Narratives, Databases, and the Compatibility of History with Web 2.0

By Evan Meehan

Historians, either by virtue of their craft, or by the fact that they are all old fuddy-duddies have a tendency to live in the past.  This means that even well respected historians like Patrick Manning occasionally assert patently absurd things like: “it is unlikely that the techniques of narrative have advanced much in recent times.”[1] 

Manning’s perspective on narrative is so blinkered to the changing reality of the digital age that he missed out on the explosion of diversity going on around him.  Lev Manovich’s conceptualization, of databases as a new form of narrative, pre-dates Manning’s claims of the stagnation of narrative by 6 years, and yet even at that early stage of computing databases and video games stood out as capable of conveying information similar to convention forms of narrative.  Perhaps just as importantly to Manovich as the emergence of new forms of narrative is the “anti-narrative logic of the web,” where content is always editable and it is “[it] is as easy to add new elements to the end of list as it is to insert them anywhere in it.”[2]  Thus databases and algorithmic solution finding tools (read: video games) serve not only as an additional mode of narrative, but a replacement to traditional narrative.

Fast forward a decade to Nina Simon’s “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0” and Manovich’s Web 1.0 perspective seems as dated as Doom’s graphics.  Where Manovich saw orderly tables compiled with care and precisely crafted algorithms that replace and recreate a story’s arc, Simon sees a backwards and archaic form of online interaction.  For Simon the future is now, and its name is participation.  Her article examines merging Web 2.0 methodology with the institution of museums, encouraging user participation through tagging, commenting, up-voting, and even “visitor-authored content.”[3]

While I applaud Simon’s enthusiasm for Web 2.0 and user participation, I do not share her optimism for its implementation.  Too often the web has shown Web 2.0 anonymity to be a facilitator of hatred and negativity.  The propagation of false news and ad hominems have destroyed my faith in the collective to know and do what is right online.  The metaphorical million monkeys are not capable of reproducing Shakespeare, but their vitriol would probably make him blush.

Museums are about displaying the past, and while post-structuralist tendencies have made historians reluctant to declare the past as capable of being objectively measured – it is still possible for people to do it wrong.  User participation is a utopian dream, and when NPR is capable of allowing commentary again (or deems it valuable to do so) I’ll believe that museums would be well served by doing the same.  Otherwise I am excited to embrace the future of the 1990’s where orderly databases and elaborate algorithms make history fun.

[1] Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 108.

[2] Lev Manovich, “Database as a Genre of New Media

[3] Nina Simon, “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0,” Museums & Social Issues 2, no. 2 (November 2007): 264.

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