THAT Podcast

I just finished watching the inaugural episode of THAT Podcast (“The Humanities and Technology Podcast”), the new video podcast from CHNM creative lead, Jeremy Boggs and CHNM web developer, Dave Lester. Wow. Considering Jeremy and Dave’s technical chops, I wasn’t surprised at the excellent production values. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of the discussion, either. Jeremy and Dave are both deep and wide-ranging thinkers and practitioners of digital humanities, and THAT Podcast reflects their depth and range. In this first episode, Jeremy and Dave discuss the popular blogging platform, WordPress and its applications for teaching, research, and presentation of results. The podcast starts with an interview with Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress and Web 2.0 wunderkind. Jeremy and Dave follow the interview with a brief hands-on introduction to ScholarPress Courseware, a plugin for WordPress they developed to make building attractive course websites quick and easy. I’m using it this semester in my Introduction to Western Civilization: Science & Society course, and so far I am very pleased.

I’m sure many Found History readers are also subscribers to Digital Campus. As I score it, however, it’s THAT Podcast, 3 – Digital Campus, 0. Not only did Jeremy and Dave score an amazing and hard-to-get interview for their first episode, they’re using video as well as audio, and they’re providing practical instruction in digital humanities rather than the usual chatter you get from the Digital Campus gang. Nice job, guys.

WTF

Mark Fortner, an open source web developer who blogs at IdeaFactory, has stumbled upon a potentially useful new analytical construct for historians. In a post entitled “WTF Moments in Java History”, Fortner introduces the concept of the “WTF moment” in which contemporary observers and later analysts of historic events can only exclaim “WTF.” He writes:

History is littered with WTF moments — the last election, the day Al Gore invented the internet, and the day I learned that teen aged dinosaurs had been having sex. The History of Java development is littered with such moments.

Unless you’re a hard-core Java geek, you many not find the rest of Fortner’s post particularly interesting. And I’m sort of joking that the “WTF moment” could really be useful to practicing historians. Nevertheless, I do think Fortner is on to something. At the very least, he has put his finger on one way by which ordinary people remember the past.

Happy Birthday "Blog"

Yesterday was supposedly the tenth anniversary of the coining of the word “blog.” These kinds of anniversaries (of terms, practices, social phenomena) make for very easy newspaper copy and very bad history. It’s obviously impossible to date the first time a word was spoken.

But to the extent that these bogus birthdays get history into the papers, I think they’re probably OK. Newspapers and magazines cover events not movements or conventions, and these artificial anniversaries serve to turn complex stories of (often gradual) change over time into something more clearly newsworthy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as writers use the anniversaries as hooks to draw their editors and readers into a larger narrative and don’t claim too much for the events themselves. Most of the time, I think they do a good job. Once you get past the headlines, you can find a lot of decent history in these happy birthday cards.

After 10 Years of Blogs, the Future’s Brighter Than Ever.

Born Too Late: A History Meme

For people who don’t already know about internet memes this may not be very interesting. Unfortunately I don’t have time to explain before I take off on my summer vacation later this morning. Yet I still want to point briefly to a new “history meme” as it begins to make the rounds today. Here’s how Kelly Russell, the meme’s originator, describes it at West Coast Grrlie Blather:

Here’s the meme: If you could go back to any time in history (for a visit, or you can stay if you really want to), what time would you go back to?

Make a list of four. Name the place, year(s), and event and/or person you’d like to see first hand. In the fifth item (optional) you can put your four honorable mentions. Then tag four people, and send them an e-mail to let them know you’ve tagged them. That’s it!

Kelly’s list includes opening night of West Side Story and Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers. I’ll be interested to see what other people list as this thing spreads across the blogosphere. If it takes off, it could be a real gold mine for understanding popular historical interests and attitudes. I’m also interested to see what people give as reasons for their choices. Being limited to choosing just four events should force participants to make some real historical judgments and to justify their choices. I’m off for now, but I’ll tackle that one in my first post-vacation entry in about about a week.

Notes on Blog Design Part II, or A Word About Cutline

Reading over my last post, it occurs to me that I should acknowledge a controversy swirling around the edges of the Cutline community. Earlier this year, some important figures in the WordPress leadership raised an alarm over what they called “sponsored themes”—themes that contain hidden paid links designed to game Google. Recently the flood of anger and outrage reached its crest when WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenweg decided to ban sponsored themes from themes.WordPress.net.

Now let me be clear. Cutline is not a “sponsored theme.” It doesn’t include any sponsored links (I double checked), it’s still available on themes.WordPress.net, and in fact Mullenweg himself uses the theme for one of his blogs.

But Cutline is owned by a for-profit company. Though released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license, after its sale by original designer Chris Pearson earlier this year, the theme is now owned by a web properties holding company named Splashpress Media. This is not a contradiction. It is a common misconception that works released under open licenses like Creative Commons or the GPL can no longer be owned or copyrighted. In fact they are very much owned and remain under copyright, and yes, these copyrights can still be bought and sold. The Creative Commons release simply means that the rights holder has made the works in question available under terms that put minimal restrictions on users. This is just the case with Cutline.

For now Splashpress says it will continue to develop the theme for the benefit of the community and that future versions will continue to be released under open licenses. We’ll see. I’m actually more concerned that my use of Cutline throws me into larger debates within both the WordPress community and the open source community in general over what constitutes “sponsorship”, when corporate involvement in open source projects is acceptable, and who decides these norms. These are fascinating questions and ones that continue to play out across the world of open source. For instance, as Ken, Olivia, and I, and now Connie have seen in our work on the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, and as the recent crisis over the future Thunderbird vividly demonstrates, these same questions are very much alive at Mozilla.

My immediate concern is that my use of Cutline not give people the wrong impression, that it not suggest I’m on the “wrong” side of these debates. I’m sure some people will view my use of a commercially-owned theme as proof that I’m not 100% on the right side of open source and open content. To those people all I can say is that I’ll do my best to stay true to the spirit of the commons, and as long as Splashpress plays nice, I’ll stick with what is really a fantastic, free and open product in Cutline. And if they start pushing ads at me and my audience or start limiting my use of Cutline or charging for it, I’ll just leave it for something else.

Correction (8/22/07): My friend Dan let me know that the sponsored links I describe above are not, in fact, hidden. They are simply buried within the theme and thus difficult for many users to remove.

Notes on Blog Design, or Why I Changed

Those few of you who visit the Found History site directly (as opposed to reading posts with a feed reader), will know that over the weekend I overhauled the blog’s basic layout and design. The change was partly inspired by conversations Mills, Dan and I had on the latest Digital Campus, which got me thinking more carefully about what I really want for Found History and how best to meet those aims.

The first thing people will notice are changes to the navigation.

Old Found History designI liked my old design, but in the last few months it had become clear to me that the layout couldn’t accommodate all the content I need to display. I decided that nearly two years worth of posts required more than just a chronological archive, and though I tried to add categories to my old design, the two column nav couldn’t handle it. The increased length of the sidebar gave the pages just too much vertical scroll.

I also decided that I needed tabs for personal information like my CV and bio. When I first started blogging, I decided I wanted to keep some distance between Found History and professional identity. I put my blog at foundhistory.org and my personal pages at chnm.gmu.edu/staff/scheinfeldt. Yet over the past 20 months I have realized that it’s not really possible nor even desirable to keep my professional identity separate from my blogging identity. In some ways I have become Found History. Surely at this point as many people online know me as Found History as know me as Tom Scheinfeldt, and my work at Found History increasingly informs my other public history work at CHNM. Separating my personal pages and hence my professional identity from Found History implied (and perhaps really reflected) some shame and fear about the blog. Maybe that was true at one time, but it isn’t any longer, and it’s long past time to pull together these estranged strands of my online self.

The second change is that I’m now using an off-the-shelf WordPress theme rather than one of my own design.

new_design.jpgI want strong branding and a visual identity for Found History, but I decided it doesn’t have to be a totally unique one. The work involved in maintaining a totally unique branding and custom theme for Found History through technology changes, upgrade cycles, and changing intentions and uses for the blog has become practically impossible for me. I just don’t have the time. This is a predicament similar to the one Dan found himself in as he struggled to maintain and finally abandoned his own blogging software. While maintaining a theme isn’t half as hard as maintaining an entire software package, the very same roll-your-own vs. out-of-the-box questions and tradeoffs are at work. Just as Dan decided to leave it to the WordPress open source community to maintain his blog’s infrastructure, I’m leaving it to the commons to maintain the trickier parts of my blog’s look and feel. That’s why I’ve chosen Cutline, a WordPress theme with a large and active user community and a committed developer core, to skin my site. For now it offers me the right mix of power and convenience. On the one hand, there are ample opportunities for customization—for example, the header images you’ll find across the site are all my own choosing; in fact, true to the spirit of Found History I took all the header images from creative commons licensed photos tagged “found” and “history” on Flickr. On the other hand, using Cutline should give me room to stop fiddling with my style sheet—you should find, for instance, that the site loads faster, pages render more exactly across different browsers and platforms, and fonts are easier on the eyes, though to be honest the theme could use a print style sheet. In short I think outsourcing Found History’s design for a time will let me focus more on posting, and that’s what I think Found History needs most of all right now. At least until I want to start fiddling with that style sheet again.

More from UWO

Bill Turkel has a fantastic post about the ways people search for history online. Using search data released by AOL and some statistical methods, Bill has been able to tell us a lot about how ordinary Internet users think about history and what topics interest them most. Clearly this is very important stuff for Found History, and I hope he takes it further. I’d be particularly interested in how the history searches of AOL users compare to those of Google and Yahoo! users, but I suppose (thankfully) that Google and Yahoo! have more respect for their users’ privacy and that this won’t happen anytime soon.

One thing Bill notices is how many searches for “history” relate not to the study of the past, but to the web browser’s cache and how to delete it. Though Bill’s methods are statistical and mine are anecdotal, this is something I have noticed as well. I do a lot of searching around the web for the pieces of found history I post in this blog, and I often find myself sifting through lots of web pages and blog posts about clearing Internet Explorer’s history files on my way to finding a truly historical nugget.

This suggests a converse research question to the one Bill has asked of his data set. It would be interesting to compare the kinds of history people are searching for with the kinds of history they’re posting about. I suppose you could do this by pulling three months’ worth of feeds for blog posts containing the word “history” (easily done through Bloglines or blogsearch.google.com) and running some similar text mining operations on them. Analyzing how “history” is used in titles could be particularly enlightening in that titles and search terms share a similar descriptive intent. And you could easily ask the same kinds of information distance questions of both.

Obviously this has me thinking. Many thanks to Bill.

For Further Reading

This is slightly off-topic, but anyone interested in public history should check out the student blogroll for Alan MacEachern’s graduate seminar at the University of Western Ontario. (Most of MacEachern’s public history students are cross registered in Bill Turkel’s digital history class, so there’s lots of good history and new media stuff there too.) I’ve spent most of my time at Kelly Lewis’s Curiouser and Curiouser, Molly MacDonald’s Public History, and Jeremy Sandor’s Humility in History, but they’re all worth a look.

Well done to all the gang at UWO!

One Day in History

The English History Matters (not to be confused with the U.S. History Matters—CHNM’s own “U.S. Survey Course on the Web”) is encouraging all England and Wales to submit entries to a “mass blog” on October 17 as part of their One Day in History drive. Organizers say they picked October 17—an “ordinary day”—because they are looking to record the “mundane and ordinary lives of citizens.” They are also asking participants explicitly to reflect on “how history itself impacted on them—whether it be simply commuting through an historic environment, or how business history influenced their decision-making, or merely that they looked up some old sports statistics or listened to some pop music from the 1960s.” Entries will be archived with the British Library, the National Trust, and other agencies. The group, a heritage advocacy organization, also encourages regular public contributions of photographs and stories to its website through it’s Share Your Thoughts section.

Late Update (10/13/06): “One Day in History” is now open for contributions in advance of the main event.

Late Late Update (10/18/06): “One Day in History” looks like a success. As of this writing, more than 500 people have contributed to site. Based my own experience with online collecting, I’d say that’s a more than satisfactory day’s work.