Digital History: How do people use the internet?

As part of a class on digital history, on several occasions I’ll be posting thoughts on a chapter of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web by Cohen and Rosenzweig and comments on one historical website featured in that chapter. You can read this whole book for free at http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. For more information about this series, see the Intro.

Digital History Chapter 6: Collecting History Online

My actual submitted homework was pretty boring this week, so I’m going off on a tangent here in a minute. While the first five chapters of this book have mainly talked about how to present history on the web, this chapter describes how a historian might use the internet to collect history. This may include archiving websites and news articles about current events, and can also mean collecting firsthand accounts of events that happened in living memory, something akin to oral history.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it seems to me that most internet users don’t think in such clearly defined terms. Older people and books like these seem to put a lot more emphasis on the internet versus the “real world,” and try to put strict distinctions on what kinds of sites are for what purposes, ie presenting versus gathering information, but I just don’t see these distinctions as 1) common or 2) useful.

I agree from a creator’s point of view that it’s useful to have a clear mission for a site you’re constructing, and as the chapter points out, people with firsthand experience of historical events may be older folks who aren’t comfortable with the internet in all its modern insanity. SeniorNet’s World War II Living Memorial is a good example here. The design is kind of old-fashioned and clunky, but I can imagine that seniors are more comfortable with it than the more organic, interactive, intuitive websites that are popular today. Even though there are a lot of links and options, it’s still pretty easy to navigate the site and there are clear calls for submissions.

This site also provides some extra value for its target audience by having a resources section with links to Veterans Affairs information and WWII websites (although that particular link on the homepage is broken at the moment), and the internet has always been valued by users for its ability to host discussions among geographically- or chronologically-distributed people with similar interests. That is to say, some veterans probably love the discussion boards. I could see this being a site that veterans would really use and benefit from, all while collecting valuable historical memories.

This kind of proves my point about delineation, though. This site is useful because it does so many things. It presents the history in multiple formats (text remembrances and images) for any interested parties (amateurs, professionals, or fellow veterans). It hosts discussion. It provides extra services in the form of links. All this is what makes it valuable and useful.

As I said, I don’t understand the drive to classify sites. There’s not a big disconnect in my mind between presenting and gathering information. For instance, if a site (or even an individual page) doesn’t have a comments section, that absence almost makes the whole site suspect. A site with images of ancient pottery and nothing else is not the site I want to use. I want one with analysis, pictures of various kinds of objects, a comments section for each entry, and a newsfeed with any new discoveries or articles, just for starters. To me, a site that only does one little thing is just not the one I want to use, unless I have NO other way to do that one little thing.

I do realize there are technical considerations on the internet, and that the net offers possibilities other media do not. However, a picture is a picture. The concept of “looking at a picture” is not different on the internet. An essay is an essay. User feedback is user feedback. Visitors are visitors. Conversations are conversations, news is news.

My best theory is that people who aren’t familiar with the internet really do feel like it’s completely different, just because the method of access is different. Or maybe it’s the fact that all these things happen in one place/at one time that makes each of those things seem different? Thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Digital History: How do people use the internet?

  1. Speaking as an old fogie, the Internet has changed a lot in the last 10 years. You’re used to interactive sites that have a little bit of everything, but there used to be a lot sites that were JUST for one thing. That’s how things work, and prior to high-speed technology, if a site had a lot of pictures or media files, that was a big enough deal to make the site worth visiting for that alone. You generally didn’t have a site that had pictures and media files and a discussion board, because having all that in one place would’ve broken the Internet.

    Also, having comments sections, shout-boxes, etc, directly on the site is a relatively new development, and people who aren’t used to those things can view them as distracting or even overwhelming. I like the interactive qualities of today’s Internet, but I remember when, if you wanted user feedback, your only options were an email form or a separate but associated chat room. Discussion boards weren’t even something most people knew how to set up.

    There weren’t sites like WordPress that did all the coding for you, so in order to think about having running dialogues like we do now, you had to have a lot of technical/coding skills.

    Obviously, I realize that the modern Internet is not like that and younger users have different expectations, but I think what you’re butting up against is text written by people who still think of the internet the way it was a decade ago.

    I still have a hard time explaining to people who don’t KNOW what I do about the internet that you’re my friend and it doesn’t matter that you live in Alabama while I live up north. Nevermind trying to explain that we can watch TV, movies, or listen to music together because we both have the internet. It’s like I’m speaking another language.


    1. Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I’m just having trouble grasping the transitional phase between “no internet” and “modern internet.” Maybe the idea of having to do a lot of technical stuff to get access is why people still see doing things “on the internet” as completely different from doing them in “real life.”


      1. I know people who find it amazing that I watch TV on the internet or know how to shop online. Even people with slightly more technical knowledge have no idea how easy it is to set up a WordPress site. For people my age or older, it’s still seen as something that you need a lot of specialized skills to work with.


        1. Also, I meant to mention before: you listed newsfeeds as something you specifically look for in an informational website. A LOT of older people find newsfeeds either distracting or just incomprehensible, not to mention (again) the idea that they used to take a lot of technical knowledge to set up


          1. Yeah, that’s why somebody should write a book describing what the internet is actually like now and how to use it. (Maybe that’s what this book was in 2006, I don’t know.)

            Newsfeeds in particular are vital to me because otherwise a website isn’t any better than a book, you have no idea what the real, current, right-now information is with a static site. It could’ve been updated two seconds ago or two years ago.

            I just think somebody should be able to explain all this better. I realize setting up a website still takes specialized knowledge, I’m just talking about a user’s POV and not treating “viewing an image online” like it’s fundamentally different from looking at a picture in a book.


          2. I know what you mean, but to older people the idea of “viewing a picture on the internet” is very often still seen as something that IS fundamentally different because

            A. You have to know how to operate a computer
            B. You have to understand how to access and find what you need on the internet.
            C. There is a perception that information on the internet is suspect because it’s “the internet” whereas a book is vetted in some way.

            All of that seems silly, but if you don’t UNDERSTAND the internet, then using the internet is a specialized skill.


          3. I had a whole long comment and WordPress ate it. I think a comparative analysis of changing Internet culture might help, but I don’t know if the old folks would be reading it..



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