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.


Ska, Wikipedia, and Memory

Back in high school, in the mid-nineties, I had a real fascination with ska. The third wave of ska had hit the Midwest hard around 1994, which coincided nicely with my friends starting to have cars.

My friend Max and I would sit in his car during lunch, listening to his mix tapes of eighties Specials records, sixties Jamaican ska, and contemporary local bands that played punk-influenced ska-core. On weekends we went to all ages shows in weird little ad hoc venues, in fraternal lodges and parks and people’s basements. The places where music scenes are made when a majority of the fans are under eighteen.

Dance the skaFast forward a year. I was now in college. I was living in rural Western Massachusetts, which meant a lot less going to shows, but I was alright with that because, other than the Allstonians, I thought all the bands out of the Boston ska scene sucked. Operation Ivy were still my favorite band, even if I’d been a little disappointed by the last Rancid album. I had a twenty page paper to write for my History of Jazz class. The professor had been open to talking about the impact of jazz on R&B and other popular forms, and said I could write my term paper on the history of ska. I was psyched.


When I started to do my research, I discovered that there was very, very little written on the topic, especially very little written by anyone who could be considered a legitimate scholarly source. This was 1995 or 1996, and I don’t think I’d ever even heard of a scholarly database. In a fit of desperation, I fired up my computer’s modem and dialed the college’s server computer, Plato. Once connected to Plato, I was able to telnet to the world wide web.

I’m pretty sure that this was the first time it had even occurred to me to do research on the web. The Internet was a place for hobbies, extracurricular stuff. Fansites and emails and ASCII art. That’s all I knew of the Internet.

But I hoped that maybe, just maybe, one of those ska fansites might help me find a lead on some sort of source. I was getting desperate.

It turned out to be a fortuitous thing, though. On one ska fansite, I learned that one of the guys from Moon Ska Records, my absolute favorite ska lable, had actually done a Masters thesis on the evolution of ska. (I’m pretty sure it was Robert “Bucket” Hingley of the Toasters, but almost fifteen years later, I’m just not sure.) He’d even done oral histories with members of the Skatalites and other seminal bands. I arranged a phone interview with him and bought a device that let me record the interview on a boombox. He was awesome and friendly, recommending books and repeating stories he’d heard when he was doing the oral histories. It was a great discussion, and a great resource for my paper.

My roommate at the time had a five-disc CD changer. As I was writing the paper, I loaded it up with ska CDs, to get myself in the proper mood. I had the changer set to shuffle from track to track. I hadn’t changed one disc, however, which was a Louis Jordan CD I’d recently purchased. As one sixties ska piece ended, the CD player switched over to a track on the Louis Jordan CD. I wish I could say I remembered which one. But whichever song it was, I suddenly heard the same sychopation, the accented off-beat that came to define ska, and then rocksteady and reggae after it.

Louis JordanI could hardly believe my ears. This was, to me at the moment, like finding the ur-text of ska. All the sources that I had found agreed that fifties R&B from the States had found their way to Jamaica via both radio and US servicemen who would come through, leading some music dealers create a sideline going up to Florida, purchasing singles, and importing them to Jamaica. But all of the sources were tight-lipped about specifics. What were people listening to? Which musicians would have been more influential or popular? Nobody really said.

But now I had an answer: Louis Jordan. My discussion of the ska-like qualities of two different songs of this Jordan compilation CD became a page of my paper, and the most truly original material in it.

Fast forward again, this time about ten years later. I’m back in school, working on a PhD in History. One of the first assignments in my Digital History class is to make an addition or alteration to a Wikipedia page.

Now, I’d been using Wikipedia for a while, by that point. And I’d always had a rule for myself to make alterations whenever I saw inaccuracies. However, coming across an inaccurate statement and fixing it is far easier than coming up with something that’s not already thoroughly documented on Wikipedia.

On top of that, so many of my interests, so many of the things that I knew a lot about– comics, Simpsons episodes, music– were things that millions of fans had encyclopedic knowledge of, knowledge that had already been absorbed by the hive-mind of Wikipedia.

I wasn’t in the mood to do research just for a Wikipedia edit that I would be doing primarily to prove that I knew how to do Wikipedia edits. But then, scouring my brain for something that I might know a lot about but others might not, I remembered my ska paper from college. And I remembered all the fundamental misunderstandings I’d encountered of the music from other fans back when it was big– particularly one argument with a kid who swore up and down that ska was a fusion of polka and reggae.

So I went to the ska page, and added a bunch of edits of things that came to mind while reading the article. And then, almost as an afterthought, I thought of my observation about Louis Jordan, and added that— something that I was pretty sure was technically a violation of Wikipedia’s ban on original research. The rest of the stuff I’d added, I knew could be backed up with outside sources. The connection to Louis Jordan was just something I’d noticed.

Over the last three years, I’ve checked up on Wikipedia’s ska page from time to time. I guess there’s a sense of stewardship, but also just out of perverse curiosity at whether my edits have stood the test of time. For the most part, they have. Most of what I wrote has stayed on the page over three years. Which surprises me. And I always note with a little glee that nobody’s called me out on the Louis Jordan reference.

The other day, though– Wikipedia managed to thoroughly shock me. Not only is my Louis Jordan reference not flagged as original research– it turns out I’m not the only person who made the connection! Looking at the most current version, you’ll see that some sharp-eyed Wikipedian has added a footnote.

Wayne Chen, in his 1998 book Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music, quotes an interview with Alton Ellis, wherein Ellis confirms that musicians emulating American jump blues– and Jordan specifically– became some of the same musicians that would come to create ska. The Wikipedia footnote even links to the page that the mention is made, over on Google Books.

It’s kind of amazing, having an observation I made in 1995 or 1996 be backed up by a 1998 book in 2009. It’s one of the really fun things about the internet– it allows us to sort of crowdsource memory. Connections can be made in this organic fashion, and we can illuminate stranger’s memories for them. The addition of that footnote actually pushed me through a nostalgic little journey, and made me dig up a couple of my old ska CDs that I haven’t listened to in ten years.

Whoever made that Wikipedia edit, thanks for the memories.


Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

I really enjoyed this book, but I’m finding it very difficult to talk about. It’s deceptively simple, an easy read, and I honestly had trouble reading it critically, because so much of what he said seemed pretty intuitively right.

I don’t want to just write a book report, though.

So I’ll comment on the one thing that I took any real issue with, that engaged me beyond an "amen"– the use of the word "unthinkable."

I think the term is kind of misleading. I don’t think anything is truly unthinkable. The more you look at marginalized opinions, the more you realize that at least certain individuals are pretty uninhibited by what is generally socially bounded as quot;thinkable" or "unthinkable."

And that’s what I think Trouillot was talking about– the limits of acceptable discourse. Chomsky talks about this a lot– how dominant groups and especially media limit acceptable discourse, set the terms of what can and cannot be said– at least within the public sphere, limited by the terms of what arguments will be seen as on the limits, the borders of discourse, and by setting the center.

I simply think the argument that any single idea is "unthinkable" in its time is a dangerous one. It presumes to speak for the entire range of possible thought within  the entire populace. We can’t presume to know that, and it’s dangerous to assume that there weren’t any people capable of thinking that. They may have been labeled crazy, and may have been prohibited from participating in the polite discourse of the public sphere, but that in no way prohibits them from thinking that thing. A clumsier phrase like "inexpressible within the dominant society," while ineloquent, would be more honest and to the point.

Springing from this is a broader argument about the irresponsibility of any historian presuming to speak for the full range of potentialities of the past. But that would be a digression.

And this whole post is really just a nitpicking little point taken with word choice. Overall, though, while I have little I feel the need to say about the book, and will probably incorporate it into my dissertation…