We’re living in interesting times when it comes to history. There’s a huge number of people who study the past. Anthropologists, Archaeologists, Historians, and all sorts of other folks who piece together what humanity was. It’s not an easy job – the farther you go back in time, the less information there is to work with.
Looking forward though, those people who’s job it is to re-construct the past is going to hold some interesting new challenges. There may not be a lack of information – there may be an over abundance of information that makes it more interesting to sift and narrow down information on a single social group.
I’m not really that interested in history. Sure, who won the Battle of Gettysburg is a culturally important piece of history, but all the minute details surrounding it? I really don’t care that much. On the other hand, how the war impacted day to day life, or how day to day life impacted the war? That I find interesting. The human element is what shapes history. Sure, we see all the big events, but it was the cultures involved that lead to those big events, and the aftermath afterwords tells is how much real impact those events had.
And for me it goes a bit deeper than that. It’s interesting to see how people lived, the problems they faced on a day to day basis, things like that. Things that fall less into the arena of historians, and more into the field of anthropology and sociology. But piecing things like how day to day life effects government policy, or how policy effects day to day life, used to be a damned hard job, if not impossible. Even something as simple was what people ate on a daily basis in Rome 44 BC is damned hard to do.
As we move forward in time, there are certain human inventions that have improved that situation. The printing press, the library, things like that. At first, computers weren’t much of a contributor to the situation – how many people in the 80’s have bothered to save any of their old data from their Commodore 64, for instance?
Now we’ve got world wide access to the Internet. That it’s self is interesting, but add one more layer, and how we deal with history is changed for ever: The Social Networking Site.
MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga, Facebook, and a ton of other blogging sites will change what we deal with. Then add all the little WordPress, Joomla, and other non-major service blogging services. And heck, throw in Twitter and other micro-blogging sites, just to give us even more fined-grain live coverage of events as they happened. And for the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to end up using traditional blogs and microblogs in a sort of interchangeable fashion.
What you end up with is an amazingly wide view of humanity in general. Not just a US-centric view, for instance, but you can get a view of any country. Or are you interested in the challenges facing people who moved to the US in the mid-2000’s? No problem – it’s available to dig through.
It’s gotten to the point that blogging has become ridiculously widespread. I’m not just talking about blogging for dollars – I’m talking about people discussing the day to day portions of their lives. I started blogging in 1999 (before blogging was the word for it), and since then on the average I’ve written one blog post every 6.3 days since then, either personal or professional. Not everyone is as prolific as me, but there are some that exceed my blogging habit, writing more than one entry per day.
But the stuff that people blog goes much deeper than just information on their personal lives. The contribution of improved nutrition to human lifespan has always been a subject of study for anthropologists and medical types – in 200 years, looking back to see how we ate becomes simple. There’s a ton of blogs for just things like recipes (and some services like Multiply have entries just for sharing recipes with your friends). And there’s blogs just about food and restaurants – a good example that mixes both the food and personal observations is @Chingay‘s Foodies Blog, which documents the places they eat at, complete with pictures of the various dishes. Lots and lots of pictures 🙂 That might seem pretty trivial but if we look at it standing 200 years into the future pictures of food as it was served can produce even more clues as to our culinary desires in the 2000’s.
But no longer is it just individuals. If I had written this three or four years ago, I would have probably talked about how watching people’s blogged information could give us a lot of information about what our government was doing. What the US government actually releases is a watered down view of what is going on. Now that’s beginning to change at various levels. President Obama used Change.gov to announce the intentions of his presidency before he was inaugurated as President, then established the blog on WhiteHouse.gov to start a more open line of communication between the US Executive branch and the people it affects most. While I’m sure that’s still going to be sanitized somewhat, when you combine that with the various political and personal blogs out there we have an unprecedented view of the actions our government is taking, and the effects.
And it doesn’t end there. Some congressmen are on twitter these days, for instance @johnculberson. Some just use it as a way to self-promote, and some use it as a way to add a little more transparency to the process. Though most are a little from column A and a little from column B. And the same goes for larger blogging items – though with many US congressmen the blog entries are being written by staffers, which is sort of cheating in my opinion. But let’s face it – congresscritters aren’t known for all being technologically savvy.
Cities and states are getting into the act to. Today the Kansas Department of Transportation announced their new website. Having a website is nothing new – they created a social site, complete with a user editable Wiki, blog, forums, and a ton of features to provide better communication with users and more transparency to what’s going on. Heck, until today I never knew we were getting intelligent traffic control systems in Wichita – I happened to read one of the blog entries by Tom Hein, which explained how it worked, when it was being implemented, and what the future plans KDOT has for it. Oh, and @KDOT also throws up alerts on Twitter for road closures, traffic slowdowns, and bad weather. Not bad for a state I would have considered to be technologically impaired!
And of course companies and organizations are getting into the mix too. However, that’s usually a more commercial sort of set up, where it’s an attempt to sell people on stuff rather than honest communication. There are exceptions of course – @Zoomdweebie uses his to pimp his 52teas website, but at the same time he also honestly gets involved in the conversations and events on Twitter.
And it’s not just big lumps of text either. Pictures, movies, audio – just about any form of media available is represented online in people’s blogs. Camera phones are in damned near everyone’s pocket now, so if you look online you’ll find either a picture or video of just about any event. And some events have way too many photos and videos of them – how many MILLIONS of pictures were taken of President Obama’s inauguration? Oh, and while I found it cool that @johnculberson is techie enough to use Twitter, he looses points for taking video of Obama being sworn in.
And while spammers and griefers are a pain now, later on people will be able to look back and see how our society slowly came to grips with the new concepts of anonymity and unencumbered communications. And who knows – maybe we never do come to terms with it, and we continue to see every other video on YouTube have at least one comment on it that yells out “GAY!”
So how does this change things? Well, I’ll give you one application of it. When I was writing The Story of Gamer Zone (due out soon), one of my first stops was to dig through all of my old blog entries from those two years. Not everything was documented, but enough was that it was very easy to build a timeline of what was going on. That was just rebuilding from one person’s blog. Now imagine the same process if I had 40 people’s blogs to work with? Almost every event at Gamer Zone would have been documented in great detail. Writing a book would have just become a matter of which items to include, which items to exclude, and write the observations of those items within the scope of the book.
There is more written about humanity online now than there has ever been in print for the entire history of humanity. 200 years from now reconstructing how we lived will become trivial. In fact, the hardest part will be trying to narrow down and focus on what questions are most important. Health and nutrition, or the effect of a minority becoming President for the first time in US history, or the the impact that the recession has on fast food chains. Entire books will be able to be written about a single narrow topic, one single facet of our lives. Heck, books that focus on a single narrow topic on just a single demographics lives.
It will all come down to data mining – how best to ask the question, narrow or broaden the topic, how to include or exclude certain demographics, that sort of thing. When you’re looking at statistical data in numerical format, that sort of thing is pretty easy. When you start compiling data that’s held in such freeform formats, it’s going to get a lot harder. But far from impossible – we already see directed advertising on sites like Facebook based on the various conversation topics. The techniques will become more advanced over time, and it will get tons easier to get those questions answered.
There is a danger, however. All of that data could easily be lost. Most of the information online is supported by commercial interests, and let’s face it – business died. In fact, when factored over time, EVERY business dies. LiveJournal, for instance, is rumored to be swirling down the drain – and unless someone archives that information, another source of future historical data is lost. At the moment, the loss of a few blogs probably doesn’t seem very important (except to the people who loose their blogs), but in the long run it’s removing a piece of our history, our story of humanity that we have created.
There are archives like Archive.org. Unfortunately, it’s not very complete, tends to be broken a lot, and always looks like it’s on the verge of falling apart. And it’s only one site – if it flops, well, that means it’s archives are dead. For historical preservation, there should probably be multiple groups archiving the web, preserving this wealth of information, and doing it in such a way that no single set of events can write out what has become an amazing resource for future historians. And I’m sure, sometime soon, more than one group will wake up to this fact, and we’ll see multiple archives being formed. It pretty much has got to happen at some point, and sooner is better.
Well, I’ve babbled on about this topic for long enough now. I mentioned before than in many ways this blog and podcast are promotional devices for my projects. Well, next time I’ll be discussing my projects more directly. Don’t worry – that’s a lot less commercial and more interesting than you might expect. While the blog and podcast are promotional devices, I don’t like the idea of degrading them down to “ooh – buy my book! And my DVD’s! And don’t forget about my software and web development services!” That totally devalues the blog, so, you’ll usually only hear about my projects in passing, or in this case, when there’s something interesting to say about beyond “buy me!”
Ok, well, I’m outta here!