Web 2.0 and the Digital Humanities

In “Discourse in the Blogosphere”, Nina Simon believes that museums, and by extension the digital humanities, can learn a lot from Web 2.0, the user-driven, democratic incarnation of the internet. First off, Simon observes that “Web 2.0 has cracked open the potential for strangers to interact with each other in meaningful ways.” Specifically, Web 2.0 enables people from diverse backgrounds to discuss difficult, controversial topics, what she calls “the big untouchables.”

Simon recognizes that not all of this talk is productive. Anyone vaguely familiar with the internet knows it has its share of trolls, but Simon is confident that the fear of their impact often outweighs their actual harm. For the most part, she is right. Websites with substantial user input are rarely unmoderated. Wikipedia closely monitors its content and Cracked.com’s editors have strict policies that ban hostile users from their forums.

Yet trolls are not the biggest challenge that museums, and digital humanities in general, face if they are to adapt to a Web 2.0 world. Collections, be they in a museum or some digital equivalent, require curation. In this regard, Simon feels that museums have a choice between allowing visitors to participate in a conversation or contribute to an exhibition. Doing the former needs little curation. Users could comment on an exhibition as they would a video on YouTube or a news article. Moderators would only have to worry about the most noxious of trolls. But posting comments to a forum doesn’t take the most advantage of what Web 2.0 offers to the digital humanities.

Take, for instance, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB). After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University partnered with University of New Orleans to “collect and preserve as much of the ‘instant history’ of these events as possible–history that was being created and published by thousands of average people in their personal blogs, on photosharing websites, and YouTube.” So they created a website that enabled people to easily upload digital records of their experiences (audio files, videos, photographs, etc.), partnered with local organizations to promote their effort, and even offered prepaid postcards and a phone number to reach out to people who were not connected to the internet.

As of March 2009, the project collected roughly 25,000 digital objects, though this was not as successful as hoped. HDMB was by no means a failure. On one hand, the CHNM—perhaps unrealistically—measured it against their hugely successful September 11 Digital Archive. On the other, much of the digital media we take for granted today, such as blogs and camera phones, were not as commonly available in 2001 as they were in 2005. “Surely, we thought,” wrote Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, two of the project’s founders, “with all that digital content floating around out there, with a well-coordinated publicity campaign, and with a great set of local partners, we would be building a much larger archive.”

Brennan and Kelly’s experience offer some thoughtful lessons for the aspiring practitioner of digital humanities, especially in regards to curation. When creating a user-driven collection, time is of the essence. If the project examines a tragic event, its creators should take care to realize that participants might not be ready to share their experience for a while. When they do share, they might also need some guiding question to help organize their thoughts. As with all websites, the HDMB also had to contend with a lot of spam, and sifting through entries to determine each one’s legitimacy was very time consuming.

To them, the digital humanities can not live in a strictly Web 2.0 world. Instead it requires a partnership that they call Web 1.5. Users are free to contribute their experiences, but curating the input still requires people with unique training. As Brennan and Kelly see it, “for all the potentialities of online collecting and democratizing the past, remember that any project still requires a great deal of analog hands-on history work.”

–Will Greer



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