August 12, 2004
A Last Look at Web Destinations
he Web is where the collecting compulsion meets its natural handmaiden, the personal home page.
In times of crisis and loss, the Web can prove the connective tissue for countless people worldwide.
The Net is a great tool for collecting stories. If scientists hadn't created it, social historians would have.
Those are a few themes I've covered while pondering the Internet in 80 installments of Online Diary, including this one, my last.
In three years I've mentioned about 400 Web sites - a minuscule subset of the Internet. I tried to select sites and topics that spoke to larger issues of life online. But like many users, I also spend a fair portion of my online time trafficking in useless factoids, taking personality tests, and poring through pop-culture detritus. Did I mention that I browse a lot of Weblogs?
Herewith, a revisiting, a grab bag, a linkfest.
Every e-mail discussion list, Web bulletin board and group blog is an example of collective intelligence at work. Do you want to know where "memes" start? Try the group blogs www.metafilter.com and boingboing.net. Sites like themeparkinsider.com, which asks travelers to report on their experiences at theme parks, represent a kind of communal data-gathering that is becoming recognized as a form of journalism.
I've always been intrigued by sites that mine the mind of the masses, like a dialect survey by a Harvard professor, Bert Vaux (hcs.harvard.edu/~golder/dialect). Scientists and researchers tap the brain power of online volunteers to improve artificial-intelligence systems (20q.net) and to identify and label Web images (espgame.org).
The Web is an enormous sociology lab, particularly when it comes to sites that let you peek at what people are doing or experiencing online. What are people searching for (google.com/zeitgeist)? What questions are they asking (ask.yahoo.com/ask/most)? What do they wish for (www.daypop.com/wishlist)?
Since the almost prehistoric days of Geocities and other home-page providers, hobbyists have shared their personal collections online. Sites like the Museum of Online Museums (coudal.com/moom.php) collect the best examples, be they of candy wrappers, gas masks, or snow globes. They fetishize idiosyncrasy.
Sometimes self-obsession is the subject at hand. Two telling examples are mc.clintock.com, where Matthew McClintock provides an ongoing visual record of every item in his home, and patcoston.com/home/people.htm, Pat Coston's catalog of everyone he knows (a list that now includes me).
Online fandoms represent a different sort of obsession. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fandoms, for example, have created thriving alternative cultures around the original works. Individual fan pages like meandbillybob.com, where Jillian Mcdonald inserts herself into video clips of the actor Billy Bob Thornton, and celinedreams.com, where fans describe how CÚline Dion inhabits their dreams, show how celebrity culture can become a backdrop against which fans reimagine their own lives.
The Power of Story
Sharing stories around the virtual campfire is a venerable Web activity, and there are many sites that solicit personal anecdotes and organize them by topic or even location. Some of my favorites include Ticketstubs (stories.about.ticketstubs.org), where people share the stories behind the stubs they keep; the City Stories Project (citystories.com); and I Used to Believe (iusedtobelieve.com), which collects odd beliefs that adults held when they were children.
As Derek Powazek, the founder of fray.com, which collects true stories, told me, "There is a power in getting people together who all have a story in common."
Although it may seem odd to include found culture here, I'd argue that found objects are so intriguing precisely because the stories behind them are lost. Found items (grocery lists, photos, trash) abound online. The most haunting example I have found is Hello Natalie (www.fotolog.net/natalie). This site asks visitors to add comments to an unidentified woman's photo albums, found in a Brooklyn thrift shop - that is, to create her back story.
The Web democratizes information formerly accessible only to specialists. It lets average people become genealogists, researchers, fact checkers, historians, even.
Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (raogk.org) taps the spirit of volunteerism and camaraderie so widespread online. (It connects volunteers willing to do local research with people who cannot travel to remote gravesites or record rooms.)
The American Memory project (memory.loc.gov), from the Library of Congress, and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (www.oldbaileyonline.org), about the centuries-old London criminal court, are two stellar examples of sites that provide extraordinary historical records buried deep within paper libraries.
Information has also been democratized in another way: average users and hobbyists are creating reference works on a vast scale. The user-written Wikipedia encyclopedia (wikipedia.org) already has more than 300,000 articles.
My final piece of advice is this: Follow the links.