There’s an App for That, But Why?

Stories from Main Street and The Will to Adorn are projects created by the Smithsonian Institution that are very different in subject matter and in execution but which share the element of encouraging members of particular marginalized groups to contribute their own stories to the endeavors. Both projects have websites and accompanying apps for mobile devices, and it is in these mobile apps where the two projects are most similar.

The Stories from Main Street website and app are offshoots of the Smithsonian

Stories from Main Street Website
Stories from Main Street Website

Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program. MoMS works to bring the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions to cultural institutions serving the small towns (defined as having an average population of 8,000 people) of rural America. The Smithsonian staff envisions that their programs help to bring together the residents of such towns to share their stories with each other, fostering community pride. The MoMS website allows people from anywhere in the country to contribute photos, videos, audio recordings, and written stories pertaining to their experiences in rural America and to experience the content contributed by participants.

The Will to Adorn project, begun in 2010 by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress and adornment.” The project appears to have culminated with an exhibit, demonstrations, workshops, performances, hands-on visitor participation activities, and daily fashion shows at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The website seeks to provide an explanation of the questions and goals addressed by the project and provides some sample photo and video content, but it does not offer a means of exploring the full content of the project.

Will to Adorn Website
Will to Adorn Website

While both websites are rather celebratory in the sense of bringing to prominence topics that have generally been excluded from mainstream historical and cultural practice, the projects and websites are very different in tone. Unlike Stories from Main Street, Will to Adorn projects itself as a scholarly endeavor, with researchers actively seeking to distill meaning from the evidence that they gather through the project. Whereas I did not find any user participatory element on the Will to Adorn website, collecting user content and allowing site visitors to explore it is the raison d’etre for Stories from Main Street, which to me has a very haphazard feel to it. Specific geographic location at the level of the town is also an important aspect of the Stories from Main Street content whereas local geography does not appear to figure significantly into the Will to Adorn website.

Main Screens of Both Apps Compared
Main Screens of Both Apps Compared

Despite the stark differences between the two websites, the mobile apps for these projects are actually quite similar. Both apps allow the user to record their own stories related to the topic of the project and also to listen to stories that other people have contributed. Aside from imagery, presentation-wise, the apps are pretty much identical. The Stories from Main Street app was built using Roundware, which bills itself as “an open-source, participatory, location-aware audio platform” that does pretty much exactly what both of these apps do in term of recording audio, being able to add some metadata, uploading content, and being able to select, to a certain extent, the content that will be streamed to the listener. Will to Adorn most certainly was also built using Roundware, but I did not see a credit for it in the app.

Recording content to contribute is (theoretically) easy with these apps. Start by pressing the “Add a Story” button on the main page. On Stories from Main Street, you then have a choice of six general topics from which to choose- Life in Your Community, Sports – Hometown Teams, Music – New Harmonies, Food – Key Ingredients, Work – The Way We Worked, and Travel – Journey Stories. You then identify yourself as a man, woman, boy, or girl, and finally you are asked to choose one specific question (from a provided list of four to six questions) about the subject you selected. Doing so brings you to the recording page, where your question is displayed for you at the top. When you’re ready, press the record button (I recommend the large button at the bottom; I had trouble with the smaller buttons in the middle of the page) and there will be a three second countdown. Then you will have a minute and a half to discuss your chosen question. When you’re done, press stop, and you will then have the option of listening to what you recorded, rerecording it, and uploading it (or you can exit the recording section without posting by hitting the cancel button at the top of the screen, which takes you back out to the main menu).

Stories from Main Street - Screens to Add Story
Stories from Main Street – Screens to Add Story

I chickened out at the point of actually uploading content. I’m not from a small town, and although I did record an answer to one of the Travel section questions, I was afraid of sounding like I was an Easterner mocking something from Midwestern culture that I don’t understand. I gather that the app uses your phone’s GPS to attach location information to your recording when you upload it, which is curious, because geography is such an important part of the Stories from Main Street website and a person may be inspired to record something about their town while away from home or conversely may wish to talk about a small town they’ve visited before from the comfort of their own home, which means the content may have an inaccurate geolocation if it’s based solely on the location of the phone at the moment of recording. On the website, users are able to type in the appropriate location for their content.

Will to Adorn - Some Metadata Choices
Will to Adorn – Some Metadata Choices

Will to Adorn works similarly to Stories from Main Street, although the metadata Will to Adorn collects is a bit more nuanced. After pressing “Add a Story,” the app asks for your age (15-19, 60+, and then each decade in between). They ask for gender, but in addition to the expected male and female, there are also options for “trans” (with an asterisk that goes unexplained) and “other” (which could mean all sorts of things). You then select from one of six broad geographic areas (Alaska and Hawaii I guess have to content themselves with being from the West). Will to Adorn only gives you the choice of a total of five questions to answer. However, and this is kind of key, once I made all of these selections, the screen looked like it was going to send me to a recording screen similar to Stories from Main Street. Nope.

Will to Adorn Recording Screen - Um... Do not get your eyes checked.  The screen is indeed all black.
Will to Adorn Recording Screen – Um… Do not get your eyes checked. The screen is indeed all black.

Black empty screen of doom. I have to presume that the app was tested before it was released, so maybe it’s just not compatible with my iPhone 6, because not being able to record on an app whose whole purpose is to be able to record is rather a problem. And I was more willing to answer and submit to this site (“What are you wearing?” seems like a mostly harmless question). At any rate, images on the Will to Adorn website show recording pages nearly identical to those in the Stories from Main Street app, although you may get up to two minutes to discuss your clothing choices. Website text also indicates that you can attach photos to your story submission too, but the app does not show user images anywhere, and I did not see on the website either the archive of user submissions or a way to record and upload stories so I cannot verify this aspect of the app’s functionality.

In terms of the listening aspect of these apps, after pressing the “Listen” button on the main page and waiting for what seemed like a rather long period of time in both apps for content to load, the app will start playing recordings from the collection. Stories from Main Street defaults to the recordings in the “Life In Your Community” section. Users can flag the content, like it, or if you’re inspired to record your own story, there’s a record button there too.

Listening Screens - Both Apps
Listening Screens – Both Apps

The user does have the option to choose to a certain extent which stories they will hear on the app. On Stories from Main Street, the “Modify” button at the top of the screen allows you to select one of the six content areas and to further narrow down by what specific question(s) you want to hear about. The “Refine” button in the same spot on Will to Adorn allows the user to narrow by age, gender, region, and specific question. No audio played for the first two questions that I selected to listen to on Stories from Main Street, so perhaps no one has actually contributed stories related to those particular topics, but I did have success on my third try. Interestingly enough, on the sports section, there were more question options to listen to than there were to record on your own. And in the Travel section, the “favorite journey” answers were mostly about going to a large city rather than a small town.

I’m not sure that anyone’s actively curating the user responses. There was a recording on the Stories from Main Street app that I heard where some kids were messing around doing a recording and one of them used a slur. In another one, a young man discussed how he and his friends as teenagers would go to the river, drink moonshine, get high, and watch alligators. One snippet was simply “[town name] sucks.” And a recording I heard on Will to Adorn started out as a heartfelt commentary about a certain style of dress but then suddenly turned into a profanity-laden tirade on the subject. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of not wanting to censor what people say or if the Smithsonian is just relying on the community to use that flag button to police the content. There also doesn’t actually appear to be very much content to curate on either site. According to the Stories from Main Street website, there are 519 contributions in the archive. Will to Adorn appears to have far fewer stories than that, as I heard much of the content at least twice while listening to the stories.

While some of the stories contained in the Stories from Main Street and Will to Adorn archives are genuinely interesting, honestly, I really don’t get the point with either of these apps. The stories are snippets of two minutes or less that are for the most part divorced of context. Neither app displays any metadata about the audio that’s playing, so if particular facts are known about the contributor of a recording, the listener won’t have that information. And the contributors don’t always give you much information in their recordings. For example, if a person opens up their recording in Stories from Main Street with “In my town…,” well, which town? How would I know that if the subject doesn’t actually say it in their recording? Assuming the geolocation attached to the recording is correct (an issue with Stories from Main Street that I discussed earlier), the listener doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t have a great way of determining if the speaker is talking about life in Boise, Birmingham, or Burlington (and Wikipedia tells me that there is a Burlington in 24 of the U.S. states!).  Maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees, but I’m a details kind of person.

Many of the recordings on Will to Adorn sound like they were made at the Folklife Festival, and the participants there were generally asked by volunteers about their name, age, and location and were sometimes asked to elaborate on their responses. But the following is the extent of one non-Folklife Festival story on Will to Adorn: “How I feel when I have it on—it makes me feel beautiful.” Have WHAT on? Disembodied from all context, this particular snippet doesn’t seem to me to add much to the conversation about creating meaning and forging identity through one’s attire.

Another interesting context issue with Will to Adorn concerns race. The project as explained on the Will to Adorn website specifically concerns how African Americans express themselves through dress and other adornment. The app invites anyone to contribute their story, which is perfectly fine. But the app does not provide a way to self-identify by race or ethnic/cultural background unless you choose to speak to that issue in your recording. So I guess I don’t understand how any user contributions added to the project’s database from the app could be marshaled as evidence for the original conception of the project.

Context for these stories aside, I also just don’t understand not why “there’s an app for that” but rather why the public would download either of these apps and use them over and over again. Sure, one’s smartphone provides a really convenient way to record very short stories, but I don’t really see much of a reason for an individual to do this more than once or twice. There is no essential tie to a physical place for either of these apps that would prompt a user to open up the app and learn something about that location through the project’s content. There could have been on Stories from Main Street, but there’s no way on the app to search for a particular location to find content related to a place where you happen to be or might be interested in knowing more about. Stories from Main Street does provide a link to the project’s website on the main page (Will to Adorn does not) where visitors can search for audio on a map. Similarly, given the limited amount of content in these collections, I’m not sure why anyone would use the listen function on either app more than a couple times, particularly on Will to Adorn. I’m not saying that the effort to collect and share people’s thoughts on these apps is uninteresting and completely devoid of value, I’m just struggling to see why someone might keep these apps on their phones and use them more than a very few times.

What do you think? How might these apps be improved to increase their current interest and/or enduring value? Without a great deal of context, what can we learn about the subject matter of the projects by listening to these recording snippets?

 

 

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