My digital project has gone live!  SHOUTATYOURTV is a web exhibit that explores the ways in which YouTube users engage the traditional media in a social, political, and historical dialog.  It’s probably not surprising that there’s a lot of weird stuff going on YouTube…  I had a lot of fun putting it together, so please feel free to check it out and offer your feedback.

Database as a Genre of New Media

Lev Manovich is an accomplished thinker in the field of new media.  In his short piece, “Database as a Genre of New Media,” he makes the case that databases represent a fundamental paradigm shift in the way that people think about the organization and presentation of information.  Databases as a non-narrative, not necessarily linear way of organizing data did not originate with the digital age – they were found previously in, say, encyclopedias or photo archives – but they have experienced a renaissance in that time.  Video games, your hard drive, and the Internet are all databases, and they all represent a way to present data free of the constraints of logic and coherence imposed by the narrative form.

As Manovich puts it, “As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies.”  He argues that the very term “narrative” is abused in the interactive databases of the Internet and video games, where users may respond to preprogrammed variables, whether they are hyperlinks or Koopa Troopas.  A narrative is something carefully constructed by its author constituting “a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.”  It is careless to assume that a user will automatically derive this experience from a database without considered input from its author – narrative is  “used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have not yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects.”

Manovich argues that since databases are free of the “cause-and-effect trajectory” of the narrative form, they can, through ever-increasingly complex organizational forms come to represent a more complete simulacrum of reality.  The implication of his vision seems to be that databases will mimic real-life systems in incredible detail – a city, a historical figure, or even a whole historical society – and users will be able to interact with these simulacrums in apparently natural, non-narrative ways.

Imagine – if, instead of writing an exhaustive three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris had programmed the entirety of his research into an algorithm which imitated Teddy himself.  Students of history wouldn’t need to read about Teddy – they could go bear hunting with a database that simulates his appearance, his behavior, his patterns of speech in virtual reality.  In this way, they could experience the man as he was – Teddy 2.0 would not shoot that simulated bear cub either.  Am I getting this right?

Each method – narrative and database – has its own merits to recommend it, but as the genre of database evolves into ever more sophisticated forms, narrative as a construct is likely to fall more and more by the wayside in favor of organizational techniques better suited to their unique matter.

A little help – am I overstating his argument?  Missing it completely?


YouTube as the Voice of Dissent – Digital Proposal

YouTube has the potential to be the ultimate democratic tool for being heard – users do not even have to be able to read or write to reach an audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.   This seems to upset the received notions of mass media as a centralized operation, so capital intensive as to be controlled mostly by wealthy individuals or corporations.  How is YouTube allowing users to contend with traditional media outlets like television news in conversations about history, politics, and other social issues?  What are users saying, and how are they saying it?  What is the viewership compared to that of the traditional media?  How is traditional media responding – are they engaging this ongoing commentary at all, or are they attempting to keep above the fray to maintain the image that they are authoritative?

I propose to curate a web exhibit that attempts to document the ways in which YouTube users reply to, argue with, remix, and mash up traditional new media and the public figures quoted therein about history, politics, and social issues. These videos constitute an assertion of identity on the part of the users who create and upload them.  No longer does the traditional news media have such a disproportionately louder voice in documenting historical and political events.  Users have the chance to restate and refine public perception of historical events, registering them publicly, and arguing their own point of view about history.  My exhibit will take the form of a website that will host both typical and atypical examples of dissenting YouTube videos along with commentary on each, placing them into a larger social and historical context.

Videos such as the one in which Tea Party protestors actually confront a CNN anchor about what they perceive to be her biased reporting represent perhaps the most literal manifestation of YouTube users “talking back” to the traditional media. Other users are less confrontational and more humorous in their assertion of identity on YouTube.  Autotune the News satirizes news anchors and public figures by turning their words into performances of catchy original songs. Other users face the camera themselves, taking the media to task for what they perceive to be bias.  Sometimes these users don’t even need an entirely articulated, coherent point of view – just a lot of anger.  This particular user was exceptionally angry about the way he perceived that history was being written by media, as well as by contemporary politics in general.  Week after week for a very long time…  Many of these commentaries have thousands of views, while an unscientific survey of the CBS News Channel reveals a surprising number of videos with views in only on the double or triple digits.  Certainly, this doesn’t account for CBS’s television viewership, but it suggests that in the digital realm, from the perspective of traditional media, the inmates have inherited asylum…

I can find no scholarly research that deals directly with the phenomenon of YouTube users directly engaging the media to assert their own historical and social perspectives.  More often the commentary and research details how YouTube and other social media has been used to organize and disseminate information about political unrest in countries like Iran, Egypt, or the Sudan.  The YouTube users who register their discontent with the views expressed in traditional media by news organizations and public figures is in the tradition dissent literature and free speech on the part of common people that predates the American Revolution – the biggest difference now is the prominence and proliferation of this dissent.

PhilaPlace is an attempt by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make local history into a unified experience – one that takes place both on the internet, as well as in the streets around you.  Utilizing the power of Google Maps, scholarly historical writing, oral histories, photographs, and user generated content, aims to fill a niche somewhere between walking tour, museum, and archive.

The site’s authors explain that “PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present.”

There are several ways to access the information stored at PhilaPlace.  A menu offers users the choice to interface the site by using a map of Google map of Philadelphia, by topic, by collection, or by checking out what’s new on the blog.  Browsing by topic or collection yields direct access to a wide array of information, detailing nineteenth century race riots, local newsletters, local celebrities, and more.

The map interface is one of the more innovative features of the site – it promises to put the historical events covered by the site into geographical relationships with each other, bridging the gap between historical walking tour and reading a detailed book on local Philadelphia history.  A map of modern Philadelphia is featured prominently on the site’s home page, and the intent seems to be that users can access the historical information by clicking on pinpointed links on that map.

PhilaPlace is subtitled “Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods.”  The site features input and oral histories from the people who know the city best – its lifelong residents.  It also allows users to submit their own stories and memories about city locations.  In this way, PhilaPlace strives to be more than a simple archive – it is actually documenting history, adding new information to the historical record.  It is not meant to be a passive experience, but more a celebration in which users are invited to take part.  At the time of this writing, there are forty-two interviews featured on the site, and other parts of the site promise to incorporate other user contributions as the site grows.

The blog has not been updated since September.

That is a shame, because the idea of linking history to Google maps is powerful.  I, for one, love knowing the ins and outs of my surroundings.  I love to walk and to bike, and I often wonder about the buildings and the people I pass on a daily basis.  PhilaPlace seems like a great model for integrating history into our daily experience.  Perhaps the next step is make the project more open-sourced.  A web 2.0 model could be an even more powerful, synergistic way to document the history of a big city like Philadelphia.  This site is already presuming that there are many people interested in sharing their expertise about local history – why not take advantage of those numbers and that passion?  Write the code, build the site – and then let them put the pins in the map, upload audio, video, photos, and their own stories, the way Wikipedia and Facebook do it.

Bringing Historical Order to YouTube.

YouTube is a repository for public memory.  It’s about documenting what is in the zeitgeist now.  It also provides a glimpse at what we remember about the past, too.

That’s the premise behind, a website that attempts to provide some historical order to the otherwise chaotic YouTube.  It’s a sort of stream-of-consciousness archive of popular culture and current events in a given year.  Visitors to the site can search videos by year dating all the way back to advent of motion pictures in the late nineteenth century.  Videos can be filtered by categories such as current events, sports, video games, commercials, and television among others.

The impetus of the site is less historical than nostalgic.  As the site’s creators explain as they recount’s origins, “…it wasn’t specifically Jordan or Primal Rage videos I was searching for … it was 1996 … the feeling of being in 1996 …the intangibles of that year fascinated me, but getting bogged down in the specifics and having to make CHOICES eventually spoiled my quest.”

In other words, it’s like those VH1 clip shows, but without the often silly commentary.  Or better yet, with personal commentary provided by the viewer.  Or in our case, the historian.

The selection of videos archived on this site for a given year may be less than representative – but it’s fascinating from the perspective of public memory.  Just how do people choose to remember 1996  anyway?  What does it look like as a shared cultural moment?

What other ways could be used as a historical tool?