Digital Humanities and TMZ: Attractive Things Work Better

As someone who has spent several years working in museums, I truly appreciated what I perceived to be the main point of this weeks reading: design’s role as a controlling factor in the form and function of everything.  Within the context of museum exhibitions, memorials, and websites (just to name a few) design dictates what information your visitor is drawn to, shapes what they take away, and ultimately goes a long way towards determining whether or not an exhibit fulfills its stated goals.  Failure to fully grasp how design shapes the balance between form and function generally results in reviews like this one about the Martin Luther King Memorial here in Washington.  Among many other criticisms, perhaps the most damming is:

“And the mound’s isolation from any other tall objects, its enormity and Dr. King’s posture all conspire to make him seem an authoritarian figure, emerging full-grown from the rock’s chiseled surface, at one with the ancient forces of nature, seeming to claim their authority as his. You don’t come here to commune with him, let alone to attend to the ideas the memorial’s Web site insists are latent here: “democracy, justice, hope and love.” You come to tilt your head back and follow; he, clearly, has his mind elsewhere.”

Considering the role of design as it relates to form and function led me back to discussions last semester about the issue of definitions within the Digital Humanities.  Specifically, the issue is how to establish criteria for evaluating important subtleties that can determine the success of a particular design.  For example, if one accepts the premise of Don Norman’s article that “Attractive Things Work Better,” and we also accept one of Persuasive Technology Labs findings that people recoiled when they perceived a website to look “too professional” or like “it was designed by a marketing firm,” how does one go about identifying the boundary between the two?  I realize that “attractive” and “too professional” are not necessarily interchangeable definitions, but the point still stands: where is the line between attractive and over polished? How does go about evaluating something so subjective?  Can we rely on the point David made in a back channel discussion on the subject, that “we know it when we see it?” Do we have any other option, but to rely on the ‘know-it-when-we-see-it’ reasoning?  Perhaps because of the difficulties inherent in setting up evaluative criteria for something as subjective as a boundary between attractive and “too professional,” it may just have to do.  However, as someone coming in with no little design background, it does make me a little uncomfortable. Following the guidelines of works such as “White Space is Not Your Enemy” would seem to offer a basic rubric for beginners, but a flexible set of criteria might be even more useful for experts. Establishing this set of general criteria might prevent future websites from winding up like  this one.

One other quick question that arose from this weeks reading: the  2002 publication date of the Persuasive Technology Labs survey findings made me wonder what, if anything, has changed in the last decade regarding how people evaluate a websites credibility. The results of the survey made it pretty clear that what people said about the importance of carefully evaluating a websites credibility was not borne out in practice, which clearly indicated people determined a websites credibility in many instances by aesthetic factors. I searched around Persuasive Technologies website, wondering if they had made any attempt to address that question, but it appears their last prominent publication was about five years ago.  The website did make reference to the fact that several pieces of scholarship are in various stages of publication, but did not give the exact expected dates of publication.  Regardless, it could be useful to speculate about whether anything has changed in the way people evaluate websites in the past decade, because even the absence of change would be suggestive.

Also: please see my comments on Sheri’s post relating to some of the deeper issues that arise in keeping people from leaving your website once you have initially captured their attention.



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So you thought the end of the semester meant the end of my blog posts…

Hi all,

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season, and has sufficiently recovered from finals! I came across something really interesting the other day that related both to our class and to my research as a doctoral student.  Kevin Levin, who runs the award winning website (and my favorite blog) Civil War Memory had an interesting aside in one of his posts on the Museum of the Confederacy.  Levin notes that “a study of the [Museum of the Confederacy] as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book.” This is a question that has intrigued me ever since I went to visit the MOC (I went wearing a Yankees shirt), and I agree that it would make a fascinating dissertation topic.  With that in mind, would Levin’s (a historian with an M.A. in history from the The University of Richmond and a forthcoming book on the memory of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg) identification of a gap in the historiography provide a solid enough justification to warrant a dissertation proposal?  I have multiple other historians/museum professionals who have written on the MOC and its relevance to historical interpretation, so Levin would definitely not be the only place (obviously) where I could find reason for this topic, but in light of what we discussed in class, it is interesting to consider how heavily we would weigh Levin’s post.  I would be most interested to hear any of your thoughts!



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The Wandering Apostles of Sedition website and White Paper

Professor Leon and classmates:

Please see below the link to The Wandering Apostles of Sedition website, and see the attached White Paper, along with several appendices.

The Wandering Apostles of Sedition

White paper1

Appendix B: Lyon historiography

Appendix C.1: A Note for Future Scholars

Thank you all for a great semester!


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The Difference of New Media

In a similar manner to Sheri (and I suspect several others), I came into this semester full of apprehension and more than a little bit of dread.  So what’s changed? Well for one thing I was prompted to download Adobe flash player the other day (don’t ask), and wondered aloud when it would go the way of the dodo bird. On a more serious note, while I am still full of anxiety over my lack of technical expertise and the guillotine that will be Clio II, I have a greater sense for the breadth and scope of New Media’s impact.  Perhaps more importantly, I have a greater sense of the possibility that New Media presents for the history discipline; although  accessibility of sources and the potential for both inter and intra disciplinary cooperation are important consequences of New Media, I think its most profound difference can be summed up in one word: relevancy.

Allow me to elaborate.  History is a discipline that always seems to totter on the verge of ivory towered obscurity, in no small part because so many of us seem way more comfortable with the dead than the living.  In other words, a large part of the discipline’s relevance used to hinge in large part on our inter-personal skills or our ability to write both for our peers and the wide public audience. This may come as a stunning revelation, but our success rate at both was less than stellar.  With the advent of New Media, we can create an engaging interactive website (although we have to get much better at the actual execution of this endeavor), or create a rigorous, academically relevant blog that with the addition of a comments section (again, double edged here), and the absence of the traditional constraints of the monograph format, can allow us greater liberty to write in an engaging manner (provided that hasn’t been drilled out of us).  Take that last sentence for example.  I would never put anything close to that in paper that would ever see the light of day, yet up it goes on my blog.  The point is, New Media makes it easier for us as historians to make history relevant by opening up new avenues for us to connect the past to the present.  As a public historian by trade, you fight an uphill battle everyday to try and reach your public audience, the difference of New Media is that now the battle can continue to be fought long after a visitor a left your site, museum, library etc.  Someone may go on your tour and, at the end, not buy the monograph that is your Bible, but maybe they go home and Google more information.  Maybe that information leads them to another historic site, a blog on a particular subject, or maybe they end up buying a book for further reading. Or maybe, just maybe, they ask a question that leads them to a local archive.  The rest, as they say, is history.

One more thought that I would never have thought possible at the beginning of the semester.  Digital history will not go the way of pyschoanalysis.  That is, the method/field is here to stay.  It is far too useful to go anywhere, and it has and will continue to change the way we research, write, and all around engage with, history.  This is less a prediction than an all but assured fact, and while I may never be comfortable with many of the technical components of new media, the fact that it is here to stay is a little less terrifying and a little more exciting. At least until I get to Clio II next semester

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The Wandering Apostles of Sedition website link

Dr. Leon and class:

Please find below the link to my archive website.  All comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome!



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Any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of this blog without the express written consent of the NFL is prohibited

This weeks readings centered on copyright laws and its implications for digital history, and indeed, for our society at large.  Although my reaction was different than David’s, the work I also kept coming back to was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture.  Lessig’s work aims to both warn and chronicle how the American creative culture is being stifled mostly by a combination of increased intellectual property/ copyright law and greedy media ownership.  Free Culture’s story is one of both declension (from a free culture), and a somewhat harrowing prophecy of the changes needed to overt a nuclear winter for American intellectual creativity; indeed one of the central points of his work is the claim that the evil machinations of media conglomerates (and the governments willingness to cater to their interests) our government, are not-so-subtly destroying something “fundamental about who we always have been” (Lessig, 13). Importantly, Lessig also notes that his narrative is written in a manner “that is not the usual method of an academic, ” relying on a “collection of stories” to convey his arguments, and I wonder if that is the reason part of me greets this work with some skepticism (Lessig, 13).

It’s not that Lessig fails to convey how we have arrived at this juncture, but in order to believe his argument, I think that one has to proceed from the notion that America’s imaginative freedom is largely jammed in neutral.  Before anyone accuses me of implicitly  trumpeting the triumphalist counter notion that America maintains an imaginative freedom and genius that is unmatched, that is not what I am putting forward. Rather, I am simply suggesting that Lessig has not done enough to convince me that we are in the dire situation he posits, and on that basis, I cannot wholeheartedly embrace all of his arguments.  For example, Lessig suggests that past innovators might not have come to fruition (Walt Disney being just one example) had they had to contend with modern copyright laws, and then cites several examples of instances where intellectual property copyrights has greatly impeded or even canceled projects.  The problem is that (at least as I read it) it seems Lessig wants this to be taken as irrefutable evidence of an American creative culture that is increasingly bereft of an actual creative culture. Maybe I am splitting hairs, but are tougher copyright and intellectual property laws an indication of the stifling of America’s creative culture—at least to the degree that Lessig believes? I do not doubt that the entire copyright and intellectual property process has, and will continue to destroy projects that are worthwhile, and I do believe that Lessig is right to chart these developments and then forecast the future.  However, even if the power possessed by media conglomerates (for lack of a better term) is troubling, to suggest that it is both indicative of, and a cause of, the destruction of intellectual creativity seems somewhat overblown. Looking back over the past decade, perhaps a more measured conclusion might be that intellectual property and copyright have oftentimes acted as something of a brake on creativity, at points actively hindering the overall process, but Lessig is intent on swinging for the fences when a single might have gotten the job done as effectively.

One quick side note to this weeks post: I was wondering if anyone had caught the debate between Dan and Zach Schragg on Press Forward?  The debate touches on a number of issues that have been at the core of several of our classes, most notably the evaluation of scholarship, and the persistent resistance to some aspects of the inroads of digital history.  As a first time author currently trying to publish a paper, I did receive fairly prompt and extensive (if at some points contradictory and mildly unhelpful feedback) from the editor of a fairly well known American history journal.  Undoubtedly, whatever the end product of this process is (and hopefully there is one), it will have been a worthwhile experience. I wonder if this points toward a significant question for Press Forward: what will the impact be on first time authors?

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Is it too crowded in here? The history discipline and the rise of “crowd sourcing”

Since Chris, Clare, and I are your esteemed leaders for this weeks discussion of crowdsourcing, I will structure this post a little differently then my usual musings.  I will offer some outline of the readings, interweaving some of my own questions and analysis throughout the post.  This will ensure that everyone who didn’t get through all the readings can have an easy way to pretend that they did will have some time to consider these questions in light of their own thoughts, thus making for a stimulating class discussion.

In The Rise of Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe outlines several key ways that crowdsourcing is currently shaping the creation of content, and what it means for various industries such as stock photographers, TV, and R&D for companies such as Colgate.  Howe’s article began what was to be a constant theme for this weeks readings: the Star Wars principle, or the light side and dark side of crowdsourcing.  Howe’s first example was iStockphoto, a “marketplace for the work of amateur photographers,” which charges between $1-$5 for the license to a basic image, thus drastically cutting the price for stock photo’s.  Naturally, of course, this dries up what was once a considerable source of labor for independent photographers, but obviously allows institutions and businesses operating with narrow budgets not to sacrifice quality for quantity.  The television network VH1 has also had mixed results with crowdsourcing, as Web Junk 2.0 produced some solid ratings, but “users still need to become more proficient and the networks better at ferreting out the best of the best.” Perhaps the most compelling part of the article was on InnoCentive, which allows companies to post R&D problems that “solvers,” or ordinary “hobbyists” can take a crack at solving for a tidy fee. Linking broad ranges of “information, knowledge and experience”  with the “strength of weak ties,” or creative distance, the technique is “creating a whole new paradigm” for large scale R&D.

The paper on Smithsonian Team Flickr detailed how the Smithsonian collaboration with Flickr Commons is helping the sprawling institution “learn what content is desired by the Web 2.0 world, how to bring crowd-sourcing into professionally curated collections, and how to bring diverse institutional skills together in a collaborative project.”  What I am curious to ask the rest of my classmates is, what do think about the goals/lessons learned section? Specifically, was their anything in that particular section that you would change or add? why?  Is there anything that the Smithsonian could be doing differently that would enhance their ability to achieve these stated goals?  Also, a quick aside: did anyone else notice the two that read “The initial thinking was there would be a measurable redirection of audiences from the Flickr Commons back to Smithsonian sites. Early statistics, however, have shown that there has been very little traffic in this direction;” and then wonder why they didn’t elaborate further on the reasons why that was the case?

Perhaps the piece I enjoyed the most was “Grappling with the Issue of Radical Trust,” which posited the not-so-simple question of “what are your thoughts on radical trust?” to professional working in history organizations.  I have to say, that after reading the responses and the comments that followed, I feel compelled to ask: Does reading the comments section giving something of a false impression about the general sense of radical trust among people in historical organizations?  In other words, are the people who are most likely to respond in an online comments section almost garuanteed to favor, in some degree, the concept of radical trust? I was personally surprised that more people in the comments section did not engage James Gardners point about the need to maintain a barrier between historical working professional and the general public.  I personally happen to disagree with his premise that giving people a forum to express their opinions “validates” them, nor do I share his somewhat overblown worries about separating fact from opinion.  Nevertheless, we are all working towards advance degrees in history, so where do you all see yourselves fitting into the radical trust equation? Working at a small historic site that has embraced the concept of radical trust via the use of facebook, twitter, and the comments section on our website, I happen to agree that radical trust enhances the opportunity for informative, offers generally constructive feedback, and gives our site a great opportunity to engage with our visitors and foster a greater connection not only to the site itself, but to history in general.

The final reading for this week was an excellent article by Roy Rosenzweig  entitled “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.”  Rosenzweig does an excellent job of rehabilitating the image of Wikipedia, pointing out that, broadly speaking it is close to being on par with Encarta and Encyclopedia Britanica online.  I wonder how many of my classmates had the same reaction I did, namely that no matter how many virtues Wikipedia contains (and it has more than I thought), that it has been thouroughly drilled into my head never to use Wikipedia–even as the entry point for further research.  I also think that issues that Rosenzweig treats somewhat superficially–that Wikipedia’s breadth and scope of content is much greater for Western history than other areas pose a greater problem than he can admit.  Yet Rosenzweig is correct to sound a clarion call for the potential of Wikipedia: transcription projects such as the NYPL’s menu collection, “collaborative textbooks that would be free to all are students;” these are just two examples of the profound implications that Wikipedia could hold for the future of the historical discipline.


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