Filling in the gaps: online history part 1

Posted on 14/01/2012


(Courtesy of the Flickr Commons)

Even at 21, the Internet is getting on a bit. He/she/it is no longer the new medium they once were and it’s become just another part of daily life. No one is making “Tomorrow’s World” style programs about it any more – much of the mystery has gone. If the Internet were a celebrity, it would be onto its second autobiography by now.

Instead digital fans have started writing their own. The Digital Archaeology project was created to document breakthroughs in Internet technology (for both hardware and the code that’s translated on-screen). Running from Tim Berner’s Lee right through to Agent Provocateur, the project looks back on the journey so far with more than a touch of nostalgia. However, history did not begin with the Internet, so what about our analogue past?

When you’re 5 you don’t think much about the past. You’re so inexperienced with life that the whole of your short existence merges into one moment. Yesterday and last year pretty much the same as today and tomorrow.

But it slowly dawns on you that there was life B.M. (“before me”). Your parents must have been children once and your grandparents too. There is a whole world that happened before you existed, which has shaped everything around you. Kings fought and died, nations were founded and schools were built, making your life the way it is. When you’re a child these seem like distant stories – no different to picture books and stories that we read. The only difference is that some are labelled as real.

We all learn about the past in the same way. Once we’ve got beyond the difficulty of understanding worlds happened before and beyond our own, we start with the key narratives. First the Romans, then the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans. We rattle through the key events up until the Second World War, and then we go back to fill in the gaps, and dwell upon the detail.

The Net is a recent phenomenon (recent in terms of human history), but thanks to our fascination with the past and the dedication of a few people, it now spans the whole of human knowledge. In the same way that we learn about history in classrooms, we’re populating the Internet with the key figures from the past.

(We’re talking well beyond Wikipedia here:)

See more examples on Brainpickings.

The net can now keep us as connected to the past as it does with the present. The difficulty is the amount of information available. Online information connects us to millions of years of history featuring hundreds of civilizations. Maria Popova, editor of Brainpickings explains this problem:

“as the sheer volume of information that becomes available and accessible to us increases, we become increasingly paralyzed to actually access all.” (Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance)

Although there are 1000’s of years of human history still to document online, the main issue is what to do with it all. Doing something “for posterity” just doesn’t cut it any more, and with the amount of data and websites expanding year-on-year, digital history should earn its place. So how do you make this information interesting and attractive? How do should we curate the past online?

Getting people to engage with information from the past is no mean feat, but it can be done. Sites like the London Lives help to “keep it relevant” for the kids, and anyone with curiosity for the past. The magic lies in the interface, the way in which you make bridges with the data/ facts.

Even if the past is more your thing, contemporary websites can teach us a lot about using information:

Make it searchable

The simplest and possibly most handy tool is to digitize historical information and make it searchable. Google Ngram viewer allows you to track trends in word usage throughout the history of published literature.

Telling a story

Storify is a tool that allows you to piece together social content (updates, photos, trending terms) into a linear story flow, creating your own narrative from social content. Essentially, it’s about picking the choice bits of information to tell a chronological story. Which is exactly what historians do.

Don’t hide the good stuff

Facebook timeline example

The new Facebook timeline is also structured into a chronology, but its real beauty is in the way it gives you access to your friends’ personal profiles. It was designed to make the most of your entire online profile, bringing together photos, check-in’s, and social activity to build a “page-of-you”. Gone are the silos (huge information buckets for photos, status updates, check-ins, etc.) and in is a personalised visualisation of your life.

If this little sortie into online history has taught me anything, it’s that information is not in short supply, even for the ancient world. While it’s important to synchronise the digital present with everything that happened before the Internet, there’s a lot more to it than that. Online history should be less about filling in the gaps and more about engaging people with the past. The information is there, we just have to use it.


Posted in: Digital, History