By Steven R. Garcia
Of the many themes discussed in our course, the subject of effectively using the digital medium has shared center stage with arguments on credibility and accessibility. What exactly ‘qualifies’ as digital history? How does the scholar combine academically-rigorous research, compelling narratives, and theses with a digital archive, podcast, or web blog? In short, how is that data interpreted or experienced differently online as opposed to, say, having been read in a book or a traditional print article? And, furthermore, is it worth investing in these new mediums? While my personal answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ that’s not the case entirely in some of our readings this week. Two in particular, Lev Manovich’s article “Database as a Genre of New Media” and Nina Simon’s “Discourse in the Blogosphere,” show varying degrees of excitement and trepidation at the thought of structuring vast quantities of data into meaningful narratives on the web. Initially, I thought, why is this a problem? The internet provides (and has provided over the course of its existence) a great many tools and resources for educators and scholars to share or access new knowledge. From the snobbiest subscriber-model journal to your every-day high school teacher, both ends of the academic spectrum make use of the web for scholastic purposes on a regular basis.
Then, I remembered a brief discussion about digital history and hyperlinks.
I think, in great part, our discipline’s engagement with digital media has moved past (although not entirely) from labeling a list of links or some articles posted online as ‘digital history.’ I realize then that this simplistic use of the web as storage and as repository, the same mode of thinking that Manovich writes about when he debates the duality between data and algorithm or database and narrative, is still pertinent as a standard today. By standard, I refer to the metrics by which we judge ourselves and other academic content creators on the web today. Hypothetically speaking, can we as a scholars give praise to a website that only collates information and presents it as a series of blue, underlined links, albeit well organized? Obviously, the answer is no — but it then begs the question of creating narrative, of giving meaning to chunks of data. Nowadays, the means to do so are much more readily available. From WordPress to Omeka, the ability to easily start-up a website, online exhibit, archive, etc. has, compared to the past, never been easier. Furthermore, weaving in a narrative (especially with a program like Omeka) to a large body of pictures, videos, documents, and links too has never been easier.
Still, there are other valid concerns. We can talk all we want about accessible programs to create compelling scholarship that combines a wealth of academic research with easy-to-use and navigate web tools, but both Manovich and Simon (to a greater degree) caution against loose definitions of the user and user input. Manovich questions the user’s ability to appreciate or interpret narrative through the database, stating that users can just as easily “[access] different elements, one after another, in a usually random order,” meaning then that “there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all.” Put another way, Simon warns against “the troll, the spammer, the grump who enjoys abusing other users and embarrasses the host institution” of online databases, archives, or museums. In both cases, Manovich and Simon question the productiveness of producing databases or archives and opening them up to the online populace. The range, they may rightly fear, is too great to create any one cohesive narrative — to generate meaning. But, it is here where I disagree and echo Simon’s sentiments. Much like she argues in her piece, I think that we’ve moved past fears of online backlash from trolls or haters — there are systems in place to mitigate that. Instead, there’s a sort of relationship between the content creator and the user, where both equally contribute to the creation of narrative and meaning in online databases and archives. In the end, by allowing this back-and-forth to occur do we as scholars arrive at creating any sort of meaningful narratives as a means of organizing our scholarly data via digital mediums.
In searching for a counter to Manovich, I found a blog on this debate between storytelling and databases. Although I already stated that I concur with Simon’s approach to ‘user-generated narrative,’ guided by the hand of a scholar (i.e. the digital historian), this piece suggests something similar. Link: http://www.ruthstalkerfirth.com/storytelling-narrative-databases-and-big-data