Brand Name Scholar

Scholars may not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the 21st century’s fragmented media environment, marketing and branding are key to disseminating the knowledge and tools we produce. This is especially true in the field of digital humanities, where we are competing for attention not only with other humanists and other cultural institutions, but also with titans of the blogosphere and big-time technology firms. Indeed, CHNM spends quite a bit of energy on branding—logo design, search engine optimization, cool SWAG, blogs like this one—something we view as central to our success and our mission: to get history into as many hands possible. (CHNM’s actual mission statement reads, “Since 1994 under the founding direction of Roy Rosenzweig, CHNM has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”)

In my experience, branding is mostly a game learned by trial and error, which is the only way to really understand what works for your target audience. But business school types also have some worthwhile advice. One good place to start is a two part series on “personal branding” from Mashable, which provides some easy advice for building a brand for your self or your projects. Another very valuable resource, which was just posted yesterday, is the Mozilla Community Marketing Guide. In it the team that managed to carve out a 20% market share from Microsoft for the open source web browser Firefox provides invaluable guidance not only on branding, but also on giving public presentations, using social networking, finding sponsorships, and dealing with the media that is widely transferable to marketing digital humanities and cultural heritage projects.

It may not be pretty, but in an internet of more than one trillion pages, helping your work stand out is no sin.

(Note: I’ll be leading a lunchtime discussion of these and other issues relating to electronic marketing and outreach for cultural heritage projects later today at the IMLS WebWise conference in Washington, D.C. I’ll be using #webwise on Twitter if you’d like to follow my updates from the conference.)

Briefly Noted for February 10, 2009

Jessica Pritchard of the American Historical Association blog reports on a panel at last month’s annual meeting that asked what it takes to be a public historian. Entitled “Perspectives on Public History: What Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences are Essential for the Public History Professional?” the panel was chaired by George Mason’s own Spencer Crew.

Going back a bit to the December issue of Code4Lib Journal, Dale Askey considers why librarians are reluctant to release their code and suggests some strategies for stemming their reluctance. I have to say I sympathize completely with my colleagues in the library; I think the entire Omeka team will agree with me that putting yourself out there in open source project is no easy feat of psychology.

The Bowery Boys, hosts of the excellent NYC History podcast, give us The History of New York City in Video Games, a thoroughgoing look of how New York has been pictured by game designers from the Brooklyn of the original Super Mario Brothers to the five boroughs of Grand Theft Auto IV’s “Liberty City.”

John Slater, Creative Director of Mozilla, rightly notes that, however unlikely, t-shirts are important to the success of open source software. In his T-Shirt History of Mozilla, Slater shows us 50 designs dating back to late 1990s.

Netscape RIP

So long Netscape. You were a good friend (for a while). Though official support for the first widely used web browser ends next week, Netscape’s hapless stewards at AOL have kindly left us a lasting(?) memorial. The Netscape Archive offers a brief history of the browser and a download page for discontinued releases of the software. But even the Archive’s creators acknowledge that you’re better off downloading Flock or Firefox.

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

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, 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.

Podcast Roundup

I haven’t mentioned our Digital Campus podcast since Episode 2 in March, but Mills, Dan and I are still going strong. In my opinion, the last few shows have been among our best, featuring guests Jeremy Boggs and Bill Turkel in Episode 6 and Episode 7 respectively and an extended discussion of training for digital humanists in the newly released Episode 8. Ken Albers also continues to post highlights from the oral history interviews we have done with key figures in Mozilla and Firefox in the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank Podcast. This week’s episode is especially interesting, featuring a conversation with Blake Ross, the wunderkind of Firefox’s early development. Finally—proving that I’ve become thoroughly addicted to this podcasting thing—I’d like announce the launch of my new show, History Conversations, “an occasional dialogue with historians and history lovers about their interests, their ideas, and their lives in history.” In its pre-inaugural Episode 0, I test out my software and explain a little of the rationale behind the show. Fascinating stuff. My first real conversation will appear shortly in Episode 1. A search of the iTunes Music Store for “History Conversations” should turn up the feed, or you can subscribe directly using your favorite podcatcher.

History in Screenshots

One of the things I keep stumbling upon are amateur software histories told through series of screenshots. Here are a couple examples. The first is a slideshow from ZDNet—which strictly speaking isn’t an amateur publication at all, although as far as history is concerned I think it’s close enough—that provides a look back at Windows boot screens from 1.01 to Vista. The second is more clearly an amateur effort, which bills itself “A Visual Browser History, from Netscape 4 to Mozilla Firefox”. Presented by Andrew Turnbull, a student at West Virginia University, this second entry is undoubtedly the more ambitious of the two, providing extended commentary on more than fifty screenshots and rare looks at such forgotten Mozilla milestones as the release of Phoenix 0.1, the original Firefox.

Best and Worst

It has been a while since I posted something in the Tops of All Time series, but I noticed two recent articles in PC World that fit the bill. The first is a wistful look back at the 10 Worst PCs of All Time. The second lists the 50 Best Tech Products of All Time, “those amazing products that changed technology—and our lives—forever.” So what, according to PC World, is “The Beatles,” the “Citizen Cane”, the “Muhammad Ali” of tech products?

(Drum roll, please…)

Netscape 1.0, the browser that launched the era.


If you haven’t subscribed already, Episode 2 of Digital Campus (“The Old and the YouTube”) is now available for your listening pleasure. Dan, Mills, and I chat about YouTube, Wikipedia, the Byzantine Empire, Cambodian wi-fi, and other hot topics in the world of digital humanities. Also ready for download from CHNM is Episode 4 of the Mozilla Digital Memory Bank Podcast, featuring excerpts from an interview with Mike Beltzner. Enjoy!


One more amateur history of technology site and then we move on to other things. provides an enormous—if poorly organized and badly designed—wealth of annotated photos and links relating to the development of digital camera technology. Like the Browser Archive, DigiCamHistory solicits user contributions, and although it is hard to say how much of its content is user-generated, the organizers’ stated interest in collaborative collecting once again suggests that amateurs may be our best bet for extending the practice of online collecting.

Collecting Computer History

Together with colleagues at CHNM, I have been working for several years now on ways to elaborate and extend the practice of online collecting, especially in the areas of history of science, technology, and industry. Some of the results of that work can be found at CHNM’s Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online website, where our own efforts and many others are catalogued in the Collecting Center. There are lots of great projects listed in the Collecting Center, but most (if not all) of them are institutional or professional efforts of one kind or another. Two sites I recently stumbled upon make me think that we need to do a better job of including amateur efforts as well.

The first is Pastelero, which isn’t really a collecting site at all, but rather the personal blog of a Brazilian student, who in one post has put together a great collection of 25 years of television commercials for personal computers. Because it’s not soliciting submissions from the public, Pastelero doesn’t really qualify as a collecting site under the definition we’re using for Echo. But it’s close, and I think if we could encourage casual collectors like Pasterlero to open their sites up to include public submissions, we might have more success in achieving our aim of extending the practice of online collecting.

The second is the Browser Archive, which more clearly qualifies under Echo’s criteria as an online collecting site. The Browser Archive is a truly amazing collection, which catalogues and provides free downloads of literally hundreds of more or less obsolete web browsers. (Take a look. No matter how geeky you think you are, I’m sure there are some you haven’t even heard of, much less used.) According to its founder, web developer Adrian Roselli, the Browser Archive started simply as an internal resource for his company’s usability testing work. Along the way, however, it “took on a life of its own” and was released as a public archive. It now encourages browser contributions from the general public, and from what I saw in the “Recent Changes” section, the public is responding.

The Browser Archive may not have started as a historical effort, but it now stands to become a real resource for computer historians. In that respect it shares a development trajectory with some of our greatest museum collections, many of which started without anything like history in mind. This amateur and unintentional aspect to historic preservation is a fact that we at Echo would do well to remember as we work to support online collecting in the history of science, technology, and industry.

Late update (10/18/06): It looks like PC World has tried to steal some of Pastelero’s fire with it’s own compendium of old computer ads.