Crowdsourcing history?

I ran across a new social community/networking site today, and I’m not sure what I think about it.  Well, I know I love the idea of it — but I’m not sure how to use it or what it means.

It’s called WereYouThere, and it’s a site intended to let people share their memories about people, places and events.  Obviously, most of the images, stories and categories already on the site are about the big events of history — the things lots of people will have stories about.  But there’s also room for people from a particular school or organization to share memories, families to share memories about a loved one, or individuals to reflect on their own lives.  Comments are enabled on most posts, and there’s a discussion board for groups to form for more informal memory-sharing.

From the site:

WereYouThere is
designed to bring people together through shared experience, whether
reuniting old friends or connecting strangers whose paths once crossed.
But we’re much more than just another social network. Instead, each and
every member is a contributor to an ongoing digital history project,
weaving their memories into a searchable database of rich historical
material.


The About section lists the site’s founder as Jonathan Hull, "former Time magazine bureau chief and bestselling author" — which should give it a certain reliability in some people’s minds.

Stories can be uploaded in video, image or text (or a combination), and they are broadly sorted into several categories:  events, places, people, eras, schools, military, organizations and reflections.

Anyway, as soon as I saw it I knew that this was potentially the kind of thing that could become the hugest timesuck in the history of timesucks for me.  I mean, the chance to read first-hand accounts like "the first time I heard Bob Dylan" or the 1955 World Series, or reflections on television-watching in the 1960’s — from a lot of people in one place?  Seriously, I could do that all day (or, more likely, all night).

And it’s a really exciting concept — on the Internet, where you could potentially reach people across geographical boundaries — reading or watching people’s memories about something like the moon landing from all over the world?  It’s easy, at least for me, to get excited about a project using something so natural — individual people’s desire to tell their own stories — that could build a body of knowledge. 

And build a body of knowledge out of sources that have traditionally been so difficult to capture.  Oral history is relatively new, compared to other research methods, and so far only the tiniest of percentages of stories have been captured. Diaries, letters, and other private texts give a peek into this kind of personal memory, but they’re catch as catch can in terms of availability, and lots of people don’t decide to write about the same thing on a day to day basis.  Which is another interesting thing about a project like this – the extent to which it lets you look at and compare memory against history – how events, people, etc. are changed in our minds by looking back on them.

But there are a lot of stories out there that can only really be told by collecting individual memories.  I was looking for information on life on the homefront in the U.S. during World War II a few years ago, and while I found a little, I didn’t find a lot, historiographically speaking.  Reconstructing a documentary record of something like that to use in writing histories is painstaking, labor-intensive and based at least in part on luck  — and it shows.

(At least in the U.S. where we didn’t have people collecting data, on the streets, through the whole period as a collective anthropology project).

But can this kind of crowdsourcing approach work as history?   Here’s the homefront page right now at WereYouThere?  As you can see, it’s empty.  And to be fair, this is the very early stages.   But, of course, crowdsourcing anything can only work if there is a crowd. 

And it’s hard to tell if this site is going to generate the kind of mass participation it would need to be viable.  So far, most of the posts have been made
in the "events" category, which isn’t surprising.  And it seems that
the "where were you when Kennedy was assassinated" is still the big
shared-memory question of our time, because that is the topic with the
most posts (18).  9/11 is a close second. 

Interestingly, the topic I
saw with the most views was Princess Diana’s death, but there are no
posts there yet.  Part of me wants to jump in and start writing down
what I remember — which is good for shorter things like the type of
"where were you" memories.  If a lot of other people feel that too then
there could be a lot of content quickly, which is absolutely essential
for a project like this.  But for the longer reflections, I think it might be more difficult to
get the kind of critical mass that would make this project really
exciting.  We’ll  have to wait and see.

And there’s also the question of how to treat information gathered and created in a project like this as a historian. I’m pretty good at seeing the potential of new forms of knowledge creation, and I’m a pretty good relativist to a point, but I have trouble thinking of how a wisdom of crowds approach like this can help the reader/watcher evaluate these stories. This project isn’t like Wikipedia – you can’t demand source citations on personal stories.  By definition these stories are idiosyncratic and individual. 

Even if I remember something wrong, that’s still my memory.  That’s still interesting that I remember it that way.  Unless I’m making it all up.  On a project like PostSecret, the making it up part is still interesting — the fact that some of this stuff isn’t "true" doesn’t make it less compelling, at least to me.  But with historical memory, it feels different.  It does matter if I’m just reading someone’s historical fiction.  And I know there are people out there who can make stuff up really well. And what does that mean for what we can do with these stories beyond the time-suck factor?  I’m not sure.

But, I know I’ll be watching this site develop, so at this point that’s probably the most important thing.  What it means for history can come later.

2 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing history?

  1. When I see photos of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – August 1963 – I look for my dad in the picture because he was there in the crowd, and why I didn’t go with him, I don’t know, though he might have thought it could potentially be too dangerous for a teenage white girl.

    Maybe Mitt Romney could use this site to prove that he did in fact see his father march with King?

  2. Crowdsourcing history is something we are doing over at worldhistory.com It is an fascinating thing to watch because a wealth of knowledge can be tapped into. The challenges of monitoring content keep us busy, but it is exciting to see the contributions that come from our users.

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