Flickr and Collaborative Curation

Flickr is a photo and video hosting site that is easy to use for both individuals and institutions, and seeks to create a community of users to interact with one another’s images. According to the site’s About page, their team works to make photos both accessible and shareable and to allow for users to organize each other’s images collaboratively. Let’s see how the site works to fulfill these expectations.

The first thing I did was create a new account. Flickr doesn’t require users to register in order to view public photos, only to upload their own images and videos. Free accounts allow users to upload up to 1000 images (there’s been some uproar over this recent rule and how Flickr chose to transition existing accounts to meet the new restriction) and have ads throughout the site, while Pro accounts have unlimited storage space, no ads, and more detailed statistics on how users are interacting with your photos.

Photos upload in batches, to which users can add collective or individual tags, titles, and descriptions. Follow my photostream for exclusively photos of my cat.

Uploading my own photos was easy enough! Once you have added images to your photostream, you can sort them into albums, add tags, choose your favorites, or set locations of photos to a map. After adding contacts from Google, Facebook, etc. you can add friends to view and interact with your photos.

This feature is one of Flickr’s most unique – collaborative organization. Users can allow others (either public or restricted lists of friends and family) to add tags to their photos, comment on the content, and otherwise help to organize the images in their photostream. Users can also join groups to do the same for other users’ photos.

This group, History Is All Around Us, shares images of ordinary historical places, but also pitches important discussion questions like “What do you learn when you visit a historical property or garden?”

Flickr extends this collaboration into is its own effort to do digital public history in the Commons. As the site describes, the goal of this section of the site “is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives.” The Commons began in 2008 as a partnership with the Library of Congress, and currently cultural heritage institutions can register and submit their own photographic collections to the project. Users are encouraged to add tags and comments to the collection images, thus helping to co-curate the content.

I was pleasantly surprised to come across an account for the State Archives of North Carolina and to browse through images from the history of my home state. Though the NC Archives are not technically one of the contributing institutions to the Commons, they aim to do the same kind of collaborative historical image sharing and curation as participating institutions are there. One album features the Somerset Place Plantation, a very small, state-run historic site that I interned for. The site is several hours’ drive from where these images are housed in person, so having them digitally available to the site’s four staff members makes their interpretation possible.

The “Somerset Place Plantation” album, with some beautiful shots of the historic property.

So, what are some of the ways Flickr could be used to do digital history? At its most simple, Flickr can host photos and videos that historians and institutions want to make public. The site has further capabilities, however, to increase public interaction with these images by allowing users to help organize them – a type of co-curation that other social media platforms don’t offer. Institutions participating in the Commons are doing just this as part of the project, but other cultural heritage institutions and museums can do the same via their own accounts. Though the site provides little space for substantial historical interpretation (a limitation that should be further considered), the potential for crowdsourcing curation and public access to photographic archival collections makes Flickr an important resource for digital historians.

“Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” – The Machine is Us/ing Us

Roy Rosenzweig’s 2006 article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” can be found on the Center for History and New Media web page. The website is a great resource for historians and anyone curious about a variety of topics! Check out some of the articles and exhibits on the website.

Rosenzweig breaks down the history of the beloved website Wikipedia, including its origins and how the website works. Wikipedia is based on the concept of the ancient Library of Alexandria and collecting all knowledge in one place. As of January 25, 2020 there are 5,896,924 articles on the database. You could make a case for the site serving its original purpose!

Wikipedia was founded on four pillars which serve to maintain the database as a credible and reliable source. First, Wikipedia serves as an encyclopedia. Nothing else. To do so, the second pillar is to avoid bias, which is why articles simply describe an event or person without taking a side on an issue. (Naturally this doesn’t always happen, but they try to monitor articles!) Third, don’t infringe copyright. This is a logical pillar for a database and establishing credibility. Lastly, exhibit respect for other contributors. Wikipedia serves and is served by a community of collaborators all coming together around a common interest.

Rosenzweig then moves into a discussion of Wikipedia as a form of history and what that means for the academic history community. The article concludes with the looming question: Why should we care? Implications for Historians.

Historians, academic and amateurs alike, need to continue to commit time and energy into open sources like Wikipedia for a multitude of reasons, but mostly because of how user friendly and popular these sources are. Rosenzweig acknowledges the shortcomings of the source, but concludes that if historians are not happy with the result, historians must be a part of the process of improving the source and democratizing history.

As an “open source”, it means that the website has less coding, meaning the information is not uploaded to a server, which in turn makes the information more accessible. The YouTube film “The Machine is Us/ing Us” is a less than five minute crash course in new media, mostly rooted in the internet.

While “The Machine” was published in 2007, the basic language and skills presented in the video are true 13 years later! Digital text, and media, is adaptable and flexible, and always changing.

How does an idea get from our minds onto a web page? What is a blog?! How does Instagram know to advertise Reynolds Wrap to my friend who wraps her bagel in aluminum foil every morning? The internet learns from us!

Check out the clip below before reading the article to have a better grasp on open source and coding before diving into Rosenzweig’s article.

Wikipedia is a part of this “machine”. Wikipedia is adaptable and engaging, reaching millions of people on a daily basis. As Rosenzweig points out, an overwhelming percentage of the articles on the site are history related. Does this mean that history can be open source? I would argue that history can and should be open source because of the overwhelming benefits. Open source history is a great example of public history at work as it encourages collaboration and debate, even if the debate all takes place on the back end.

At the end of the day, regardless of the quality of writing, amateur history is better than no history. A community invested in itself and contributing to collective global knowledge is a beautiful gift and should be fostered in an ethical and reliable manner.

Exploring the Rabbit Hole that is Wikipedia

This blog post explores both how administrators manage Wikipedia and the discrepancies within articles published around a common theme.

Upon entering middle school my teachers adamantly informed students that Wikipedia, while useful as a starting point, is an unreliable resource and should not be cited in research papers. The six million, free to access, articles make the web-based encyclopedia a tempting resource to use for quick information. It is probable to assume that a majority of the articles published in the site relate to some aspect of history. The accessibility of the site differentiates from databases such as ProQuest and JSTOR, which as Roy Rosenzweig affirms in his article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” require hefty subscription costs.

The open-source model of Wikipedia allows anonymous its “volunteer army” to collaboratively edit the information on the site, and grants individuals the freedom to copy text from Wikipedia and post it on their own personal sites. By doing this, users must acknowledge that the content on their website is under the same limitations and restrictions as Wikipedia.

To understand how Wikipedia works and managed I searched three interrelated topics: the Colorado Labor Wars, Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. I examined the layout of each page as well as the “Talk” and “View History” tabs located at the top of the pages.

The “Talk” tab informs users how the editors of Wikipedia rate the quality of the information published on the individual page as well as its importance in relation to other articles published around this topic. As you can see in the screenshot below site administrators indicated that when compared to other articles published on organized labor the on the Colorado Labor Wars is rated as mid-importance. In terms of quality, the article is placed in the B-Class which indicates that it is suitable.

The “View History” tab reveals the frequency of the edits and which accounts are making them. By skimming through this tab I learned that the creator and one of the more frequent editors of the article, Richard Myers, is a graphic designer, union activist, and thirty-three-year member of the AFL-CIO. This background information provides context as to why someone created a page on a series of intense labor conflicts erased from historical narratives about the turn of the twentieth century. According to his user page, site administrators deemed Myers a “Veteran Editor,” which acknowledges his contributions his two years of service to the site and eight thousand edits.

A search for Bill Haywood produces an article that features a green plus symbol. This marking indicates that site administrators deemed this a “good article.” Of the little of six million articles published on Wikipedia, editors only granted this title to a little over thirty thousand.

The third search I conducted on notable labor activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, revealed the discrepancies within the amount of attention and information afforded to articles highlighting women. Despite the editors deeming this article of high importance, it remains at a C-Class on the quality scale. While the quality of the article on Haywood has gone through reassessments so editors could deem it a “good article” the one published on Flynn, who also made invaluable contributions to organized labor, neither provides the same wealth of information nor maintained to the same standard as articles written about prominent male labor activists.

These discrepancies expose the gender biases embedded within the site.

Dark Matter: Is it worth it?

The second two readings for the week have to do with the usefulness and difficulties of using the web for promoting museums that are traditionally inaccessible places for most people as well as the troubles of the web regarding the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” (WWIC) complex. The first reading, a Medium article by Michael Peter Edson entitled “Dark Matter,” compares the vastness of the internet to the dark matter that was discovered by Vera Rubin and was found to make up most of the universe. The second article, “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium,” written by Paul Ford, details the problems that people encounter with creative license and what he calls the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” problem, in which people on the internet feel they are entitled to deciding how other people’s art, work, etc., should look. Both of these articles take different stances on the “dark matter” of the internet and the advantages and disadvantages of people entering into the worlds of museums and creative license.

First off, Edson discusses the internet as being 90% dark matter, but does not give an explicit definition of what he means by dark matter, because it’s obviously not the same as the kind in space. We can easily define dark matter as the groups and communities on the web who are sharing and learning from one another through usually more casual means of communication such as Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, and more. There is also dark matter sharing and learning going on in more academic locations such as with TED Talks or Wikipedia (Of course Wikipedia isn’t academic, but for this purpose it is, just go with it).

A major subject Edson touches on is how museums around the world can reach out and connect with communities everywhere and give them the experience of their particular museum. In his research, Edson finds that the Vlogbrothers’ YouTube channel, the one he spends most of the article discussing, has acquired 2,058,156 subscribers in the seven years of existence by 2014, and they are considered part of the dark matter of the web. Today, six years later, they have 3.3 million subscribers. This can be compared to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s channel, the capital’s most visited museum yearly with almost 4 million visitors in 2019, which has just over 9,000 subscribers on YouTube, significantly less than the Vlogbrothers.

Edson’s solution to the problem of lack of attention for these museums is for them to create online exhibits and other ways for communities to interact with them other than traveling there. Many famous world museums have Instagram accounts (I know because I follow a lot of them, like the Louvre, Uffizi, Van Gogh, Rijks, Versailles, etc.), which are useful for posting artworks housed in their museums, but there is a disjointed feeling about the accounts. They also lack the followers that reflect how many visitors they receive each year. The accounts I follow, I follow because I have actually been to the museum, with a few exceptions. Therefore, it is easier for me to understand the context of the posts because I have a sense of the structure of the museum and if they post one work of art, I can picture the rest of the museum relative to that piece.

But what about those who have never been to the museum? The Instagram or YouTube accounts won’t suffice for these people who are still interested in learning more. In this day in age, it’s harder to make your dreams of travel a reality with higher expenses, such as student loans, which I’m sure you all have to deal with, so you get it. There are also people around the world who simply are unaware of the museums or are extremely incapable of visiting another country to see artifacts and paintings. Because of all of these factors, it would be enlightening to these online communities if virtual exhibits were added to their websites or social media pages that can encompass what it is like to be at the museum. With more of an online presence, these museums and archives would be able to disseminate knowledge more easily and to a wider audience. I’m curious to know what my Public History friends think of this. Is it worth it to almost destroy the novelty of visiting a museum in a far away country by putting some or all of the exhibits online? Or is it helping make history more accessible and inclusive for those who cannot travel to see all of these different exhibits?

In contrast to the potential benefits of dark matter on the web, Ford writes about the pitfalls of including the online community into creative processes, which could potentially include digital history with choosing certain artifacts over others or the structuring of an exhibit. He writes about the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” issue that the internet faces in which online communities attempt to take ownership of something that isn’t theirs, usually by criticizing it. Ford uses the example of a writer in the television series Lost (aka my favorite show), to demonstrate this. But to go further with this specific series, we can look at the finale of the show, or the finale of most shows for that matter (i.e., Cheers, The Sopranos, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, etc).

In the series finale of Lost (which was a great finale), most of you might be familiar with the theory that the passengers of Oceanic 815 had “been dead the whole time,” whether you have actually seen the show or not. After the finale aired, fans took to the internet to express their dissatisfaction with the ending, even though the writers and creators have come out numerous times and said they were not, in fact, dead the whole time. There are subreddits, news articles, blog posts, and more arguing about the meaning of the ending of the show. This is an example of the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” problem that the internet deals with regarding creative pursuits. It almost always causes these communities to essentially take ownership of something, in this case a television show, and criticize it even though they had not spent years creating it. The same thing happens with the Game of Thrones finale, with the literal petition, currently signed by 1.8 million people and counting, to rewrite and remake the final season, simply because fans did not like what the writers did with it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like it either, but this is still another example of the WWIC issue on the web with taking ownership of another’s work, simply because you’re a fan.

This brings about the question of what the WWIC problem could do for digital history. Could it cause communities to simply be offended that archives and museums are digitizing their exhibits? Maybe communities would create backlash for certain museums and archives housing certain items or choosing what they classify and declassify? Would there be arguments in communities about potential racist or sexist artifacts on display? With this issue, communities would attempt to take ownership of not only the artifacts in the museum or archive, but also the structure of it, which has been curated by professional public historians and archivists. Most of these comments would likely come from those who did not understand the museum or archive, but annoyances such as these would arise and cause issues for the museums or archives in question. Ultimately, after analyzing these two articles, is reaching out to the dark matter of the web worth it for digital history?

Citizen Historians VS Exploitation of Labor

The first article I will be discussing in this post is Elissa Frankle’s guest post of the Center for the Future of Museums blog. Frankle is an education consultant at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was working with citizen historians to try and diversify perspectives and use the interest of museum goers to influence the kind of work museums are doing. This angle is meant to prevent the gate-keeper tendency of professional historians, who she argues tend to assume that audiences want answers and hard facts instead of exploring their own inquiries and curiosity.

In an effort to get citizen historians involved in the content and projects of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Frankle launched a website where citizen historians could help uncover the fates of over 14,000 students from the Lodz Ghetto who signed a student album in 1941. By mining data and making connections that professional historians might not have made, these citizen historians offered new information and new perspectives. The submissions were reviewed by Frankle for accuracy and evidence. Eventually, citizen historians with strong track records of quality, well researched work would help Frankle review the submissions on the website.

The idea behind bringing in citizen historians to help conduct research and draw new conclusions is to try and get away from the elitism that sometimes happens among historians. Despite being experts in research and their respective areas of history, there are only so many voices represented in a museum setting, and only so many people who are able to conduct research on these topics. Allowing amateur and hobby historians to contribute to these projects brings the public into projects that are ultimately meant to help the public, like identifying lost students of the Holocaust and help prevent Holocaust denial. It also brings in fresh eyes to possibly identify what professionals might miss. Over all, allowing citizen historians to get involved with important projects helps expand the lens important historical issues are considered through.

Despite being good for museums and professional historians, citizen historians and others who offer their humanities services online are hurt by the trend of crowdsourcing and the internet as a free platform. In a piece written for her “Introduction to Librarianship” class, Alison Minor explores the ethics of offering your services for free online. The internet as a democratized platform has encouraged the collaborative efforts of blogs, open source software, and wikipedia, however this raises an important question: “how can i get paid for my profession if there are people out there who are willing to do the work for free?

Minor recalls a project to make a pathfinder that might help basic or amateur researches with their work. Although this is useful to those who need it, creating a list of resources for free to help others who are being paid brings into question the ethics of free online work. Another example of this is Minor working to sell people the rights to use photos from a collection at the British Museum, and then the museum deciding to put all of the photos up in full resolution online for free. Although this is one less expense for those who need the photos, it put Minor out of a job.

Thinking of archives, photographs, and pathfinders as something people are entitled to has been exacerbated by the internet. Minor argues that although people would love to have these things for free, it’s not realistic for anyone to do the work to make them available without compensation. Our society does not allow for everyone to pursue their passion if their passion doesn’t pay, and if those who are passionate about history aren’t willing to do the work for free, no one will do it.

Despite there being some citizen historians who are ready and willing to help identify students living in Nazi Germany on the side, not everyone who wants to do history wants to do it for free. In order for this to be a viable career for those who are excited and talented and willing to go into history, we have to start valuing their work and not feeling entitled to it at no cost. Either that, or Minor’s alternate suggestion of Communism.