The Future Has Arrived

In these first months of 2015, many of us are reflecting on just how much the world has changed since the turn of the twenty-first century. Strangely, even though it’s here, 2015 still seems like the future, a place where we might someday zoom around on hovercrafts and interact with holograms and live in smart houses that can cater to our every whim. Although our hovercrafts, holograms, and smart houses aren’t quite ready for mass consumption, I’ve still found 2015 to be a pleasant surprise. We have unprecedented access to one another through the Internet and our smart devices, 3-D printers that can print food and scanners that can reconstruct pyramids, geospatial and mapping technologies used for much more that getting from A to B, and a host of other really cool tech. Best of all, we have a culture of collaboration, innovation, and excitement in using these new, futuristic technologies to study and share the past.

From Colonial Williamsburg’s exquisite site packed with interactive features that teach visitors about early America to a Twitter account that posts events from World War I in real time one hundred years later, all manner of public historians use digital tools to do history in unique ways. Luckily for the field of public history, digital humanities scholars and developers are constantly collaborating to create new tools that allow historians to do their work better.

One of these tools, Historypin, is one of many sites and apps that rely on crowd-sourcing content and information to create collections, tours, and stories that document the history of communities around the world. Historypin is a project of nonprofit company Shift in collaboration with Google. The basic premise of the site is that users “pin” images, video, or audio to locations using Google Maps. Historypin approaches digital public history from a very egalitarian perspective: anyone can create an account and start pinning to create collections and tours. It took me less than a minute to register using my existing Google account.

While I’m instinctively drawn to Historypin’s ease of use and intuitive structure, those very features also cause concern. It’s an interesting case study of the pros and cons of collaborative digital history, as well as for the theoretical debate between history and memory. Ultimately, a resource like Historypin raises questions of what public history is and who can be a historian. As Cohen and Rozenweig write in Digital History, one must evaluate digital tools as a “techno-realist” and learn to maximize the advantages of these resources while minimizing the disadvantages.

Historypin’s advantages are fairly obvious: it’s free, it’s easy to use and connect to one’s existing web site, it’s cross-platform and easily accessible using mobile devices, the features are built with the needs of public history institutions in mind, and it allows for almost limitless collaboration and sharing with one’s user base. Institutions and individual users can do anything from posting a few interesting images with captions to creating elaborate tours with image, audio, and video content. Multiple parties can collaborate to create collections based on common historical themes, time periods, or locations.

However, some of these advantages can also turn into disadvantages. Free, open, and easy to use means anyone can use this resource, not just established historians and cultural institutions. While Historypin maintains a content management team and actively moderates the site’s content, it’s practically impossible for the moderators to keep every bit of content one hundred percent relevant, factually correct, or copyright-compliant all of the time. (This issue is, of course, not limited to Historypin; any time content is placed online there is some risk it can be used inappropriately, and any time a site is open and user driven there is a chance irrelevant or inappropriate content will be posted.)

As crowd-sourced and collaborative history projects continue to grow in popularity, public historians and developers alike will need to keep evaluating digital resources and their problems and possibilities. Accessibility, flexibility, and interactivity, while allowing for unprecedented access to historical resources, will also constantly test the boundaries of historical professionalism and influence. Quality and authenticity become major issues that don’t have easy solutions. The future has arrived, and with it come new opportunities as well as challenges for public historians.

2 Replies to “The Future Has Arrived”

  1. With a resource like HistoryPin, and thinking along the lines of Twitter’s little blue badges for official accounts, would there not be an opportunity for those people with a certain credential to promote that? For example, two people make pin tours of Anacostia; one is the WMATA employee who drives a route though the area several times a day for decades and the other is the directory of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum. Both have extraordinary insight into the community and it’s evolution and both are equally valid, and depending on your specific interest, equally useful. Would it be beneficial for an institution like the Smithsonian to have higher billing or an “SI-Approved” badge? Could they then promote the WMATA driver’s account? Would a move such as this to curate an egalitarian and collaborative project effectively subvert and destroy it?

  2. That’s a great point. Historypin does, in fact, promote stories, collections, and tours and most of those have major contributions from institutions, so I think that they definitely do have some amount of precedence among the site’s community. However, their whole mission and vision revolves around it being a community-based and powered public history project, so they might be hesitant to specifically promote well-known institutions above other users. I personally think it’s really cool that anyone and everyone is welcome to add their experience to projects and collections. What I’m mostly worried about is quality of submissions: when you hit a really high volume, it becomes more difficult to manage your content, especially when there are no blocks to participation. I’m also somewhat concerned about drawing boundaries between history and memory; I think a lot of what we think of as public history is more about collective memory and perception than evidence-backed, empirical history. I’m not against memory by any means, but I think it’s important to make that distinction.

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