Thursday, January 17, 2008

We're All In This Thing Together

There has been an interesting convergence of on-line collaboration this week that I think highlights the value of sharing our stuff out on the net. The internet provides a space in which a ridiculously large number of people can share, comment on, and react to a wide variety of ideas and works of art. And I think that is a good thing.

Here are a few examples, from my limited web-cruising, and from just this week.

Flickr has announced the formation of a Commons, in which they hope to facilitate a community-wide collective tagging and adding of attributes to publicly available photo collections. It has grown out of the ability of flickr users to add descriptive tags to other users' photos.
All that work that we've put in has contributed to making something greater than the sum of its parts: an organic information system, derived of descriptive words and phrases made entirely from individual contributions.
The Library of Congress has stepped up to the plate to help get things moving by posting about 3,000 photos from their archives and inviting users to add tags, descriptions, and further information. The project gives another window into the rich photographic history of the nation, and may just add a deep new understanding of the material in those collections.

From the Library’s perspective, this pilot project is a statement about the power of the Web and user communities to help people better acquire information, knowledge and—most importantly—wisdom. One of our goals, frankly, is to learn as much as we can about that power simply through the process of making constructive use of it.

The old-photos blog Shorpy (a favorite of mine) provides some moderately ironic proof of concept. Shorpy takes selected photographs from the Library of Congress' older site, which has traditionally offered thumbnail views and possible click-thrus to raw images, and prepares them for on-line viewing. In a sense, it has been a precursor to the new Library of Congress effort with flickr; it colleted information via blog-style commenting.

Yesterday, the same day as the flickr/Library of Congress announcement, Shorpy posted a photograph of the Drake Family, and father and two sons musical group, playing at a dance in Texas in 1942. The posting was spotted and commented-on by two daughters and a grand-daughter of the young men shown playing music so long ago. They added fascinating and personal details about the photo.

Meanwhile, in my professional life, I came across an announcement by the real-estate map service Zillow that they have released GIS data of the neighborhood boundaries that they use in their maps. Their intent, they said, was "to allow people to use and contribute to our growing database" by inviting users to add new neighborhoods, or suggest edits to those already in the collection. And users can post their work back to Zillow for eventual integration into Zillow's on-line offerings.

This is a form of on-line collaborative work that requires a bit more specialized software, but it follows the same pattern as the Flickr/Library of Congress and Shorpy models -- the collective knowledge and group energy of a web-full of regular folks can add a remarkable amount of knowledge to our culture.

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