“Because I say so”

There is a little sketch that I keep drawing in my research notebooks: Two boxes with linking arrows. Sometimes the arrow is dotted, sometimes it is solid.

The experience of understanding the archive, of being in the archive, comes from the ability to make connections between objects. In a traditional physical archive, these connections are made through proximity (in time, in space), or through cataloguing decisions (made by an archivist), or through history (the  access log provides a kind of record: who saw what, when).

When dealing with digital records, connections can be implicit. If dealing with a video archive of performance (which I am), videos containing the same performers should be related: they are the same in some aspect, some metric. Likewise for videos on the same date, or videos on from the same location, or videos shot sequentially. Links are implicitly formed using data about the record. Metadata.

There is another kind of link used in a lot of video community “archive” sites — YouTube is the obvious example — that of the community generated link. Tags. Comments. Browsing behaviour. An digital system can infer that videos are related because people say the same things about them (similar tags, similar descriptions), watch them one after another regularly (proximity through time), etc.

There is another kind of link between objects that could, and should, be afforded in a digital archive: “These two objects go together because I say so”. In the case of the Circus Oz Living Archive: Here are two shows that I saw as a kid. Here are two shows that I think should be related because they contrast in an interesting way. Here are two acts that go together because I think they are good jokes. Here are two acts that, if put together in sequence, might make a new and better show.

These links can’t be made via data in the content (implicit), or crowd-sourced consensus (community), these are links that can only come from individual understanding. You might call them explicit links. This is the user — the reader — acting as an archivist.

My argument is that it is individuals are best placed to know what meaning is inherent in any particular object, on relationship between objects. Crowdsourcing is great up to a point: the information from your social graph can be scarily accurate sometimes. But only you really know why you are looking at something, why you make a connection between two things.

There has been plenty of work around the power of the collective in multi-user environments, social networked sites. What I am interested in exploring is the power of individual user agency and knowledge in these environments.

So this becomes the question: how do we design a digital archive environment that encourages the formation of explicit links between objects?

 

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