Podcasts: Edutainment or Sensationalist?

Although I’ve explored the podcast universe, I haven’t branched out much beyond my favorite, Stuff You Missed in History Class. The episodes are just about the right length for my work commute and the vast array of historical moments are presented in a very casual (sometimes too casual for my tastes), but educational manner. The biggest benefit for me of podcasts is the ability to learn while doing something not conducive to reading, like for instance driving or trying to fall asleep at night (reading makes me focus too much to settle my mind).

I really enjoyed the selection of podcasts this week, with the diversity of subject matter and even presentation styles. Some did stand out to me as exceptional, not just because of the podcasts themselves but because of their supplemental presentations. Not only does text provide reference material, which adds validity to any statements made, but it also contributes to the overall tone of a podcast. Sometimes—maybe even rarely—when dealing with a moment from the past, hosts can come across as too flippant for a particular subject matter, interjecting a sort of casual awe over murder or tragedies. This especially happens the further away we are in time from the action, as if time erases the awfulness. I’ve often wondered if this is a result of trying to captivate and entertain listeners at the cost of reverence. In some cases, if a podcast comes across to me as a bit heavier on the entertainment than the education, I like to be able to see sources or complementary text to help determine accuracy of statements. In other words, is it more entertainment than edutainment?

“The Alibi” and “Fountain Drinks” were, in my opinion, wonderful examples of thorough, responsible edutainment. “The Alibi,” dealing in a grave matter, kept an appropriately serious tone throughout. Details were presented without much personal conjecture and the supplemental material on the website showed a respect for the subject and provided further reading for audience members to explore.

“Fountain Drinks,” was much more lighthearted in tone, perhaps a little more than I felt comfortable with at times, but that’s just my own weird personal reaction. In fact, with the constant handing off of presenters to each other and the playfulness with which they sometimes spoke, at certain moments it felt more like a morning radio show than an educational podcast. But of course, education does not need to be serious all the time and I appreciated the breadth of subject matter they were able to cover in such a short time. I’m also a bit biased as a Victorian historian, and loved the coverage of Victorian sanitation, including the episode of London’s history known as the Great Stink, which doesn’t get as much attention as it should for as big of an event as it was. What impressed me the most, however, was the supplemental material. From a full blog companion page, including text and images, to the exploration of the song at the end, I was able to both listen to and read about the topic. And I loved that they were able to interweave the historic subject matter with modern times, especially through an introduction to such provocative and progressive music.

I was less personally moved by “Fu-Go” and “Playboy Covers Up,” not because of the subject matter—the former which I found very interesting and the latter more trying to be edgy, but coming across as out of touch—but because of the lack of supplemental material. While “Fu-Go” introduced its “authorities” within the podcast, it provided little supplemental text and a bare minimum of sourcing, and “Playboy” offered even less. Podcasts are great if you have time or the ability to listen, and can even be a helpful way to learn in a multitasking world. But to be edutainment and not just entertainment, some folks like me need a bit of educational backup. “Fu-Go” deals in a rather serious subject matter but, if relying just on the supplemental short text alone, one can only assume that the entire episode is based on two sources, a book and a documentary. Is that enough, especially when making such large claims about something so little known by our culture? It makes the sensational claim that there may still be live explosives scattered around our country–doesn’t that warrant more extensive sourcing or further information?

“Playboy,” on the other hand, probably didn’t need to list any sources, having as guests an editor who regularly deals in the subject matter of sexuality in magazines and Hugh Hefner himself. Also, the piece felt much more entertainment than education, but that’s probably because of the lack of real depth or exploration into anything not generally common knowledge. There didn’t seem much academic to be discussed and, as someone who has studied pornography for decades, I didn’t personally find it very revealing or thoughtful. In fact, the website text felt a bit misleading. The introduction draws us in with the potential of a meaningful discussion with, “Does sex no longer sell?”[1] But the speakers don’t seem to really significantly address this and spend very little, if any, time discussing the booming video porn industry, sexualized advertising, or the increasing number of women empowering themselves through the sex industry as opposed to just being the passive subject of the male gaze. Of course sex sells—and arguably more now than ever—but this podcast isn’t as much about selling sex as it is about one magazine’s historic contribution of selling the idea of the sexually sophisticated—thus powerful—man. While some could argue that this at least touches on the subject of selling sex in that Hugh Hefner was very influential in sexualizing popular culture, it hardly explores the potential we are teased with in dealing with a subject much greater than this one magazine or its creator. To sum it up, this podcast felt like pure and biased entertainment, complete with click bait.

Finally, on to the topic of Twitter’s use by historians. I admit that up until this course, I had little interest in Twitter. Mostly, it’s because I can’t condense my thoughts into 140 characters (obviously), but also I didn’t see what it offered that I couldn’t get from Facebook. After actively using my Twitter account for a couple of months now and following history-based accounts, I do see a valuably unique format. Twitter is a great way to simply share newsworthy items and to make connections with other historians. I like that I can casually associate with professors, digital professionals, and people leading the charge of history and the digital humanities, without the overly personalized clutter of Facebook. Also, it’s a great way to offer your own contributions directly to peers and leaders. Twitter has already kept me more abreast of trends and progress in the fields I’m interested in than I have previously been exposed to. Should historians use Twitter? Only if you care to engage–at least in some way–with some of the most innovative and progressive members of the field…

Laurel Wilson

[1] “Playboy Covers Up,” On the Media podcast, October 16, 2015.

Modern Radio

Podcasts are a relatively new tool to reach a broader online audience with different types of information. A podcast is effectively a radio broadcast online with a talk radio content that is information driven rather than musical or comedic entertainment. Podcast can have one author to tell a story; they can bring in audiences either in person or on the phone. With an audio only media the presenter and audience or support staff are required to make sure the audience keeps track of who is talking and what their role or authority is. The podcast examples we had for this week indicated in a couple of instances that audiences had called in or experts were in the studio to contribute to the conversation in a good flow to make sure the conversation remained engaging and entertaining.

The podcasts can cover a wide variety of materials. The Hindsight podcast engaged the sad and complicated story of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army soldier who had been captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and who was charged by the military with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The podcast explains the circumstance of Bergdahl’s enlistment and capture with an eye to provide evidence that the charges were drummed up. Another contemporary issue was tackled by the Playboy Covers Up podcast that looked into the issue of the new direction taken by Playboy to no longer have nude playmates on the cover and within the magazine, realizing that a new readership and marketing could dramatically increase circulation. In this regard, podcasts serve an opportunity to explore contemporary issues with an eye to explain misunderstood issues or explain the controversial.

The other two podcasts took historical topics. Episode 188, Fountain Drinks on 99% Invisible presents the incredibly interesting topic of clean water and water fountains as an issue. The author explores the issue from the devastating London Cholera outbreak in 1859, when John Snow discovered that contaminated water was to blame for the epidemics. The discover is usually credit with the creation of the London sewer system but clear drinking water is similarly important. The podcast takes the story of the water fountain through the various stages of development, including segregation and event spaces without fountains. The Radiolab podcast on Fu-Go tries to debunk the story of Japanese combat balloons sent across the Pacific Ocean with explosives to attack the United States. The two journalists present what their podcast description calls “a seemingly ridiculous, almost whimsical” story. A writer, geologists, and a professor join them. It is odd that apparently no historian or military historian was worth the invitation for this podcast.

While podcasts are a great tool and opportunity for people to tell interesting stories without much technology or fancy studio, the amateur nature of the podcast and wide circulation on the web has both positive and negative aspects to it. A podcast can reach a broad audience and provide some interesting stories for audiences. There is also the issue with errors and facts. While the podcasts selected were good, there are dozens and hundreds of others out there that perpetuate myth and incorrect material, if not outright conspiracy theories. Like in so many instances, the scary part is left to the consumer to make a good decision which podcast has accurate material and which one has not.

Niels Eichhorn

The Importance of Voice

This class was my first exposure to Twitter and podcasts for the purposes of history. Although of course I’m familiar generally with the concepts, functions, and purposes of these forums, I was unfamiliar with what Twitter and podcasts looked and sounded like for us. I certainly don’t need to be convinced of social media’s utility for historians, public historians, scholars and professionals. The ability to share resources, collaborate digitally, and market exhibits/research/services is quite remarkable. But I was particularly impressed with this week’s podcasts.

Like my impressions of blogging from this course, the most recognizable quality in the podcast is its bredth and depth of content, which are entirely variable. Different topics, perspectives, and themes are considered in a format that some may consider informal, but I consider quite impressive. Another advantage of the podcast which mirrors advantages of the blog is a seamless integration of sources. The simple verbal transitions from direct quotes to original content remind me of the hyperlinks that are so helpful in navigating a blog post. Not to mention a speaker’s ability to alert listeners overtly that “Hey, this is important,” like in Serial’s episode “Alibi.” This direct line of communication from narrator to listener provided opportunities for commentary otherwise unavailable to content creators.

Most importantly, though, I am stunned by the subtlety of the podcast’s abillity to literally give narrators a voice – narrators who may otherwise go all but ignored by history. Again, Serial illustrates this by addressing youth, diversity and justice with a dynamic cast of speakers, including the convicted Adnan Syed himself. These individuals and their perspectives are all but buried by oral and documentary “evidence” against them, with little other representation in the legal and, thus, historical record.

Furthermore, the actual voices are ephemeral without recording. Though other pieces, such as “Playboy Covers Up” use, reread, and retell existing stories, others capture oral histories otherwise lost. This, in particular, makes podcasts valuable for historians. By marrying technology, social media, oral history, and journalism, many podcasts contribute content in the form of voices that would otherwise face historic erasure.

– Lauren Ericson

Over-Dose, Under-dose and Social Media

Tagging has taken on a new version with the popularity of social media. The combination of all the tagging and metadata tools we have read along with the popularity of social media should be combined to create the perfect tool for historians. This would lead to an accessible source for historians to use and find important piece of history. The years I have spent working in social media have trained me in the non-academic use of tagging. If I’m working on the Instagram for the sports team I work for I have many options of how to tag a photo and those various options can influence how many people know that we exist.  Using tools that combine traditional methods of library cataloguing and social media tagging within blogs or other forums can elevate internet friendly academic historical work.

                The experience I have had using Gallaudet’s DSpace is a key example of the importance of using accurate wording to tag items in online archives. DSpace holds a majority of the important pieces of Deaf history that Gallaudet has access to. This unique collection gives the searcher access to hundreds of pieces of information of everything from alumni cards to photographs of students, along with information about “heroes” to the Deaf community. The problem with Dspace is that it does not utilize an effective tagging system as describe in our readings this week.  What Dspace does instead is over tag each piece that is in its online archive. At times, this problem leaves the archive unusable and inaccessible unless the user plans a few hours searching through each piece of the archive, a reminder of searching through boxes at an archive, truly the anti-tagging system. While the information that Dspace provides access to some of the most important tools in analyzing Deaf history, the metadata has left this piece of history in the same place that most Deaf history is left… lost. A true disappointment, given the importance placed on Gallaudet in Deaf American history. It makes one wonder how organized their libraries may be.

                The goal of making online archives more user-friendly will be more popular once historians accept digital history as a true academic form of history. Until that time we will continue to struggle searching through archives that either have an over dose of metadata or just not enough metadata. Honestly though, isn’t the search process part of the joy of being a historian.

Shawn Clements

Folksonomies and the Democratic Archive

Anyone who has visited an archive’s website knows how daunting it is to find something. Archivists offer laboriously constructed “Finding Aids”, but such a title often seems to be more of a taunt than an description. But to talk to an archivist, researchers have to have read all of the finding aids and demonstrated that all other independent options have been exhausted. In short, searching an archive can be an ordeal that daunts a Ph.D. candidate, much less the average curious person. It doesn’t have to be this way. Archives can use folsksonomies to make their collections more accessible, easier to protect, and easy to share with libraries and museums.

Naturally, archivists are very protective of the documents in their collections. Many of them are very old and can easily deteriorate, especially if they’re handled frequently. Theft of historical relics is also a real concern that goes beyond ridiculous movies starring Nicolas Cage. Some of this can be mitigated by scanning. Other documents may be too fragile even for that, but even the most medieval of manuscripts can be transcribed.

Making a collection available online is only a fraction of the challenge. Managing metadata– that is, data about data– is complex and time consuming. Mary W. Elings and Gunter Waibel point out that libraries, archives, and museums have developed parallel strategies for organizing content and, while each of them conform to similar basic standards, different methods have evolved from each entities’ specific needs. They also point out that, while libraries have developed a general cataloguing system that works across different libraries, archives have been generally slow do share data with other archives.

Folksonomies can solve this problem. Folksonomies are a user-driven system of classification. In short, they are the tags that make the internet searchable. Anyone can assign one to a specific object, which then makes them easier to cross reference and associate with different items. Archivists could start by creating their own tags, but anyone who accesses the archive’s website can add their own. The beauty of folksonomies is that they more or less regulate themselves. Alex Wichowksi points out that “tags conform to power laws, where a few tags are used by a large population of users, and the majority of tags only used by a few users.”

Scholars, like Wichowski, observe that folksonomies don’t function very well without the context of a specific community. Yet by allowing users to tag documents within a collection, archives can create that kind of community. What’s more, archivists tend to be fairly well-versed in their respective topics, and they can use their expertise to guide the context of document tagging. They can also help keep things manageable by using Dublin Core principles: One-to-one, which stipulates that the term describe only the object itself; Dumb-down, which means that data should be useable without a qualifier (in other words, “red car” should be primarily searchable as a car); and Appropriate Value, which stipulates that usefulness for discovery should be the guiding principle.

Imagine if the National Archives digitized all of its records for the U.S. Civil War, and someone in Indianapolis wants to read records about soldiers from Indiana who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. NARA could have already added basic tags to make this searchable, such as “Indiana” and “Gettysburg.” The same person could add their own tags. For instance, the 19th Indiana regiment was part of the “Iron Brigade”, so they could add a tag that connotes this fact. Photographs could be tagged as well, and even linked to social media accounts like Flickr or Pinterest. Ultimately, such a collection could form an enormous, ever-growing database of historical records, which could be linked to other archives, libraries, and museums. This could be especially simple for libraries since plenty of these folksonomies could overlap with subject headings.

In the end, archival material would be simultaneously more accessible and safe from wear and tear. Archivists would no longer be just curators and protectors, they could also offer a crucial connection between primary sources and anyone who desired to research them. They could also be referees, using their historical knowledge to make user-applied folksonomies more effective and guiding amateur research. Could this be the archive of the future?  


Jargon and More

In large part, the readings for this week revolve around two subject matters: the unique specialty of Omeka and the importance of data collection for online based exhibits. The two themes work hand in hand because as more and more content moves online and museums, libraries, and other institutions of historical importance utilize the internet, there is a growing need to make sure material is searchable and uniformly cataloged. You do not want a situation where a person discovers on one site that material is on another but they cannot find the material because the metadata is not entered correctly.

Tom Scheinfeldt, a wordpress blog user, devotes his attention to present the importance of Omeka as a tool for historic online contents. He notes that Omeka offers a unique set of cost free, flexible, and easily accessible online presentation tools to a wide variety of users. Scheinfeldt acknowledges that there are competing products designed for the use of archives, libraries, or museums to produce some online-based content. In some cases older and dated systems and software is used to build collections. Most importantly, while there are many other content and collection builders, most programs are unable to translate the collection into an exhibit. More important, Omeka offers a relatively easy way to create, store, and maintain metadata, which is much more difficult in blogs. In a world where professionals think so often in their little niche world, Omeka provides a tool for collaboration that bring museums, libraries, archives, and historians together to present findings and material to a broader online audience.

This leads over to the other important issue. A collection is only as good as the metadata used to compile it. Without the important information of what it is, users will be unable to retrace the material or have no context for when the material was produced and what its significances are. There are many different data systems. When libraries first moved online with their collections to make searches possible, they developed a content record system. However, some found the system to limited and desired to include museums in the system, which resulted in the creation of MOAC. From there, many different styles for record and data collection emerged to make the process easier. But as the graphic in Mary Elings and Günter Waibel’s article shows, the structure, content, format, and exchange of data remains a complex and multifaceted enterprise that is not uniform among the major communities of libraries, museums, and archives.

One of the many ways to collect data, the one used in Omeka, is Dublin Core. Metadata is again essential because every item in a collection, either physical or digital needs information. Dublin Core provides a series of important items of information that can help even a non-specialists associate data with an item/image that will create uniform system of cataloging. The Dublin Core also offers the opportunity for the non-specialists to restrict data entry to a small range of material and the expert to enter an abundance of information.

Niels Eichhorn

Different Strokes

As we have discussed in class, the monograph is considered the pinnacle of an academic career, and digital projects have a tendency to be taken less seriously. Granted, I know the issues  are exceedingly complex, another possible issue is the lack of a foreseeable end—or rather the unlimited sensation facilitated by a world governed by the database rather than the narrative . Manovich explains that “As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.” The monograph lays out everything neatly and clearly (in a perfect world) the “cause-and-effect trajectory” Manovich describes; whereas the digital project oft allows unbridled freedom. You can create a sense of, but with Simon, Brennan, and Kelly’s Web 2.0 being the frontrunners of the internet, even the Web 1.5 mediation cannot dull the sensation of endlessness. In our narrative ruled world, we are so accustomed to narrative structured to beginning-middle-end.  For the strictest adherer to the monograph rule, they are looking for logic and reason. They are looking for a clear-cut answer and a narrative. To people hungry for the algorithim-like experience of  book, the open-endedness and free form of the database format does not offer the same logic of motivated through sequence; the databases  “always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database.” With this, they feel more random and less controlled.

A project I was working on in 2014 with some other individuals applied for a grant, and one of the critiques in the initial denial (so I’ve heard at least, since I’m removed by a couple years from it now) was that we did not have a specific endpoint.  It was a digital humanities project, and followed the formula of the database. We had, of course, the homepage which structured the basic argument of our discussion, but from there, guests could launch off into any direction they chose. We picked this format to facilitate both exploration and allow students to pick the examples that most suited them. This project exists in a somewhat-Web 1.5 realm, in that there are no comment sections and contributions are limited to individuals from the university. Input is extremely controlled. However,  with its database design, users can fashion their own experiences. When paired with lesson plans and our data collection processes, the site did follow the algorithmic function akin to a game, because the students and teachers utilizing it are using it to achieve specific outcomes. The individual pages and information supplied within the project are presented a narrative form. However, there is no discernible endpoint for the site; for the contributors, the contribution can be seemingly endless, which does not suit the traditional monographic and narrative for of beginning and end.


Participation, Databases & Museums

This time last year, I was interning at Connecticut’s Old State House and developing a new education program called “Choosing to Participate.” The program goals involved using the narratives of historical figures associated with the Old State House, such as P.T. Barnum and the Africans of The Amistad, to inspire students to become civically involved in their schools and communities. I wondered how to get students participating in the museum environment, and how that could get students participating in a civic environment. This brought me to Nina Simon’s blog, a source explicitly related to this week’s topic.

Simon effectively merges Web and Museum 2.0, a concept that emphasizes engagement, participation, and user-defined meaning. As innovative as Simon is in defining 2.0 and arguing its strengths, it is clear that the Manovich database underlies all functions that Simon recommends as advantages of 2.0.

Visitor-authored content, as described by Simon, is a different iteration of object data structure described by Manovich. Tagging, upheld as an important Web and Museum 2.0 practice by Simon, is an example of object data that exists within a specific organization and recall algorithm. And user-created profiles are truly just customizable, variable collections of object data.

Simon says (ha-ha) that the best Museum 2.0 practice lets visitors choose how much they want to particpate in an exhibit, which compliments the Manovich web structure. By individually discovering how digital and exhibition environments function (through an algorithm), users and visitors may participate with the web/physical interface as little or as much as desired. In summation, Web 2.0 and Museum 2.0 must allow variable levels of user involvement, and the theory of a database structure can scaffold this variability.

The Manovich database underlies Simon’s hierarchy of needs by engaging individuals and fostering potential for interaction. This can lend itself to a digital or exhibition narrative, though it does not need to. More importantly, organization of data in variable, accessible forms lends itself to the narrative of user experience, ideally creating an opportunity for engagement, curiosity, and perhaps networking. A program like “Choosing to Participate,” then, would need opportunities for contemplation or hands-on participation, with equal access to the content and alogrithm of the program itself.

– Lauren Ericson

Web 2.0, Web 1.5: How to make it work for me.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights is a great example of the use of Web 2.0 in the various exhibits. It merges both the need for “social networkers” and the individual visitor to interact with the exhibit. In particular the museum has a section where visitors can leave videos about social justice. The viewer can view these videos based on subjects they find important, but videos also flip through in random for the viewer. The center uses various methods to integrate all types of museum visitors, but this form is exclusive from the Web 2.0 concept. In another section it uses other forms of interactive media to leave people talking, often times random visitors stand next to random visitors and look at things they have chosen together.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also uses a form of Web 1.5, but through their online exhibits. The USHMM allows for users to explore the world of being a museum researcher and to interact with not only the museum, but the staff at the museum. The Children of Lodz Ghetto allows users to find people who were involved in the Holocaust from specific regions and submit information. The user first is responsible for finding the correct person, based on age, location, sex, possible schooling. Once the user submits that information it is checked by a staff member of the USHMM and then the staff member informs the user if the information is correct and why it is believed to be correct. Finally, if the information is correct the staff member directs the user to the next place for them to go. This interaction between the staff member and the user by passes possible “uncivilized” users. The project is not super user-friendly leaving out those that want to play in the internet research waters. Considering that though many people have been part of researching people, in fact one person has worked on 400 children’s information. Some success has been found in concluding the story of children from the Lodz Ghetto.lodz.png

Using new technology is important in museums and a field that I am eager to partake in. Reading the about the building on the Hurricane site is influential in my thoughts on the capstone I will be working on next semester. How do I merge people’s experiences and have them participate in creation of a joint website that has stories from all over Deaf culture? This article is helpful in discovering a good way to do that. Although it is focused on natural disasters it is a starting point for how to build this part of my future exhibit. Taking information on how to integrate web 2.0 and web 1.5, I will be able to bring to life a true visitor and user-friendly exhibit that brings together all types of visitors; contributors, judges, and lurkers. The exhibit would need to meet the demands of not only the Deaf community, but each of these museum going personalities. This could be done by merging Web 2.0 qualities and traditional museum tools, along with guest research to find out what is truly desired and used by the Deaf community (my capstone project will be designing an exhibit that portrays Deaf history in a way that is FOR the Deaf community, but opened to everyone).