In the very last session at Museums and the Web last weekend, Darren Peacock gave a provocative presentation arguing that our current methods of theorizing and evaluating participation in social media are misguided and ineffective, and that we need to complicate our analyses.

He described the emphasis on the new digital generation and so on as a marketing ploy rather than a real description or prediction of how people interact with technology and called for an understanding of the long tail of participation.  He concluded that we need to make explicit bargains with visitors and base our interactions on trust and  mutual expectations.  This requires a better understanding of motivation and rewards.  A lively discussion followed both on the floor and on the backchannel.

What caught my attention was his brief discussion of the inadequacy of the “born digital” rhetoric for capturing how people of all generations and demographics adopt and use the web.

Yet some other recent work from the Pew Internet Project raises questions about generational typecasting when it comes to on-line behavior. Patterns of use are not always as predictable between generations as is sometimes assumed. Gen Y is not the only ‘Internet generation’ (Pew, 2009). Based on such evidence, it would appear that there is no longer such a thing as a typical user of any technology, as generation, life stage, skill, experience and access to technology increasingly fragment user populations. Nonetheless, the temptation to create reductionist user typologies is strong.

The discourse of young people as power users has become a commonplace in discussions of connecting to visitors–but also in internal discussions in our museums and professional organizations.  At the NCPH conference a few weeks ago, folks spent a great deal of time talking about the “new generation” of public historians and how our tech skills and inclinations will be changing the field.  At our closing plenary, some colleagues stood up and actually referred to themselves as “greyhairs” in a discussion of what they see as a passing of the torch to folks currently in school for public history.  At the same time, it was mentioned that NCPH does a good job of integrating grad students into the conference.  Luckily, some of these ideas were challenged and complicated (and thanks to Denise Meringolo for posting about this session):

I don’t dispute the fact that today’s students and new professionals bring fresh perspectives to the practice of public history, not to mention a new web of relationships that will most definitely enable our field to continue its evolution. However, the suggestion that this is a unique generational change might be misleading.

Vivian Rose put the pieces together. Her comments on the centrality of relationships in our work help explain why the field has always been fluid. Public history happens at the intersection of a series of complex personal and professional conversations that challenge distinctions between experts and audiences, curators and professors, “us” and “them,” older and younger.

This generational us and them, greyhairs and students, leaves many people out, and doesn’t start to describe how we actually do history, and creates strange barriers between colleagues.  At mw2009, there was no rhetoric about including grad students and young professionals in the conference, they just did it.  There was an amazing sense of cameraderie, collegiality and crossing of boundaries.  Historians take note. Let’s give up this talking about generational change and actually listen to each other.


I’m going to post wrap-ups of my NCPH experience throughout the week, but here’s a morsel to start with.

(crossposted at the NCPH 2009 conference blog)

Public history is happening on the web. In Friday’s Digital Projects Showcase, we saw 10 presentations about web projects in various stages of development. The session was unfortunately in a small, narrow room where sounds of revelry penetrated from the reception outside, and many of the projects were presented with screenshots rather than live. A better presentation might be as a digital poster session where interested parties could explore the projects hands-on and ask questions directly. This could also help the developers evaluate usability for historians and researchers. For now, I’ve linked to all the projects so you can explore on your own.

CHNM‘s Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

Mass Memories Roadshow from UMass Boston, “a state-wide digital humanities project that documents Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories,” through community scanning events, and their Mass history social network (on Ning).

Annapolis GIS, which provides access to locational data around urban archaeology in Annapolis.

PhilaPlace, about Philadelphia neighborhoods and communities, launches in September. It uses Collective Access as a backend.

Venerable community collections project Maine Memory Net has been facilitating some innovative collaborations.

Lehigh Digital Library’s Beyond Steel. Want to know who lived in a particular house, what plant they worked for, if they owned or boarded? Beyond Steel can tell you.

The Knowledge Cube, still in the planning stages, from Clarkson.

Virtual tours of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, still under development.

(I regret to say that I missed the last two presentations, and can only find a link to one of them. Sorry, civil war mappers from WVU!)

Mapping Memories of Fox Point maps oral histories of Fox Point, Providence, and creates “memory maps” for each person’s experience of the place.

I’m heading off to Providence at the crack of dawn Friday for the NCPH conference.  (I know that some of you are already there!)  What will happen when over five hundred  public historians gather in one city?  Will there be an outbreak of historical interpretation?  Will obscure local history websites crash from the traffic?  Find out all this and more at the NCPH conference blog and associated media (you’ll find me and others tweeting the conference, of course.)  The conference blog already has tens of bloggers who are contributing info about presentations and events and about what’s going on in Providence (you may find me posting there at some point), and a digest will go out on H-Public every day. 

Now a joke:  What do you call a large group of public historians?  

Whoever comes up with the best punchline will win a fabulous prize.   This offer is open only till Sunday morning.