Hist 696: The Details

The readings for this week focused largely on questions of design and the process of web development. The nuts and bolts of what we are attempting to do, with guidelines to help us avoid some of the more egregiousness website design errors. I found that most of the information reinforced what I have heard before or what I have found most helpful when dealing with websites. However, it was very helpful to be exposed to a vocabulary for describing those elements to others.

I really enjoyed http://www.alistapart.com/. In addition to having very useful and informative essays, the layers of humor and snarky-ness were quite delightful. I found these much more helpful, even when they were beyond my skill, than the resources in Digital History. *This may be because *Digital History assumes very little awareness of or engagement with technical resources, while alistapart.com is writing to an audience of practitioners. Also, alistapart.com has the benefit of having continually updated content, while Digital History, because it is a published monograph presented on the web, is beginning to show its age.

The information regarding metedata was, to be honest, overwhelming. The graphic from Seeing Standards, while adding to the feeling of drowning in possibilities for categorization, makes me wonder if there is something broken here. While metadata is important and useful, it seems that there are a lot of different opinions about how it is important and useful. Given the number of public history professionals in the room, I am excited to hear what those who use metadata more regularly have to say.

I am afraid that much of my thinking this week was from a tangent inspired by the site. In the essay on web typology,  Jason Santa Maria supports his claim that Trajan is the movie font by pointing to a vimeo clip that argues the same. Kirby Ferguson, who made the film, has also made a series about the subject of “remix”, beginning with the argument that all that Hollywood produces is a remix to a larger claim that all human discovery is based on “remixing”. (You can find the first of these videos here.) This seems to dovetail nicely with the emphasis within the opensource community on sharing and recreating, with the “hacker” impulse to pull together from everywhere and recreate,  and, as further proof that historians are really a small step away in practice from the digital world,  with the recombining of sources and interpretations that is played out in footnotes in historical writing. If one accepts that his or her historical practice is less about the creation of original interpretations and more about the productive (and maybe new) combination of previous ideas and creations, then it is much easier to engage in collaboration and, I would suggest, more creative works. The idea of the solitary genius is already belied, particularly in history, by the mountain of footnotes and cross-references. One of my motivating concerns is that of closed information and the notion of “owning ideas.” The culture surrounding the internet is one that often challenges the premise that ideas can be owned, and I am very interested in seeing what sparks fly as this culture interacts with the academic culture, currently predicated on rewarding individuals for their ideas. I do hope the free exchange of ideas is left standing when the dust settles.

How to connect that tangent back to the idea of web-design and metadata… good web design enables that exchange of ideas. Conforming to web standards, design principles, and metadata structures allows for the digital medium to aid, rather than detract from, the information and enables engagement with the user. As argued by the authors, good web design fades into the background, and is “the creation of digital environments that facilitate and encourage human activity; reflect or adapt to individual voices and content; and change gracefully over time while always retaining their identity.”(1) The goal is not the creation of flashy sites (no, really, please, no flash), but the creation of sites that promote interaction with information and user agency.

(1) Zeldman, Jeffrey. “Understanding Web Design.” AListApart.com. November 20, 2007. http://www.alistapart.com/articles/understandingwebdesign/