Historical Integrity vs. Mr. Snuggles (And Other Questionable Contributions)
In Steve Zeitlin’s essay “Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age,” Zeitlin discusses, at great length, his interactive web project www.cityofmemory.org. This seems like a pretty snazzy concept: retrieving stories from all over New York and displaying them on a map that can be easily accessed on the internet. Check it out.
However, there is one intriguing problem that surfaces through this project, and that is the legitimacy and value of a contributed story. Zeitlin addresses this difficulty casually, stating that “[s]ome of the contributions to the site… are less than impressive. Although these don’t dramatically detract from the site, we plan to re-curate the site periodically, leaving only the more interesting and substantive entries up permanently.” This brings up a vital question. Who is to decide what is “impressive,” “interesting” or “substantive” and what is not? There are no set rules or guidelines to determine the validity or relevance of a story contributed to this site.
To the person who wrote and took the time to submit a story, this tidbit of history may be extremely substantive to them, though it may not for one of the creators or curators of the site. He or she may be offended if their story is taken off. Zeitlin addresses this inquiry as well, but simply says he does not think they will be “because the stories we will eliminate are precisely those to which the contributors did not give significant time or thought.” Again, how can any of these individuals know for certain that the story is not important? What criteria do they use to distinguish the importance of one story over another?
In this time of extreme digitization, everyone thinks that his or her online contribution is important to someone out there in the cosmos. Think about it. There are so many people that post pictures of their cats or half-eaten pizza to the world on Facebook and Twitter, expecting someone to acknowledge its existence and validate its significance. However, there are many people who hate cats and don’t really care what Joe Schmoe or Sally Somebody ate for lunch. There isn’t someone to curate their posts, though. People can share what they want with who they want whenever they want. YOU may not care about Mr. Snuggles, but SOMEONE cares about Mr. Snuggles and wishes to share the love with their willing, or unwilling, social media pals.
Considering the idea of global sharing, one may want to question whether or not Zeitlin’s website should be open to the same lack of constraints as many social media sights. True, some people may post stories to cityofmemory.org as gags or practical jokes. On the other hand, these are stories that they wish to share for some reason. Therefore, should they not have as much right to post what they want on this site as they do on Facebook or Twitter?
Many may say no. Cityofmemory.org is a professional site. An online museum or collection of sorts. There ought to be a standard of excellence; a filter to sift the historical from the comical or irrelevant. The site itself addresses this, labeling the historical and/or peer reviewed contributions with orange dots on the New York map, while the not-so-professional tales are blue. Let’s just say that there are many more blue than orange. At some point, many of those blue dots will be eliminated because they are not deemed historical or central enough to the overarching content of the project.
In that case, maybe a set of rules or guidelines ought to be established for the stories. Then if a submitter contributes a gag story which is later deleted from the site, the creators and curators can reference their guidelines to anyone who may be offended or hurt that their story was removed or not even posted. This may also prevent some stories from being submitted, and would decrease the amount of data that would have to be filtered through.
Though crowd sourcing for an exhibition or digital project does raise issues of relevance, truth and criteria, the idea itself is wonderful. Creating an interactive website like cityofmemory.org, or a collaborative exhibition like Open House: If These Walls Could Talk (discussed in Benjamin Filene’s essay “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk) in Minnesota, opens so many different doors for historians and curators. Literally. In the Open House exhibition, the History Center took a building and used it as “a frame for a set of stories of the people who had lived in it.” The curators generated an interactive display where visitors could relive the experiences of those who had lived in the house before. They took stories, documents, media, and interactive elements in order to generate an exhibition that would involve the “working class”, professional historians, and visitors in a unique and collaborative experience that had never been seen or attempted before.
Projects and exhibitions like cityofmemory.org and Open House would have never been possible without crowd sourcing. True, there may be many contributions out there that may not be deemed worthy of displaying. There may be some ethical buttons pushed and feelings hurt if a story or document from a contributor is or is not used. However, if certain guidelines are established for submissions, then crowd sourcing can be a great way to personalize and promote history and museums for the average person. If someone feels like they are a part of the big picture, then they are more likely to participate and take interest.
Filene, Benjamin. “Make Yourself at Home – Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair,Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.
Zeitlin, Steve. “Where Are the Best Stories? Where Is My Story? Participation and Curation in a New Media Age.” Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski. Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011.