Newsflash: Facebook is Good for Something

Lolota, the son of Zickchuse, - Snoqualmie - 1890

I’m a bit of a reluctant user of “facebook”, mostly because of their user-hostile and byzantine privacy policies.  However, increasingly people are using its easy interface to create really useful web pages, many of which you don’t need to be a member of facebook or logged in to enjoy.  There are some quite specific archaeology ones relevant to the Northwest Coast which I will review some other time.  Today, I want to focus on a remarkable compendium of historic photos of North American indigenous people.  There are almost 200 separate galleries, many with more than fifty pictures in them (do the math), under the auspices of the group administrator Jonathan Holmes, who takes an active role in the discussions and comments.  This is an enormous investment of time and effort, especially as many of the pictures have notes (hover your mouse over the picture) and in a remarkable number the identity of the subject is named and contextualized.  This is not a mere link dump for pictures – the over 20,000 comments reflect many positive reviews from Tribal and First Nations members (e.g., Tahltan) and members of the general public, (as well as some cranky comments from six year olds and racists).

Charles James Nowell (Kwakiutl) with his wife (the daughter of Chief Lageuse) and her mother ('Yalis, British Columbia) - 1899

So, applying my principle of surfing the web so you don’t have to, the following are the galleries of most regional interest to this blog (using the author’s orthographies)

A few things jump out at me here.  One is the sheer reach this collection has, as is evident by the number of comments and the number of “likes”.  Any museum in the world would kill to have that many signed up “fans” of their online historical documents.  This is a kind of populist curation that should be encouraged.

Keka - Walla Walla - 1900 ❤

Another is the nature of the pictures: these are not only your standard Edward Curtis portraits, but a wide range of people, posed, unposed, snapshots, etc. and as noted, a lot have individualizing information attached.  See the portrait below from the Makah set, for example.   Many of the pictures I looked at, even those with areas with which I am pretty familiar, were completely new to me.

A third thing I think is cool is the informal Bulletin Board that has developed, a question and answer clearing house for peer to peer historical exchange. Together with the tens of thousands of comments and the almost 500 photos added by users, a community is developing around these images.

No doubt there is a downside to this collection.  The photos are poorly sourced (though try a tool like tineye.com’s reverse photo search engine) and the resolution is usually quite poor – these have a quality of being “found on the ground”.  There is a decontextualization  in their overwhelming numbers.  Like any photo set, it is possibly to fetishize these images and troll around in them and somehow it can become  profoundly and paradoxically ahistorical – the distancing of the “cold” medium is a message in its own right.  There may also be pictures posted in contradiction to cultural traditions around the display of images of dead people, for example.  So I don’t naively take this as a uniform, unproblematic good thing.  But I am convinced it is something that would in itself provide a fascinating study of identity and image in the creation of virtual communities.

OK, enjoy the pictures and I hope these links are stable!

Minnie Kallappa, Janji Kallappa, Sondes Kallappa, Jenny Kallappa - Makah - circa 1880.

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10 responses to “Newsflash: Facebook is Good for Something

  1. Thanks for these links Quentin. As you note, the extent of the comments on the photos is remarkable and it opens up really interesting possibilities for community involvement in contextualizing the photos. Several of the comments are in the vein of “that’s my grandfather.” The possibilities for genealogy research alone are tremendous. And forget us anthros – more and more communities are putting this information together for their own purposes. This has the potential to get many community members working together on historical projects.

    Further to your comments, I too would like to see greater attention to photographers, locations, and dates. But there surely are lessons from Facebook for museums and archives. Wouldn’t it be great if user comments could be added to the otherwise excellent collection of online photographs available at the BC Archives?

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  2. Hi Tad, I see sending up the Tad batsignal still works.

    I think what I should have said more succinctly is, due credit to the creator for not stripping out the individualizing information. The easiest thing in the world is to just make a gallery of exotic faces or whatever.

    I agree that there is a lot to learn — I like your idea of the BC Archives opening up this way. A backdoor to this kind of thing can be institutions which have just put there collections onto flickr, where user comments are allowed.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/smithsonian/

    Or, the Brooklyn Museum which allows user generated tags is interesting too

    http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/tag_game/start.php

    I think a lot of museums have a problem with “letting go” (this is why they cling to their high resolution versions and make linking difficult), and while I really do agree with the principles of “digital repatriation”, at the same time, for a lot of images in particular, that horse has left the barn. And museum clinginess is, lets face it, motivated more by base instincts of stamp collecting rather than theoretically informed desire to be ethical w.r.t. imagery.

    Anyway, what makes this facebook collection work well is that you can comment if you have a facebook account – which something like 50% of North American adults do. The penetration of flickr and Brooklyn Museum is much less, so they can’t attract the same invested readership. Further, facebook spreads mainly by peer-to-peer via “likes” and so forth, and less via googling.

    So – the BC Archives should just dump their collection (currently extremely hard to use and crappy resolution etc.) onto facebook! yay.

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  3. Bat signal noted and appreciated! Yes, flickr seems to be the model and the Library of Congress even has its own. I like flickr better than facebook for this purpose largely because of more sophisticated sharing options in flickr – and that fact that public photos do not require an account to view.

    Any opinions from readers about the use of social media to share field work photographs? I recognize the privacy issues inherent in any such discussion but I am a flickr friend with a few anthropologists who do post field work pictures. I find them quite useful as points of reference and for ideas about the use of photography. I’d love to make my photographs more useful to the communities of people I’ve worked with – and the possibilities exist with flickr and facebook. If I could do so while protecting the privacy of those pictured, I’d jump at the chance.

    But: Is it oxymoronic to consider the use of social media to share field work photos while being concerned about privacy? Why do I get excited about archival photographs which depict people and include comments from descendants and fear sharing recent pictures? (Is a statute of limitations needed?) And, how far a move is it from sharing photographs to sharing field notes via social media?

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  4. Hi Tad,

    I’d like to hear from readers too. As an archaeologist, the issues are a little different I guess. I did realize too late the irony of starting this post by complaining about facebook.com’s privacy policies, while pointing people to a massive compendium of photos, not all of which (I think it is fair to say, though I don’t know what percentage) are universally ok to be on the web.

    One thing that strikes me about your comment is the intent is different – you would be taking something that is not on the internet, which you yourself have created/collated, and then with serious motive, put it up there. This is more akin to opening the barn door than to shutting it after the horse has bolted.

    As a wild analogy, the recent case of the Pitt Meadows teenage rape pictures/videos going onto facebook. My understanding is those are still in circulation despite concerted efforts to get them down. I am sure they have gone to lie fallow at 4chan and similar black holes of the net. So putting something on the internet, even with restricted access, is more or less like setting it free.

    For example, flickr.com allows you to set your pictures such that they can’t be downloaded – it will download a single pixel instead. However, cmd-shft-3 gets you a screenshot (pro tip for mac: cmd-shft-4 gets you a resizeable screenshot frame, heh) – if you can see it, you can save it. In other words, the protections designed for quality of artistic expression may not transfer to protections needed for the sanctity or privacy of images.

    Anyway, the big advantage of facebook is so many people already use it and are familiar with it. Leveraging that can make things actually happen and take off, vs. dying on the vine. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that. So designing a flickr setup sounds good, but if people then have to register, and then learn a new interface, then remember to go to flickr, this all creates disincentive. Some people live on facebook, so your notes and photos and community and comments would all be part of their digital ecosystem, every day.

    For example, consider this facebook group with 822 (!) members and ~1200 photos (historic, contemporary, even archaeological pics)

    Proud to be Kwakwaka’wakw
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2327749675

    To all the kwak’wala speaking tribes, to the families out there somewhere, to the spirit of our ancestors that resides in us, a facebook group for all Kwakwaka’wakw far and wide. Welcome!

    For all our amazing Kwakwaka’wakw out there (and for the ones who love us 😉 …. ) – a group full of strength, love and acceptance. A place to share and grow as a people… To discuss culture, history, language and whatever else you want to discuss….

    Moving one’s ethnographic work partly into such environments, realizing that they are part of the contemporary experience of being human, could be a step along the way?

    PS, from that facebook page, I like their “recent news” on a number of levels:

    Recent News

    News: “We want to know whether you have come to stop our dances and feasts, as the missionaries and agents who live among our neighbors try to do. We do not want to have anyone here who will interfere with our customs. We were told that a man-of-war would come if we should continue to do as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers have done. But we do not mind such words. Is this the white man’s land?

    We are told it is the Queen’s land, but no! It is mine. Where was the Queen when our God gave this land to my grandfather and told him, “This will be thine?” My father owned the land and was a mighty Chief; now it is mine. And when your man-of-war comes, let him destroy our houses. Do you see yon trees? Do you see yon woods? We shall cut them down and build new houses and live as our fathers did. We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, “Do as the Indian does?” It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone.

    If not, you will be welcome to us.”

    – O’waxalagalis (Chief of the Kwagu’ł, to Franz Boas, October 7, 1886)

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  5. Quentin … agreed. We are talking about slightly different things although I’m interested in the larger conversation and bending it to my interests. 🙂

    Facebook is very popular. That popularity aids in the useful dissemination of this kind of information, these photographs. I am partial to the used-defined and flexible restrictions that are associated with flickr, although flickr is not appropriate for all types of media. The rub lies in balancing usability, privacy, and collaboration. I find the possibilities wildly exciting.

    Thank you for the conversation!

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  6. Quentin – what a great find, and such an interesting application of social media. (However you do owe me for the hours lost perusing those galleries). It would be interesting to see some of these issues explored in more detail — I note that Colleen Morgan is hosting an interesting session at the SAAs on blogging and digital media engagement (and larger publics): http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/blogging-archaeology-2011-the-abstracts/

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    • Hi Andy, your time is worth what, exactly? Beer?

      Thanks for the link, I actually owe Colleen an email about that session, which looks like fun.

      Sad to say, the SAA is still in my bad books for being run by zombie functionaries, so no Sacramento for me.

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  7. As Tad says, the possibilities for genealogical research is tremendous. A Hieltsuk friend and colleague recently showed me his facebook world where he had compiled a large geneology diagram that linked to various photos etc. His research was very impressive and showed how various families had connections from Kitimat to Comox through marriages and movements that took place in the 1800’s. It is very enlightening to see how people today can make connections to these historic and often anthropological images, not to mention the regalia that is shown in many of the images. I was further intrigued to see videos of big house dances that are only supposed to be seen in the big house….
    On another note I was recently trying to find something out about an old abandoned logging town (with notta formally written about it) and came across a social network site where people that used to live there were discussing the history and showing photos! That was cool.

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  8. Hi Jim,

    It does make me worry that so much is put onto facebook that is so personal and special and so much work goes into it, and yet, at the end of the day, facebook is a company and may have a transient existence. It seems omnipresent today, but old farts like me remember even five years ago there were things like tribe.net and friendster.com which had literally tens of millions of people in a facebook like environment, and now they are just rumps. And yahoo shut down geocities.com and took it down, removing a huge slab of the early folk-web. Anyway, not really the point, but investing so much into a platform that may be ephemeral is just a little worrying.

    On the other hand, the strength is, everyone can access it if they have a computer, and the flipside of their privacy issues is the incredible permeability of the social networks that are constantly being created. It is an intriguing site for the organic genesis of what used to be called “pan tribal sodalities” if I recall my Anth 300.

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