I’ve been thinking about the phenomena of photo sharing sites like Flickr, which I use and enjoy a great deal, and blogs like the one you’re reading now … very much a personal journal for an ordinary man. How much are they changing the way we record our history?
Since the beginning of photography, most likely billions and billions (with apologies to Carl Sagen) of pictures have been captured, each one freezing a particular instant at a specific place, and then tucked away in an envelope or box or photo album in a drawer or an attic, to possibly be seen by the adult children of people moving out of the old family home. With the advent of photo sharing sites like Flickr, that drawer or album in the drawer or attic has morphed into the most public of forums. And I think this is a good thing.
I’ve uploaded (as of this writing) 1443 captures to the service, and I’d uploaded a bunch more to a service called Shutterfly before I found Flickr. Most of those pictures are viewable by anyone with an Internet connection and a browser. But what prompted this post was factoid that’s posted on the Flickr front page: 4,699 things posted in the last minute. Nearly 5000 particular instants in specific places captured and posted for all the world to see … for the price of an Internet connection and a $400 laptop, or $300 desktop computer.
Millions of those instants are “geotagged”, which means the person taking the picture has associated them with a place on a map. You can literally travel anywhere in the world and see what ordinary people see, and think are important. Some are better than any professional photographer’s work. Some, like many of mine, are mundane snapshots that would never have any meaning to anyone but me or the people involved. But sometimes, the online community will surprise you.
For instance, I posted a series of pictures (not this one in particular) from a silly thing that happened during the holidays. Andie and Jenni had put together this gingerbread house, and rather than eat stale gingerbread, they had the idea to burn it in the fire kettle outside on the patio. I took some pictures. The picture linked from here became one of the most viewed pictures I’ve posted … and it really surprised me. I truly hope I didn’t offend anyone who’s house might have burned during the holidays … a real tragedy. People thought this was hysterical. Click on the link and read the comments. I’ll wait until you get back …
I was amazed.
By the same token, the blogosphere, at least that part that isn’t consumed by political vitriol, may provide a similar window on how we live today. The political noise may be instructive as well, when some future society wants to research how campaigns were conducted in our time. I hope they’re contrasting it to what will be much better and more genteel elections of the future … if they’re needed at all. But like this blog, which is simply the rambling musings of a very ordinary person on what ever happened to strike me as interesting that day, it is something of a frozen moment in time. A text-based time machine. Unfortunately, it only goes one way. Each entry might be something from work, or an event in my life that I simply want to record. Very much an electronic personal journal that I hope will somehow survive me and that maybe my daughter or grandchildren (should there be any … and I have no real reason to think there won’t be) may someday want to read. To know a little more about me. That’s what journals are, and why I’ve tried to be diligent in keeping up with the blog. But again, it amazes me when I look at the statistics how many people land on it at random, or by design, from all over the world,and actually take the time to read something. And I’m enough of a Leo to wonder, when the numbers go down for a day, why no one wants to read my blog.
Why would any one want to read it in the FIRST place?
But part of it, too, is that it might survive any natural, or manmade disaster that might befall a particular place. My ex-wife’s father, for example, found himself unemployed in the 1930’s as did millions of others. He and his best friend put a wooden canoe in the Ohio River at Cincinnati, and paddled to New Orleans. A history major turned accountant, he kept a journal … which his bitter second wife burned after his death. What if he’d have been able to blog that experience, as so many every-day adventurers do today? What better insight would we have had on the times from the perspective of an ordinary man just trying to make his way during a very difficult time in our history? And how interesting for his grandchildren, which includes my daughter, to have been able to read.
So, if Flickr and Blogs (sounds kind of like a law firm, doesn’t it) survive the inevitable evolution of the Internet … how will they effect what future scientists, historians, and sociologists know, and think of, the early 21st century? And how much more rich will be their knowledge of our time. Right now, more people than ever are recording their personal histories for no other reason than they want to. It’s not just the scholars and journalists who are writing this chapter of our history. It’s people, recording thoughts, pictures, and videos (You Tube is yet another post) and preserving them for what ever may lie ahead.
We can only hope that the ability to read these thoughts and see the images is not lost to the inevitable march of technology. I know I recently pitched several 100 Meg ZIP disks because I didn’t have a usable drive, and hadn’t had any interest in them for several years. Why keep them? My hope is that, as the Internet morphs into what ever it is going to be, that someday some grandchild will be able to be online and say “Look, it’s grandpa’s blog”, and they’ll know about my work, my interests, my thoughts, my joys and sorrows, and know me better. And, if some future historian dusts off the ancient “Web 2.0” to try to learn what life was like in northeast Florida in the early 21st century, that my pitiful efforts might offer some small insight as to how regular people lived on a barrier island at the edge of the continent.
After all, it’s all just ones and zeros. The challenge for that grandchild, or future historian, will only be how to access them. And they’ll wonder how we ever put up with this old, slow, text interface that we all thought was just all that.