Flickr Commons: An Uncommon Resource

The World’s Public Photography Archives

In January 2008, Flickr: The Commons was created with the intention to create the world’s first public photo collection and interactive archive.  Users are able to browse the image collections of 46 participating institutions from around the world, including collections from notable American institutions: The Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Media Museum, The U.S. National Archives, and NASA on the Commons.

According to the website, the program has two main objectives:

1.“To increase access to publicly-held photography collections.”

The Flickr format enables institutions to share limited photographic collections (those with no known copyright restrictions) with the general public.  NASA, for example, which has been proudly “on the forefront within the federal government in utilizing Web 2.0 technologies” joined Flickr in 2009 to ensure that NASA images and media could reach an even wider audience.

2.“To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.”

The Commons encourages site visitors and users to add tags or comment on the photos to encourage conversation and invite insightful dialogue to complement and enrich the collections.   The comment feature allows knowledgeable users to share information, stories, and otherwise provide historical context.

What is good for the user is also good for the institution?

The Library of Congress Commons Project FAQ page explains how “social tagging and community input could benefit both the Library and the user.” In their initial collection offerings, the Library posted photos that had only minimal identifying information or subject indexing in the hope that users may help shed some light on these otherwise obscure images.  The Library of Congress, and other participating institutions, recognized the value of Flickr Commons’ social community and the potential to tap the “collective intelligence” of citizen users and recruit them to perform the task of “collective cataloging.”

This is not the first time an institution capitalized on “collective intelligence.” In 2001, NASA launched (pun intended) an experimental project that utilized public volunteers, called “clickworkers,” to perform “common sense” routine analysis and assist in the cataloging of Martian craters.  The project was highly successful and the public assistance saved NASA both time and money. So Flickr Commons wisely followed suit.  As noted in a Flickr blog, “many hands make light work.”

The Fruits of Crowd- Source Labor

An article in the March 2008 edition of the The Library of Congress Information Bulletin entitled “Rediscovering Lincoln” triumphantly announced that thanks to “collective intelligence” the Library of Congress was able to properly identify a photograph and, subsequently, three glass negatives of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration that had been wrongly identified as either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

In November, amateur historian and Civil War enthusiast John Richter found several interesting images among the treasure trove of photographs digitized and accessible on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. He identified them as images of Lincoln at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. (The images can be viewed by searching “Lincoln at Gettysburg” on the Library’s Prints and Photographs Catalog and selecting the images of the dedication ceremony at Soldiers’ National Ceremony.)

The potential for amateur historians and historians alike to properly identity photos and uncover “new” visual sources is a truly exciting prospect.  For Flickr, and other crowd-sourced projects, the power is with the people.

Outside the Digital Playground Looking In

If you want to take one thing away from “Living and Learning with New Media” is just how far reality has passed research.  If this paper is truly representative of the research on childhood and the internet, then not only have researchers only barely begun to scrape the surface, but that the language they are using to formulate their studies are hopelessly out of date.  For all of that, I ultimately took away an optimistic message.

Mimi Ito et al. set out to study how children play, self-actualize and learn in a digital environment.  The key message is that children pick up surprisingly sophisticated knowledge online in the process of networking with friends and peer groups.  The study included students involved in social gaming like MMORPGs and first person shooters, youths creating AMVs (adding music soundtracks to anime clips) and people creating fan dubs and subs (translating foreign films, usually anime).  In each case, youths acquired highly sophisticated knowledge about video editing, and computer usage through peer interaction.  They developed and carefully maintained online personae which allowed them to talk, socialize and even flirt in a secure environment.

There conclusions are actually quite optimistic.  It suggests that children are well aware of themselves and their activities online.  The goal of parents and adults should not be to restrict or police the internet activity of children, but rather, to moderate it as fellow peers.  Schools, they suggest, would do well to emulate the networked nature of the digital learning environment with student driven, peer moderated learning, relying on the sophistication students have already developed as part of their socializing to access, synthesize and learn knew knowledge.

As I was reading this, I was amazed at how much it sounded like me as a teenager on the internet 15 years ago.  All of these practices referred to in the study were things I participated in.  My brother at 14, taught himself first how to create maps in Doom, then learned Photoshop, then 3d Studio Max and now works as a 3d artist for Blizzard Entertainment, all through knowledge gained online through peer interaction.  Granted this was over dial-up connections playing Quakeworld, or on Web 1.0 newsgroups, but there seems no fundamental difference.  This suggests to me two things.  First, despite changes in technology, the methodology of digital networking has not changed.  Perhaps we’ve reached the end of the digital revolution.  If that is the case, this study is even more behind the reality than its creators may realize.

One example of how behind the curve Ito and the rest are is in their choice of language.  For instance, they refer to socializing online as “hanging out.”  I found this to be problematic at best.  Internet socialization is far from hanging out.  For me, “hanging out” is an activity.  As a kid, when I used that term, it referred to actually going somewhere, actually investing time in being physically with friends.  Online time with friends is usually carried out in a different manner.  Being on IM is an activity that increasingly is part of the background of usual activity.  For instance, chatting with a friend through Facebook while reading this article (bad admission?), or dropping by a forum to post while hunting through JSTOR for an article.  Reflecting, this is not fundamentally different from how I interacted on the web 15 years ago.

Did anyone else get the impression that the researchers are looking in at a playground that many of us are already inside?  Is this crisis of a generational digital divide really worth the ink and web-space devoted to it?  Or is this merely a phenomenon of this particular generation of researchers commenting on this particular generation of kids?  Will academia evolve toward a more web-centric approach to learning as web-centric learners step in the fill the gap, or will institutional inertia prevent what is happening naturally across the country?

Preliminary Proposal: A Multimedia Project Gemini Portal

For decades, the work of NASA has captured the imagination of the American public and the world, sending humans to the moon and unmanned craft even farther.

NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

NASA’s work is documented rich in eye-catching images, videos, as well as lots of primary source documents that are freely available on the Internet — and are public domain.

That’s all great, but this documented history is strewn across NASA’s websites and elsewhere around the Web — hardly an easy way to explore the archive.

In this digital project, I hope to use WordPress or Drupal to create a multimedia portal for Project Gemini, which lasted from 1965 to 1966.

Gemini capsules accommodated two astronauts and the Titan II rocket was used (the Titan was actually developed as an intercontinental ballistic missile). A total of 10 manned flights were flown. Despite some flaws (including a capsule that spun out of control that Neil Armstrong commanded), the program was deemed successful and paved the way for Project Apollo, which sent astronauts to the moon.

NASA’s official website for Project Gemini is clearly stuck in the 1990s and, simply put, is garbage. Something must be done.

Using my Delicious site, I have curated a number of links to sources I would like to incorporate into this website. Additional content can be found on YouTube and other websites.

I plan to create a page for each of the 10 Gemini missions, and possibly an additional page to talk about the test flights. Each page will include links (or even embed) the relevant images, videos and primary source documents. The pages will all include a 1-2 paragraph introduction to the mission, and could possibly list the vital information (dates, crew, etc.). The homepage, I think, should be more of a splash design, with each mission’s patch displayed. Clicking on said patch would send the user to that mission’s page. A short introduction to the site will also be included on the homepage.

Gemini 7. (NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

This project will make accessible historical information that is difficult to find over the vast sprawl of the Internet. NASA’s work interests many people, and I feel this site would do a service to the general public by making this information easier for the public to find. Perhaps it could even be used as a teaching tool in classes.

What do you think? Do you think this idea makes sense? Do you have any specific suggestions for me? Please share your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to hearing from the class.

Only the Wiki Survive

As Jerry Butler once wrote, Only the Strong Survive, but what about the wiki? As technology continues to be developed, there seems to be no reason not to create our own “wiki-pads,” “wiki-pods,” and maybe even “wiki-phones.”

Historians could attempt to learn html and create their own websites, but why bother when there are so many online tools that provide the space and templates that can guide us through the process? Of course, beyond just sharing our own individual work, we are encouraged to engage in more collaborative research, like this article suggests. Again, the space for collaborative research has also been laid out for us.

PBworks allows for businesses, educators, and individuals to set up their own “wiki’s,” or collaborative spaces where groups can share and edit information. For those who wish to create online workspaces without the necessity of learning code, applications like these make it easy for anyone to “click and insert” whatever information they desire.

We should ask, however, how is this website, PBworks, any different from other do-it-yourself sites? Google Sites allows for the same type of collaborative projects and has its own templates that individuals and groups can use. There are probably a hundred different websites that allow anyone to create their own wiki’s, many of which will host them for free. The question is, what do these sites suggest for scholars in the humanities? Basically, there’s no reason not to have your own website, whether for presenting your own research or creating collaborative projects for others to participate in your research.

In terms of education, PBworks is specifically designed with templates for the syllabus, course readings, class assignments, etc. Schools and classrooms can create their own online workspaces, like this one for an AP American History Course, where students can engage online with various content. While I personally see this as helpful in the classroom, it seems less significant when it comes to scholarly research.

This is not to suggest that certain wiki’s have not been created to aid in historical research. A Digital Research Tool Wiki (DiRT) was created where contributing individuals present hundreds of tools and resources to help scholars with their research. In a way, it’s like a phone book of digital tools.  Do you need help with organizing research tools? Check out these possible resources. What about creating interactive multimedia works on your own to enrich the presentation of your research? Try one of these. Regardless of how much help you may need, this site guides you to many resources available online. The problem is, how do you know this site exists without being guided there. You can get there through Google, but you have to know to search “digital research tools.” There isn’t really a database of PBworks sites, so unless you are part of the group you may never know it exists. Many PBworks sites are set up for exclusive groups (i.e. schools, classes, etc), so you would have to be invited to even access the material. This is naturally a benefit for those workgroups that want to keep their research confidential until published, but able to access it across the globe.

To get to know PBworks, I went ahead and created my own workspace. I used their platform to create my Interactive CV. Basically I just uploaded my CV with links to proposals of each of the articles I’ve worked or are currently working on. If anyone requested to contribute, they could post comments and suggestions to my proposals. Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to request this sort of engagement, especially since no one would even know this site existed without my specifically inviting them. Nevertheless, while working on setting this up, I realized how helpful digital tools like this one are along with its affiliated tools (i.e. uploading slideshows, etc) for various workgroups. If I was collaborating on a book or paper with multiple authors, we could use PBworks to upload our drafts, scanned copies of primary sources, links to other secondary sources, and then comment on each author’s work without needing to worry about any of the group’s research being compromised before publication.

What other types of wiki’s would you set up in a group setting and how do you think this site can help collaborative historical work? Is there a valid use for this site when compared to all the other options out there today?

Well, if you’d like, setting up your own wiki is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1. Choose a Plan that fits your needs.

2. Choose your address:

3. Accept the terms of the site and… “Take Me to My Workspace.”

Or should we call it Wikispace?

All the World’s Digitized and the Men and Women Merely Bloggers…

How does digitizing texts impact the way we conduct research?   Michael Whitmore and Jonathan Hope believe that a literary criticism revolution is at hand, one in which scholars will discover new patterns and arrive at new conclusions.

Their 2007 article “Shakespeare by the Numbers:  On the Linguistic Features of the Late Plays” (from Early Modern Tragicomedy) first notes that the idea that genre is a nebulous concept, one that has changed over time.  Qualitative observations alone cannot accurately determine texts’ themes since commentators have different standards will  disagree among themselves.  How, then, can we create a widely acceptable means of analyzing?

Whitmore and Hope propose that we rely on a “quantitative analysis of linguistic features” (136).    Programs such as Docuscope take literature that has been digitized and allow scholars to search for key words and verb tenses.  With this raw data, they can more clearly decipher diction and stylistic patterns.

The article examines Shakespeare’s last seven plays, which various commentators since the 1870s had discribed as “romances” or “tragicomedies” (133).  Yet the First Folio, published in 1623, did not break them into a distinct group.  What elements within these plays caused later critics to see patterns that Shakespeare’s first editors evidently did not?

Whitmore and Hope broke plays into 1,000, 2,500, and 7,500 chunks (to allow for a larger sample size), ran them through Docuscope, and discovered that the later plays had unique linguistic characteristics.   1)  Verb Tense:  these plays more often used the past tense and referenced the past.  2)  Asides:  they also had more instances of characters’ speaking to the audience or referencing outside events.  3)  Use of “to be”:  characters more often used both forms of the verb “to be” and verb tense ending in “-ed.”

What does this raw data suggest?  The authors argue that the prevalence of the past tense reveals the past’s importance to the present, the asides enhance the “dreamlike” ambiance of the the plays, and that the “to be” usage shows a preference for telling, rather than showing, the audience about events and people.  Thus, Shakespeare used these linguistic features to create “focalised retrospection” (153) and the quantitative analysis reveals specific reasons why the later plays comprise a distinct group.

However, Whitmore and Hope are less aggressive with their general conclusion.  They note that such analysis complements, but does not replace, traditional qualitative commentary.  The door is wide open, though, for other scholars to use quantitative analysis with myriad other works.

How did you respond to their article?  Do you think quantitative analysis of the type they used on Shakespeare’s plays can tell us more about texts and authors’ intentions than we already know?  Or are they over-hyping its potential?