Digital Project Reflection: Homegrown History

Please, please pardon my awful pun but this project has actually really grown on me recently. I initially started out with the intention of producing a proof-of-concept for a resource that would provide a public audience with a place to learn more about how to actually produce a family history project. This intent has shifted over time, though it is not entirely divorced from that initial idea. Part of this stems from the fact that, simply put, I’m not an expert in the diverse fields and tools that I think family history projects stand to benefit from. Its difficult to write with an authoritative voice when you’re obviously not an authority.

So, the shape of Homegrown History has shifted to accommodate that acknowledgement. It is, at this time, less a definitive resource for aspiring family historians (though it does still endeavor to be of some utility) and more a living family history project that I would actually like to continue moving forward. The intent is not, at this stage, to pontificate from an ivory tower about the way family history should be done. Rather my thinking has shifted more to using it as an example for how one family history project is being done.

There is still much work to be done, but I have a plan moving forward. I’ve made arrangements to sit down and do my first oral history interview with a family member in early June, which I think will give me a good deal of content to produce. I am still struggling to figure out how to incorporate images/visual interest into my posts without dropping in stock images. I do plan on adding more personal photos in future posts, but for the time being I do not have ready access to many of those short of asking my grandparents to attempt to wrestle with their scanner which I think has a very low chance of success.

In terms of changes made since the initial draft post, I have switched themes to a less noisome one, added two substantially more significant posts, made the necessary arrangements to schedule interview time back in PA so that I can produce the oral history posts I’ve had planned, added language to reflect my intent to have this site serve as a space that is welcoming to discussion, and added a commenting/discussion guidelines page.

Moving forward I am considering bumping myself up from the current free plan to get access to more control over how the site looks and so I can edit the current word salad that is my domain name. I also need to create a logo that doesn’t play into the “its a site about family so its gotta have trees” visual trope.

While I wouldn’t be silly enough to compare this project to a professional digital humanities blog/digital journal like the Journal of Digital Humanities, I was significantly influenced by the mindset behind that project, our discussion on the place of blogging in history, and notions brought up in our Public History Seminar course last semester. Shared authority is the most significant of these, and it has been something that I’ve been considering with increasing frequency while working on this project. So often the question asked by historians seems to be less about how we get people engaged with history and more about how do we get them to engage with it on our terms, by reading more. I don’t mean to suggest that academic history is irrelevant by any means or that it doesn’t have its place in society outside the academy, but I do certainly buy into the idea that there are still many other ways beyond it for people to engage with history. To paraphrase Rosenzweig and Thelen, its not that people don’t care about history, its that they don’t see themselves in history as its typically presented to them. My hope is that in some small way, by trying to show people that family history projects are feasible, that they are within their reach, that Homegrown History can make a step towards getting people more engaged with their history. People already view history through the lens of their family experiences, so my aim is to show a way in which you can take that family experience and set it within a larger context, and to make the argument that doing this sort of history work is valid.

PressForward and Ethical Content Scraping

What is PressForward?

Roughly speaking PressForward is a back-end WordPress plugin developed by the Center for History and New Media that allows users to aggregate, curate, and redistribute web content pulled from RSS or ATOM feeds, or through the use of PressForward’s Bookmarklet tool. Once a site-runner has added their desired feeds to the plug-in, or has marked content for rehosting through the Bookmarklet tool, they can review specific pieces, add metadata, format them for Word Press, add any categories or tags they wish, and finally publish the content on their blog.

Screenshot of the PressForward Dashboard, taken from the PressForward User Manual.


There are a few ways to start collecting content for rehosting through PressForward, but let’s start with web feeds. RSS (Really Simple Syndication or alternatively Rich Site Summary) basically takes unique text files from websites that a user would like to “subscribe” to that, when uploaded to a feed reader program like Feedly or The Old Reader, then allows users to create their own feeds of automatically aggregated content. So instead of visiting a bunch of blogs individually, you could just have posts from all of them pulled into the feed reader program to create your own newsfeed. ATOM on the other hand is a more recently created alternative format to RSS. Linking these feeds to PressForward creates a feed of content within your WordPress site (visible only to you), from which you can begin to select specific content for rehosting.

The second key way to collect content is through PressForward’s “Nominate This” bookmarklet. While RSS feeds pull content from designated sites as it is published, “Nominate This” allows for a more intentional selection of specific content from specific sites. Say you found a cool blog post on a site you have not incorporated into your RSS feed, or for which RSS is not available. In this case you can just click the “Nominate This” button on your browser’s toolbar and send the selected content to your WordPress Drafts section manually. If the site does have an RSS feed you are unsubscribed to, this tool also offers you the option to do so if such a feed exists.  

Nominate This bookmarklet in action. In this instance the old homepage of the Center for History and New Media website has been pulled for republication. Image taken from the “Installing and Using the Nominate This Bookmarklet” section of the PressForward User Manual


 Once you’ve got your feeds set up/articles from other sources nominated, it’s time to curate. At this stage you can start picking out content from your feeds for republication on your blog. There are two key panels to use here, the “All Content” panel and the “Nominated Panel.” The former contains all of the content pulled from your RSS feeds that are pending review and nomination, the latter contains content that you have marked for republication. At either stage you can use the Reader View option to open the content to check for readability and any errors in the text or formatting before sending it over to either the Nominated Panel or to a Word Press Draft.


Now that you’ve sent content over to the drafts section all that remains is formatting/editing the post and publishing it to your blog like any other post. Which brings us to the overarching goal of this plug in: to disseminate scholarship, blogs, digital projects, etc. to a wider audience by allowing bloggers and site runners to curate their own informal journals so to speak. Unlike content-scrapers, which have a less than stellar reputation among digital content creators, PressForward is not intended to be a platform by which people can collect and republish content to their sites in an unethical drive to increase their own site traffic (and ad revenue) by rehosting others’ unattributed work. Yet when you get down to brass tax I don’t really think its all that far off from such tools.

PressForward does a few things to encourage responsible aggregation and republication: it “offers the option to auto-redirect back to the original source,” it “retains detailed metadata about each aggregated post,” and “the original author’s name will appear with a republished post if you use WordPress default themes such as Twenty Fourteen.” The FAQs also emphasize that author consent should be sought before republishing. Reading through the plug-in’s Manual and FAQs I noticed that there are a lot of “ifs” involved when it comes to the display of metadata. If users want to display more metadata, they have to use Custom Fields. If users have the overwrite author option enabled (it is by default but can be shut off), the author of the original post will be displayed on your rehosted site. Links to the original post are contained in the new Draft post, but can be deleted if the user chooses to do so. None of these options seem to impose a strict requirement that users include metadata in their final posts. If a user does not “use default themes,” will the metadata still appear?

I don’t mean to be overly critical about PressForward in this respect, especially as there are far easier ways to go about plagiarism, and chances are digital humanities scholars aren’t exactly the same level of target for content-scrapers as say artists or tech-reviewers. But, I do think the conversation surrounding the ethics of content-scraping and rehosting is an interesting one to have especially if we are talking about shifts in the landscape of scholarly publication. While scholars may not be producing their content for ad revenue as other types of digital producers may be, is it ethical for a “big” blog like Digital Humanities Now (which does actually publish a full list of the feeds they are subscribed to) to pull content (and views) away from their pages? Is re-hosting really all that different from linking to a blog post as a form of citation (I think it is)? While it could certainly be argued that there are philosophical differences in the motivations behind publishing a scholarly article and a swing-cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shouldn’t scholars still have a right to their labors?

Digital Project Draft: Homegrown History

At this time I’ve got my family history blog, tentatively titled “Homegrown History,” up and running with some basic information about the blog, its intent and scope, and its first few posts. As mentioned in my original proposal, the scope of this project is essentially to provide a resource for people looking for information on how to get started in writing family histories. Based on feedback I got in class, and from conversations I’ve had with friends, I opted to take an approach with two components. The blog is one part a personal experience/reflective log about my own ongoing efforts to get into this style of history, and one part educational resource, with planned posts on basic research methods, resources available to users who do not have access to academic facilities/journals, as well soft and hardware tutorials.

What’s Next?

  1. Finish rolling out my Interview Preparation post. Even though it now seems I will be unable to actually publish an interview piece, at the very least the preparation post is still feasible.
  2. Finish my post on using census records, both in terms of the source and the platform you use to access them. I’ve already got most of the screenshots/documents I need.
  3. Create a Using Secondary Sources to Augment Family History post.
  4. Create a Resources and Suggested Reading tab.

Some Issues

The biggest issue I’m facing at the moment is that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the two family members I was planning to interview next weekend for a few blog posts are no longer available to do so before the semester ends. (They’re fine don’t worry).

There is also the issue of the title. I’ve never been particularly good at coming up with snappy titles, and I’m even less familiar with doing so in the context of brand-building. Does “Homegrown History” work/send the right message?

The other issue is that, the site, to put it frankly, is pretty ugly. The free version of WordPress seems to be fairly limited in what you can do to customize things without knowledge of CSS so I’m at the mercy of their editor/customize tool. If anyone has any tips about spicing up a free WordPress site I’d be happy to hear them. I have been reluctant to start dropping images into it, which would really help with the visual interest component because I’m not sure how image copyright works when posting to a blog. Also not really sure what images to even use. You can only use so many stock images of a family before it gets weird and I would rather not upload pictures of my own family onto the site. I lack the artistic skill to draw a site logo as well.

Roll for Initiative: Critical Play and Table-top RPGs in the Digital Era

Games and play behavior have long been established as a distinct and ancient component of the human experience. From the ancient Egyptian game of Senet to the digital doll-house world of The Sims, games have held at various times and in various cultures a host of meanings, purposes, and roles. Typically though, at least in the mass culture of 21st century America, the word “game” is often synonymous with entertainment. While there has been an increasing movement in the past decade to consider video-games as a form of art, the still widely popular notion of games as relatively harmless distraction, for artist and game designer Mary Flanagan, is undeniably problematic.

Given the rising global popularity of mass produced digital computer games, Flanagan argues in her book Critical Play that it is imperative for us to approach games critically–to be conscious of the messages we send and the ideologies we reproduce in creating and playing games. As cultural texts that are inseparable from the historical and cultural moment in which they are created, as well as the ideologies and worldviews of their creators, commercially produced games bring with them the potential to reproduce (either consciously or unconsciously) and render innocuous ideologies like racism and colonialism under the guise of “innocent fun.” As Ike notes in his blog post on games like Scramble for Africa and Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, the reproduction of harmful ideologies in popular games is hardly a practice confined to the nineteenth century.

In order to recognize and prevent the continued incorporation of these elements into games, and to place activism at the forefront of game design, Flanagan proposes a concept that can be applied in the creation and consumption of games by artists, activists, players, and designers: critical play.

What is critical play and why are you piling all of those Dungeons and Dragons books on my desk?

In essence Flanagan defines critical play as the creation or occupation of “play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life.” It is “characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces.” Specific examples of critical play strategies include but are by no means limited to: attempting to cheat a system that feels unfair, asking for a qualification of explicit rules, revising or rewriting systems of play to make a statement or explore an alternative space, and outright rejecting or “unplaying” the goals/objectives/rules set before you by the game you are playing and using your own. Despite the negative or antisocial behaviors implied by terms like unplaying and cheating, critical play is at its core a creative rather than a destructive act. The goal is to question, propose, and implement an alternative vision rather than outright destroy. As a design methodology, critical play asks game designers to tear down the current boundaries of the games industry by inviting more diverse voices and nontraditional (read non-white men) gamers into the field, both as designers and as players.

Flanagan’s Critical Play Game Design methodology. Please forgive me for the crooked image, I can’t afford Photoshop.

Now, for those of you who have known me for more than a week, I’ll ask you to forgive me, because I’m about to get back on my soapbox about Tabletop Roleplaying Games again. In the hopes of convincing you to read this I’ll just lay down my thinking right here: tabletop games are a fantastic example of Flanagan’s concept of critical play in practice. This is not to say that tabletop RPGs as a form are quantifiably more critical and socially conscious than video-games or board games, but that, for a number of reasons, they lend themselves far better to putting those ideas into practice. The subversive notions of revision, reskinning, unplaying, are baked into these games, sometimes implicitly, but often explicitly, as in the case of Dungeons and Dragons. In the latter, players are encouraged to adapt and revise rules and systems to the specific visions of their tables (not that developer encouragement or censure has ever stopped players from doing this).

Character Creation and customization is often an intensely personal component of tabletop roleplaying games, offering players a chance to explore and inhabit an imagined being that may or may not bear any semblance to themselves. Check out Twitter Hashtags like #DnDCharacters or #Characterart to get a feel for the investment players put into their characters. Photo credit

TTRPGs both by their nature as highly social narrative games, and by the sort of “homebrew” culture which has developed around them, allow a degree of player freedom to subvert and engage in critical play that is unparalleled. If you don’t like a rule or subsystem, you can change it. Neither Wizards of the Coast nor that guy with the anime avatar online can do a thing about it. Unlike digital games which in many cases require a significant degree of expertise to subvert (creating your own mods often requires in-depth knowledge of skills that range from programming to 3-D modelling), TTRPGs require nothing more than your imagination, a space to write, and assuming you don’t wish to write your own system from the ground up, a source-rule book to build off of (many of which can be found for free). In a cultural environment where the simple inclusion of non-binary options in a digital game’s character creator has been met with a sadly unsurprising degree of vitriol, TTRPGs, even those which do not explicitly include such options, present a system of play that allows marginalized communities to engage in critical play on their own terms, to tell their own stories.

This is not to say that TTRPGs, nor the communities surrounding them are perfect. The simple truth is they are not. There are still practices and concepts even within mainstream systems like Dungeons and Dragon’s that warrant conversation and critique. The oft-used racial trait/racial alignment system being one particular example of a subsystem that players are increasingly questioning and moving away from. The presence of non-binary and transgender options at character creation in systems like D&D5E or Zweihander is a step forward, but it does not mean that every player at your local game shop is suddenly going to be supportive of non-binary players and player characters. Likewise the fact that such systems don’t force heterosexual traits onto player characters doesn’t rid the culture of homophobia. You don’t have to dig deeply into the internet to find that. In addition, much of the freedom offered by TTRPGs relies upon the assumption that players are able to find or create groups in which they can feel safe enough to engage in the sort of critical play described by Flanagan. And while self-publishing TTRPG materials online through sites like DriveThruRPG is in some ways less technically intensive than producing say an indie video game, it is by no means an easy or even profitable task. Game design is a difficult and time-consuming task, and despite growing popularity TTRPGs are far more niche than video-games.

Despite these issues the strength of these games, I think, lies in their potential for individual adaptation and subversion. Unlike digital computer games which Flanagan points out are largely geared towards and produced by white men, TTRPGs whether played in the comfort of a friend’s apartment or through a digital tabletop like Roll20, offer a space where anyone can say “no thanks, I’ll be playing this my way.”

Think of the last 3 (or any number really I’m just being arbitrary at this point) games you’ve played. As Flanagan has shown, games can take any number of forms and don’t necessarily have to be video-games. Have you felt that there were content/systems within that warrant conversation or critique? Can you think of any ways you have “played critically” in the past?

Digital Detectives, Materiality, and Medial Ideology – Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms

At the core of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, lies a philosophical conundrum: what is the nature of digital objects. Are our Word documents, audio and video files, and computer programs ephemeral? Or do they exhibit a materialism in the same manner that we associate with traditional forms of information storage and transmission. As information technology has proliferated in the 21st century, everyday encounters with highly complex technical concepts have become a fact of life for many people. Yet despite this proliferation of tech there has not been an accompanying proliferation of technical knowledge. Writing in 2008 Kirschenbaum observed that for many, an intricate mechanism like the hard disk drive existed as a nearly mystical black box, an unseen archive rooted in arcane processes located within a computer’s case. From this perspective the idea that digital objects have a materiality seems strange and bizarre.
As the saying goes “after a point, sufficiently advanced science becomes indistinguishable from magic.”

Despite the fact that you can’t physically hold something like an iTunes playlist, Kirschenbaum argues that, in light of computer forensics and textual analysis we can begin to excavate its very material components. This is basically to say that Kirschenbaum argues that digital objects have materiality and that they are not ephemeral. Kirschenbaum also argues that the idea of new media’s ephemerality stems from what he terms a medial ideology, an ideology which has substituted disseminating dense and obscure technical knowledge for more digestible conceits. I won’t pretend to have understood most of the technical work that Kirschenbaum performed in this book as critical media theory and computer science are subjects far outside of my wheelhouse, but I will try to outline three of the key concepts that he illustrates in this book as best I can: formal materiality, forensic materiality, and medial ideology.

Forensic and Formal Materiality

For Kirschenbaum simply saying that digital objects are material is insufficient and that in order to adequately illustrate this concept there are two distinct forms of digital materiality: one which emphasizes the nitty-gritty physicality and durability of data and another which emphasizes the role of formal processes within a computational system that influence and affect the way that users can and cannot interact with data. As the term suggests, forensic materiality has its roots in computer forensics, a field of computer science which deals with data preservation, extraction, recovery, and interpretation (generally undertaken with an investigative and legal purpose but not solely limited to those roles). Kirschenbaum notes that “at the applied level, computer forensics depends upon the behaviors and physical properties of various computational storage media.” In this light data, and data storage media, possess materiality at the microscopic scale of bits, infinitesimally small but nonetheless physical markers of data’s presence. Through the use of advanced Magnetic Microscopes, investigators can trace the surfaces of storage media to find erase patterns to determine whether data has been tampered with. While such methods are one element of computer forensics, Kirschenbaum also highlights the role of internal processes in preserving and proliferating data, and how an investigation of those processes illustrates formal materiality. At this level data’s materiality is expressed through the use of specific processes or instruments that allow a user to peer under a computational system’s hood so to speak. Things like accessing an image file’s metadata or mining a disk image of an old game both require the user to employ specific programs or processes. In both forms of materiality, the common thread is that data, despite its supposed volatility and impermanence, is surprisingly durable.

Medial Ideology

So why is it then, if digital objects can be considered material, that ideas of digital objects’ ephemerality have taken on such resonance in academic and cultural circles? Kirschenbaum argues that this is in part a result of Western consumer culture, as tech companies, scholars, and users articulated a vision of information and information storage that obscured both the physical and intellectual labor that goes into producing digital objects, as well as their actual functional processes. While authors like William Gibson may have put forward their own literary ideas about ethereal concepts like “cyberspace,” Kirschenbaum also notes that over time efforts by developers to optimize user experience lead to a process which continually rendered technical knowledge unnecessary for users to effectively use their computers and digital products. In practice and in discourse, technological advancements between the 1980s and early 2000s have rendered the labor of textual production “functionally invisible.” What is more, to Kirschenbaum this process has by no means been reversed, and despite ongoing work by new media scholars to counter it, modern culture remains under the thrall of this ideology.

Why is it important to view the digital in material terms? What do we lose by allowing ourselves to accept the idea that digital objects and processes are ephemeral? While he offers an extensive critique of our understanding of materiality and the digital, Kirschenbaum’s book is clearly written for a specialist audience. Part of the appeal that the conceits of medial ideology proposes is that they simplify complex systems and technology to a level that is more easily digested by non-specialists. How can we strike a balance between teaching people about such systems without falling prey to overly-reductive simplifications?