Another Example of Crowdsourcing Memory…

In a recent blog post, I talked about using the internet as a tool to “crowdsource memory.” A day or two later, I came across a perfect example of what I was trying to express, and it made me want to refine the notion a bit.

“Crowdsourcing,” for any reader lucky enough to not be thouroughly immersed in the world of New Media buzzwords, is something we all instinctively understand these days as web users: it’s aggregating the “wisdom of crowds,” using the knowledge of many and putting it into one centralized repository. It’s why Amazon has more reviews of a given book than anywhere else, and why Wikipedia has an entry on everything.

Anyone who keeps up at all with Digital History can name a few projects that attempt to crowdsource Historical Memory. CHNM’s September 11 Digital Archive or the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank are two great examples, projects that seek not to create consensus about Historical Memory, but to serve as repositories, places where those who have witnessed history can contribute their memories, their voices, to the historical record in a way that might serve to enrich the scholarship of future historians.

Which is a great and admirable mission. But while they are very different in impact and gravity, both 9/11 and Mozilla’s rising from the ashes of the browser wars as a viable Open Source alternative to Internet Explorer are Big Events, events that warrant the time, money, and effort that building an online database represents.

But one of the really great things about the internet is its ability, in its near-infinite expandability, to meet niche demands, to offer up a space for any topic under the sun. There’s no topic too obscure to find a home in some far corner of the World Wide Web.

This means that the internet presents an opportunity for groups of loosely affiliated people to navigate common memories. We can crowdsource the details of even small, personal memories.

I came across a really great example of this phenomenon when the multi-talented cartoonist Dave Sherrill recently posted a comic strip that loosely recreated the plot of a fondly– but vaguely– remembered children’s book from his youth in a LiveJournal community that helps people find the titles of half-remembered books.

Within a couple hours, a community member had recognized the description and pointed Sherrill in the right direction. The book was Grandpas Ghost Stories by Jim Flora.

The book seems to be out of print, but there is an animated version of the story on YouTube:

Sherrill’s description of the book seems to be decent but spotty. The comic is awesome, but I doubt Sherrill would have found the title if he had simply went to Google, or even to a children’s librarian, with the vague description he was able to produce from memory. But given the ability to access a large enough aggregate of people with disparate memories, he was able to quickly (if you don’t count the time taken to draw or color the comic) find someone else who was able to help fill in the gaps in his own personal childhood memory.

With the very deeply personal way we connect with our favorite books as children, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a small revelation to Dave, something that set him off even further into other memories he had not accessed in years.

Without having to even exchange introductions and niceties, Sherrill was able to harness the collective memory of a group of people in order to supplement and enhance his own, personal memories. That’s something you’d very seldom get from old-tech systems like the reference section of a library or calling friends to see if anyone happened to recall it. It’s certainly more efficient, and less place-dependent.

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To anyone who enjoyed Dave’s comic, I would encourage you to click through to his LiveJournal account– I’m a big fan of his art. And check out his band, 100 Damned Guns, as well– they’re one of the rockin’est roots-country bands out there today.