Tragedy at the Commons

Nat Torkington at the O’Reilly Radar blog has news this morning that George Oates, Senior Program Manager in charge of Flickr Commons and an original member of the Flickr design team, has been laid off by Flickr’s parent company Yahoo! As the person at Yahoo! responsible for bringing together the energy and cultural resources of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Library of New Zealand, the Library of Virginia, the Imperial War Museum, and, most recently, the New York Public Library, Oates has quietly done as much as anyone in the past several years to increase and improve online access to cultural heritage collections around the world. It’s sad enough just at that. But Oates’ layoff also raises some larger questions. Is this just one of those things we see in a bad economy, or is it a reason why cultural organizations should roll their own rather than using commercial services for online work?

Torkington believes that the enthusiasm and community Flickr Commons has attracted will sustain the project through the economic downturn and what at best is likely to be a period of neglect by Flickr and its parent. Let’s hope so. A less rosy scenario is that Yahoo! decides that in tough economic times the goodwill and visibility generated by hosting the educational and cultural heritage materials of public institutions isn’t worth the cost of bandwidth.

This story drove home to me a contradiction in my own rhetoric that I hadn’t noticed before. On the one hand I have been a proponent of Flickr Commons, university channels on Google’s YouTube, and the like, recommending them to partners and colleagues as an easy way to reach out to new audiences, build communities around content, and basically just get your stuff up without the hassle of software and sys admin. On the other hand, I have repeatedly criticized the enthusiasm some digital humanists have shown for Second Life, in large part on the basis of the fact that Linden Lab (SL’s parent company) could at any moment go under or simply decide to take another business direction—and in doing so take with them all the hard, largely publicly-funded work museums, libraries, and digital humanists have put into the platform. Only today, when I read of George Oates’ sacking, did I realize that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. While the long term prospects of Yahoo! and especially Google may be brighter than those of Linden Lab, nevertheless they are still big companies whose first responsibility is to their shareholders and the bottom line, not to cultural heritage, education, or the work of digital humanities.

My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea. But the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Briefly Noted for December 19, 2008

Ahoy, Mateys! Mills Kelly’s fall semester course “Lying about the Past” was revealed today in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read how Mills and his students perpetrated an internet hoax about “the last American pirate” and what they learned in the process. The Chronicle is, unfortunately, gated, but you can read more on Mills’ fantastic blog, edwired.

I’m sure many of you have encountered NITLE’s prediction markets, but a recent presentation at CNI by NITLE’s Director of Research Bryan Alexander reminded me I haven’t blogged it yet. As I told Bryan recently, the prediction markets are a great example of form (crowdsourcing educational technology intelligence) fitting function (NITLE’s mission to advise member schools on emergent practices) in the digital humanities.

Sadly, The Times of London recently reported a raid on the offices of Memorial, a human rights and educational organization that seeks to document the abuses of the Soviet Gulag prison camp system. Memorial was a key partner on CHNM’s Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and its generous research assistance and loan of documents, images, and other artifacts was essential to our successful completion of the project. It is very sad to see this brave and worthy organization suffering the same abuses in Putin’s Russia that it has worked so hard to expose in Stalin’s.

Last month the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) celebrated its grand reopening after an extended closure for major renovations. Meanwhile, in the web space, NMAH launched its History Explorer, which aggregates and categorizes online educational content from across the museum. Worth a look.

New in Omeka: 0.10 stable, lots of plugins

Omeka 0.10 stable was released today, patching a few holes in our recent beta release and adding a few new features. Also available are some cool new plugins. Geolocation lets you locate and display your collections on an embedded Google Map. MyOmeka lets your visitors favorite, tag, and save items from your collection on their own MyOmeka page and then build mini-exhibits or “posters” to share with their friends, classmates, or teachers. I’m particularly fond of the Social Bookmarking plugin, which encourages visitors to bookmark Omeka items in Delicious, StumbleUpon, Digg, and other popular Web 2.0 services. They’re all very easy to install and use and part of our ongoing efforts to make Omeka do more for your cultural collections and exhibitions.

Briefly Noted for December 16, 2008

Jeremy finishes up his great how-to series on design process in the digital humanities.

Congratulations to Mark Tebeau and his colleagues at Cleveland State’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities on their very well designed new website. I especially like the “collaborate” tab in the main navigation.

Pastigo geolocates information about historical sites and provides historical travel planning tools.

Great Cereals of All Time. A Dipity timeline of all your breakfast favorites. Like Mikey, I’m a Life man myself.

Honest Abe

Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library explores our ongoing fascination with Abraham Lincoln with 21st Century Abe. Launching officially on Lincoln’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009, the site will present reflections on Lincoln’s legacy by leading scholars and artists. More interesting is that between now and February, the project’s curators will also be using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, a blog and other digital tools to collect public impressions of Lincoln in text, images, audio, and video. These popular impressions will sit alongside those of the scholars and artists on the website to present a fuller and ultimately more honest picture of what Lincoln really means to Americans two hundred years after his birth.

Truth (happily) stranger than fiction

I recently finished rereading, for the first time in many years, one of my childhood favorites, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I was immediately struck that the dates Bradbury imagined for his tale of human colonization of Mars are 1999-2026, setting the main action of the book in what is now today. Writing around 1950, Bradbury imagined a world fifty years hence where interplanetary travel was easy and the threat of nuclear war made Martian colonization a looming necessity. Almost musical in its rhythms, the writing is nearly timeless. But to today’s reader, there are more than a few anachronisms that sadly serve to break the spell Bradbury casts. Not least of these is his emphasis on the threat of total nuclear annihilation, which (though it still most definitely remains today) now seems almost quaint.

Yet an even more striking example is found in the chapter entitled “Way in the Middle of the Air.” In it Bradbury imagines a still segregated American South faced with a voluntary, sudden mass exodus of African Americans to the new colonies on Mars. Bradbury uses the device to examine and uncover the simultaneously hidden and vitally present role of black people and black culture in the social fabric of mid-20th Century South. It’s still a very effective critique, but what stood out most to me is not so much anything Bradbury had to say about race relations, but the fact that a brilliant, educated, committed futurist of the 1940s and 50s could more easily imagine his grandchildren living on Mars than in a desegregated South. This fact hit home even harder in light of the recent election of Barack Obama.

There are many, many joys to be had in The Martian Chronicles. That Bradbury was wrong about the relative possibilities of space travel and race relations is one of the greatest. If Bradbury were alive today [See correction, courtesy of reader Kenz, in comments] I’m sure he’d agree.