Instead of boring you with every inane detail of my project, this post will weave a narrative of the most important trials, tribulations, and things I learned from constructing my project: stereomap, a site devoted to geocoding animated stereographs.
Trial 1: Overcoming a Dead End
Many (or should I say the few?) of you who read this blog outside of the students in the class might be thinking “hey, isn’t that the guy that was doing that project of mapping unbuilt spaces in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, you are right, it was me but shortly into starting the project I discovered a number of distressing details that made me switch my topic. First, it turns out the Histories of the National Mall site is in the process of doing a number of explorations on my very subject and will be releasing them sometime soon. To make matters worse, I learned the National Building Museum did an exhibit called “Unbuilt Washington” in 2011 and created an online map for it detailing the unbuilt spaces. My exact project idea! This was my lowest point in this process, I had no clue where to go from here.
Enter: the Stereograminator
Having attended a MITH digital dialogue earlier this year, I learned about the Stereogranimator, a tool from NYPL labs for animating stereographs and it came back to me when I was racking my brain for a new project idea. In an “MTV Cops” moment I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could take these animated stereograms and map them in the style of HistoryPin?” These images typically feature a distinct location and could benefit from the context of geographic space. I chose NYC for the ease of using the over 3,000 stereographs focused on the city and held by the NYPL. With my crisis averted by deciding to create a map and website to fulfill this project idea, I started figuring out the logistics of its implementation.
Trial 2: You Can Map GIFs, Right?
While there is a glut of mapping software out there, few handle animated GIFs well in their information boxes, often cutting off images, making them static again, or not displaying the images at all. Finding a tool that overcame these challenges became my top priority in making this project feasible. Along with my main goal, I hoped to find an easy-to-use, mobile friendly, free, and still decently attractive interface. Looking through many map options (Google My Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, WorldMap, Scribble Maps, and on and on), I finally found one that actually would work: ZeeMaps. While not gaining full points on the attractive interface scale, this site fulfilled the rest of my requirements mentioned above. In finding the right mapping service, I learned a lot about evaluation of digital tools, compromise, and to understand practical limitations. With this crucial element decided, I started building the map and the website to host it.
Trial 3: Building Diversity
As I began constructing my site and its elements, I started to learn more about the collections themselves. It was difficult to create a diverse mix of selected points due to the biases towards certain subjects and areas. If historians were to look at the collection as a documentary example of the late 19th to early 20th century, then it could summed up as a white man wearing a bowler hat in lower Manhattan.
While lower Manhattan was a cultural center then as it is today, the collection overlooks important segments of the Black population in Harlem and other parts of the city. Even in stereographs focused outside of New York City where Blacks are subjects, they are depicted in racist ways as minstrel characters. Women and the lower classes were also seldom depicted other than to emphasize their need of saving from destitution. These characteristics made it difficult for me to create a wide ranging selection of subjects, however, it drove home the point of the photographers’ biases and the frequent inadequacy of the documentary record.
Trial 4: Becoming a Bot
As I was building, I also was promoting the site at the same time. Taking an idea from the Trevor Owens, I decided to “curate in the open” and publicly share each image I made and considered using as I went. This was both to generate interest and to aggregate all the links to use in the project. I chose Twitter as my main sharing platform because I already had an account (although not too many followers) and all my tweets were open to the public. Overall, judging from my Twitter analytics, my tweets were mainly seen by my followers but some of them did seem interested. Some of them seemed disturbed:
I realized that Twitter may not have been the best platform for this part of my project. In sending out multiple tweets in rapid succession, it seemed to my followers that I was becoming a bot, taking over their timelines like the bots of conviction we read about earlier this semester. Certainly some were alright with this, but I’m sure many did not appreciate having these images forced upon them. Perhaps a more image focused site like tumblr would have served this purpose better. Whether or not I chose the right social media platform, I do believe the effort was worthwhile and drew more attention to my project than simply keeping it behind closed doors until a big reveal in the end.
From all my trials I learned how to weigh options, choose between resources, and create a deliverable product. In the end, I overcame my trials and created a usable website that met the goals I set when beginning this journey. Thank you, dear reader, for following along with me throughout the semester and in this post. I hope you take a look at the site and send me your thoughts.