Guernica, 75 years ago

The German Condor Legion obliterated Guernica in 1937. Today, commemorating the 75th anniversary of this sad episode that shocked the world, is probably the ideal time to publish the video that I made, Healing Wounds, on my blog. In remembrance of all the victims of the war.

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Hail to Omeka! (For now)

The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University had its kick off during the last century (1994). Among other things, at the CHNM website the savvy student finds the internet version of such books as The Presence of the Past or Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.

Moreover, one of the most recognized and awarded projects is Zotero. Omeka does not stand behind, providing “cultural institutions and individuals with easy-to-use software for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits.” Even the promotional description emphasizes that is a “free and open-source,” a paid version exists with enhanced features that would “satisfy the needs of institutions that lack technical staffs and large budgets” better.

From personal experience, Omeka really works. It offers a simple, and straightforward design that allows the construction of unique sites. As much as with any other platform, the new user will experience the typical learning curve with its necessary frustrations.

The best and more problematic aspect in Omeka is the freedom to create. It can become an overwhelming experience at first, forcing the user to map mentally and virtually how things must look. Again, the learning curve. In addition, while Omeka wants to provide the user with as many choices as possible, it should offer the possibility of restricting those. For example, you may want to create an exhibition, you have to have one or more sections to nest the elements of your exhibit. This could be consider a navigational obstacle for some users who may prefer a direct access for the materials on the exhibition.

One more comment. Usually, browsers like Chrome allow editing options for grammar in various languages, even other Web 2.0 platforms such as WordPress. Sadly, Omeka does not.

The area to create new "pages" does not activate until the user creates first a section

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Limitless: digital storytelling

My first experience utilizing new media to build a story happened less than a year ago when I wanted to create a slideshow for the homecoming of my younger brother. Of course, besides sentimentalism and quirkiness, this type of narration would have been more conventional according to The New Digital Storytelling‘s author. Or not? I have to admit that because I was using a computer to create a narrative, I may have dwelt in the idea that such creation would be understood as part of the ‘new’ new media narration style.

Moreover, historians consider the idea of “telling a story” as a contested definition of history. Stories may imply a fictional construction. Furthermore, there are historians that argue that the profession cannot tell a story, or otherwise it would mean its own liquidation as discipline. Authority issues play a strong role in this debate. For example, if historians agree with the premise that history is another literary genre, anybody may be entitle to produce such fiction, and then, how to differentiate from good and bad history? Well, it would be up to the audience to decide.

However, Bryan Alexander brings to our attention very interesting examples of fictional-history-narrative, that have to do with the use of Web 2.0 platforms. Two of those are cryforbizantium and the Orwell Diaries project. The first one utilizes Twitter as the medium to narrate the story of Bizantium through tweets.

Obviously, the audience knows that Constantine XI is not writing this tweets. However, it serves to engage the public in potential future conversations: in the creator-narrator’s blog, in the audience’s Twitter feed, and in any other forms of social media available to them.

The George Orwell diaries seems like the natural use of a blog for the purpose of historical narrative. The creators decided to post a journal entry matching our current date. For example, the diaries start in 1938 and the blog started in 2008. It really possesses the capability to engage new audiences, and to create multiple levels of discussion based on the functionality of WordPress, also pointed out by Alexander.

Definitely, digital storytelling appeals to our society’s appetite for social media, fostering interpretation and debate while engaging the public in ongoing conversations.

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Historical institutions’ new media outreach

Using Digital Media as my referential scholarly work, I will embark in the analysis of an institutional website. Due to many bias (I considered evaluating the Smithsonian‘s but it seemed way too large of an institution to pick on it), the site that I chose is the Pritzker Military Library.

This recently created institution sited in Chicago, has developed an ambitious outreach program. Through the recording of conferences and presentations held at the library, and its latter edition into podcasts and a weekly TV space.

Their website perfectly suits the idea of reaching new audiences and creating a sense of community. In general, military history as opposed to Civil War or World War II specifically, may not be the most popular venue to promote community involvement with history. Nevertheless, Pritzker Military Library’s site offers a great variety of content, easy access from a navigational stand point, opportunities for users to participate through social media such as Facebook or Twitter but also to obtain membership and donate.

Moreover, the site also combines a high level of compliance with current web design aesthetics that potentially attracts new users and converts them into frequent users, and also an up-to-date content. The activities and events announced in the website, as much as the description of the collections at the library, favor a major involvement of users with the physical site of the library.

Definitely, a great example of utilizing new media by mid-size institutions. It would be wonderful if even the smaller institutions could afford this type of promotion.

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Have you had a Picnik with Photoshop?

Photo editing was discovered a long time ago, and probably shortly after photography itself. However, most of the people involve in photo editing today dedicate their efforts to the personal sphere. For example, different applications on Facebook offer several ways to manipulate images. Moreover, entire sites such as Picnik have been designed to provide these services in a fun and understandable format. This blog has been one of its users. This site truly combines appealing features without the complex navigation offer by software like Photoshop.

For us, historians, any of those tools may result enticing to develop our narratives. For example, in this case I used an emblematic image of Spain’s role during World War II. The meeting at the border town of Hendaye in 1940 between Hitler and Franco has haunted many historians ever since.

There is the historian to record what really happened

Not Franco spoke German neither Hitler did speak Spanish. Interestingly enough, a very selective group witnessed the encounter, and therefore it seems impossible to know what in the world they talked about. Did Franco, as the regime’s propaganda machine proclaimed after 1945, stopped the ambitions of Hitler of invading Spain in order to seize Gibraltar from the British? Did Franco, indeed, willingly offer his cooperation to the Fuhrer in exchange for colonial concessions in North Africa? Or What else?

Photoshop allows the intrepid historian to travel in time, record what really happened, and show the world the hidden truths of the meeting. After all, it may have not been that useful from the researcher point of view. Maybe it has contributed positively to the aesthetics of this blog.

Sadly, Google will shut down Picnik in April to focus on its other pet, Google+. But we’ll always have Photoshop at the media lab.

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The battle against historical numbness is going to get Nazi!

Last week, I discovered what seems like a very promising new film, Iron Sky. The combination of science fiction and Nazis often recurs in Western post-WWII culture, evolving into the principal conspiracy theories such as how the old Nazis are going to take over the world once and for all. Is Hitler still alive? Are secret Nazi organizations infiltrating our governments? Probably not.

Curiously enough, around the same time I got interested in Iron Sky, I happened to read an article about the image below.

It seems that this group of snipers in the marines corps, at least since the 1980s, have been using the symbol of the Hitlerian Schutzstaffel or SS as their own. In their defense, all members of this unit were oblivious of the dramatic relation between the SS and the best documented genocide of all time, the Holocaust. They didn’t know that SS equals Jewish extermination.

This brings me back to Iron Sky. Even when it could be cataloged as part of the exploitation films genre, this movie is different. It followed an uncommon development process. Through the collaborative film-making website based on the active participation of internet users and small contributions to obtain a commercial product. There are no “big bucks” involved, and therefore, it may augur a “new wave” of cinema.

“This year the battle for Earth is going to get Nazi,” or at least that is what Iron Sky announces in its trailer. However, my wish is that innovative initiatives will reduce the gap between the whole of our society and historians.

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Theory skulks behind EVERYTHING!

What do I refer to when I say “everything”?  This is probably what circumnavigates your mind. Well,  when I say everything I mean it. I apologize for my initial vagueness but, I will give you some concrete evidence.

When thinking in which ways the new media may contribute to the social sciences, the virtual aspect inherent to it (Lister, 2003) could transform (or it is already transforming) the landscape of education and learning process.  Digital Museums represents one of these novel applications.

Therefore, somebody theorized about what could be done to enhance the experience of digital museums’ users. Because, ultimately the purpose of creating an old school or a new media-based exhibition is to reach out to a specific niche. Thus, a group of professionals in history and new media reviewed the work done at the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC), and at the Smithsonian virtual exhibit “September 11: Bearing Witness to History.” Suhas Deshpande, Kati Geber, and Corey Timpson in their article “Engaged Dialogism in Virtual Space: An Exploration of Research Strategies for Virtual Museums.

So, what is the theory behind engaging audiences and buying your discourse in the virtual realm? According to Deshpande, Geber, and Timpson it can be accomplished by combining two already existent theories, classical rhetoric and appraisal theory. The first one goes back to Aristotle, including his definition of ethos, pathos and logos. The second one, deals with affect and emotions mainly in the psychological and communication arenas.

The argument here is that virtual spaces need to present a rhetoric that is persuasive by establishing trustworthiness with its users (ethos), evoking emotions to keep them around (pathos), and to utilize their knowledge of the internet (logos). Another interesting concept is enthymeme. How do virtual audiences understand the content in a digital space? Is it a rigid discourse consumed without questioning or can be allowed multiple questions that can be answered in different ways by exploding to the maximum the possibilities of the virtual interface? Another situation that the authors of this article defend has to do with authorship. If the users are empowered to participate, and to select in a virtual scenario consequently the users are creating their own discourse. Does that make them co-authors of their own virtual exhibition?

The authors also leave the door open for further research. Can predictability and randomness, when talking of users browsing through a given virtual place, be reconcile in the same category? And, how can appraisal theory help to study the ways that the audience engage with virtual spaces?

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Tweets, trends, and other new media stuff

Last week a set up an account on Twitter for the first time. It is part of a class project, and at first it took me a little bit of time to get around, and it felt frustrating to be truthful. However, soon enough I experienced the goodness of Twitter and TweetDeck.

One of the things that I like to do every day is read the news on-line. However, sometimes seems difficult to read anything interesting about the topics that attract me the most, or that have some professional connection with my career. Thus, Tweeter has helped exponentially to solve this issue. However, Public History, the Spanish Civil War (in English and Spanish) or issues on historical memory do not represent the biggest trends in the mini-blogging community. So my overall experience there has not been as exciting as with following organizations and colleagues. For example, the NCPH, the AHA or the Pritzker Military Library proved to be helpful by re-tweeting or posting information on prizes, scholarships, grants, and job opportunities. In addition, my colleagues tweets also proved intellectually stimulant and helpful. Their comments are not just funny and uplifting but also meaningful as part of my learning experience. One example would be how through one tweet by Kelly Gannon, I learned how she has used a WordPress blog as a platform to promote herself and show her work.

Finally, another advantage that I find in using Twitter is the potentiality of creating a professional network. Or maybe, I should try LinkedIn.

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Giving meaning to new media

This time, I will write a summary and some insights on Diane Zimmerman Umble’s “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” in Lisa Gitelman, and Geoffrey B. Pingree’s 2004 book New media, 1740-1915.

Umble’s argument revolves around the idea that (new) media possesses no deterministic, one-sided cultural meaning but that creates multiple meanings and different responses. Thus new media does not solely shape the identities of the communities where it reaches but these same communities have the ability to change the cultural meaning offer by the media.

In this case, Umble takes the example of the Old Order Mennonites and Amish communities of Pennsylvania at their strife over the telephone between 1905 and 1910. The new media then, directly threatened the Mennonites and Amish idiosyncrasy. As Umble puts it, “[the telephone] entered the home at the heart of Amish faith and life, in essence, sacred space.” (152) These Old Order communities based their religious beliefs in communal activities with the home as the center for worship.

In both communities there were problems. The phone companies advertised the goodness of their product: “To have a telephone is to live,” “You can increase your circle of desirable acquaintances,” or “How pleasant it is to make a telephone visit.” However, for Umble these very same positive attributes of the telephone caused division among the Old Order communities. For example, gossip became an issue among the Amish after “the object of the gossip” heard the conversation in a party line. Another issue of conflict provoked the loss of one-fifth of the community for not being willing to submit to the elders by giving up their telephones. The Mennonites came to compromise, not without internal divisions, with the Pennsylvania Ruling of 1907 that excluded church leaders from owning telephones or telephone companies’ stocks.

The cultural meaning of the telephone as a faster and better way of communication among friends and relatives did not quite fit in the views of these two communities. Moreover, the meaning that the telephone received was a devilish one. In addition, the battles for the use of the telephone in both communities resulted in the triumph of the more conservative groups that still today rule the lives of its members. (The Pennsylvania Ruling was enforced until 1994 and the Amish ban on telephones at home currently persists.)

Several lessons drawn from Umble’s article could be reformulated in the context of our “new” media panorama. First, the promoters of new forms of communication have their own interests (sell telephones), and these may not match the users’ interests (preserve their community identity). Second, new media suffers a stage of adaptation between the “old” and the “new” system (the ravages of party lines), in which social changes may occurred (internal divisions among the Old Order). And third, the separation between the realms of the private and the public may grow thinner or larger.

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History: Who cares? But seriously, who cares anyway?

Talking with one of my relatives last spring, we got to the topic of what history meant. As a somewhat trained historian, I was prepared to give him an elaborated answer. First of all, I wanted to make clear that history is produced, and the outcome of such production depends entirely on the inborn subjectivity of the human race. Each individual or group produces history according to their agendas which may appear evident or obscure to the rest of the world, depending on what theory they ascribe. Moreover, the historical context happens to be key to understand the leitmotif behind the construction of any historical narrative.

My astonishment began to manifest when my relative acknowledged in categorical terms that  facts, the hard evidence, constitute history per se. Interpretation of them did not represent history but the very disgusting proof of our actual amoral society.

Of course he did not use those exact words but neither did I defend my posture more fiercely because he never had the intention to listen to what I had to say. Nice premise to our no-discussion. However, yes, I listened but as if he was speaking with a voice from the beyond. Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.

More recently, I reflected upon this event. How many people out there share that same core of beliefs? I felt pessimistic. Maybe critical thinking could never prevail over bigotry, misconceptions and political clumsiness. Then, I wished Greene’s statement could reach out farther: ”Contrary to popular conceptions, postmodernism does not seek or result in the annihilation of facts, though it suggests their meaning is more localized and contingent than universal and objective.” (Greene, Mark A. 2002. “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern Age”. The American Archivist. 65 (1): 42-55.)

Still, a little bit of hope remained inside me. Happily, Pete Cashmore cheer me up in an recent article about the massive reaction against SOPA in the US, and intelligently comparing it with the police-state envisioned by Eric A. Blair in 1949. Maybe new media could really help, altering the order of things for good. Perhaps the mythological global village is achieving its critical mass. Because,

[t]he world of 2012 is both reminiscent of Orwell’s vision and radically at odds with it. Connected lifestyles are creating a world in which sharing your activities may become the norm, albeit through choice and not coercion. And yet this connected society is also empowering people in new ways, providing a counterweight to big business and big government.

While Orwell correctly predicted that technological advances would let authorities track our lives, he failed to predict the inverse: That we would use these new technologies to keep an eye on them, too.

Now, let’s see what New Media can offer to reach to new and old audiences, to reinvigorate historical approaches, and to save the world from greed.

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