Don’t believe the hype!

Okay, we’ve been hearing about Web 2.0 for a bit, now, and we all use sites and apps that fall under that rubric.  We’re there– or rather, we’re getting there.  A lot of websites are still quite Web 1.0 and still serve their purpose.

When I was reading through some of the readings this week, I was actually quite blown away at the resistance of some of these curators and historians to the idea of folksonomies and the import of memory.  Historical memory is, if anything, almost more important than historical fact, when you think about it– if an historical event becomes a totem or a fetish for particular national meanings, that’s its true significance.  It may not be "true," objectively, but it is true to those who believe it, etc. etc.  (I think this is sufficiently covered ground.)  And yet here are these professional public historians, worrying that the masses will misinterpret, or gloss over, the real truth…

Is there any real historical significance to the flag that inspired the national anthem?  Not really.  It’s only important ’cause people choose to interpret it as such.  Now, if you showed me the gun that shot Hitler or Lincoln*, you might have a real historical artifact– an object that actually was used by an historical actor to create change.  The flag that inspired a song?  That’s something I’m pretty comfortable letting the people decide on the import of, ’cause  without the people, let’s face it, that particular flag ain’t that important.

Seeing people in these traditional "gatekeeper" positions being reluctant to open up their institutions gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I wanted to look to the new public history, empowered by web 2.o technologies, and see the future of public history– to see postmodern public history, where there are no grand narratives, and where contesting claims to truth can be flattened to a single plain, can coexist, can be presented so others can determine validity and use– or even seek to integrate them.

Then I looked at the examples we were given, and frankly, the reports of the museum-keeper’s demise at the hands of social networking technologies have been greatly exaggerated.  These sites were– I’ll be generous– pretty unimpressive.

Steve, the art museum social tagging experiment, is–despite its rather eccentric name, just plain boring.  There’s no real interactivity to it.  It just is a set of photos, and the "opportunity" for you to tag them.  Not being given any information on the pieces, I was frustrated– I recognized a decent number of the paintings, but couldn’t put my finger on them.  I ended up clicking away from the site quickly, feeling a bit stupid.  Plus, there was no indication of other tags people had come up with, or anything.  It felt a bit un-thought-out.

And then there was Every Object Tells a Story.  Frankly, no, it doesn’t.  And neither can most people, if the folks who submitted "stories" to this website are any indication.  There was too little explanation on many pieces, many pieces without pictures– I understand that you can’t actually HAVE a picture of Boo Radley’s house, but maybe that’s ’cause it’s not an OBJECT.  Why would you submit it to this site, especially if you had so little to say about it?  Then there were the people who suffered from the belief that they could write– the site is dripping with the worst kind of purple prose– writing so bad, I often couldn’t read it long enough to figure out what the object was, or why someone put it up.  And don’t get me started on the group response to the guy who posted his facial piercings, eliciting mostly aesthetic critiques, and a lot of misspelled four-letter words.  (Which leads me to a whole other rant about people who post things on line and can’t even spell the F-word correctly…)

Frankly, if these are the best examples one can provide for the creeping of social networking technology into public history, the fact that there’s even debate and discussion on the topic seems a bit pre-emptive.

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*Not that I’m equating the two men, just that they’re two men who made big historical decisions and got shot.