all take a lesson in learning how we can use the web to diversify and democratize history. Of course, we must question whose stories have more weight; is everyone’s story equal? Should everyone get equal say in history? How best can we contextualize these expressions of social history while still recognizing non-academic public knowledge and experience? It is no easy set of questions but it deserves continued exploration. Until then we, academic and public historians, should keep mining the public.