Ideas are funny things. Some are fleeting: You’ll be reading your twitter stream, one will pop into your head, and two tweets further it’s gone. Sometimes you can backtrack, reconstruct your experience and get it back. Sometimes it’s gone forever. Other ideas stick with you. They nestle into your brain and make a home for themselves, popping up when you read something tangentially related, or when you’re staring at the blank sheet of a new project.
For me, The Archive is that idea.
As a kid I really loved anecdotal stories. One of my favorites were a series of sermons told in the form of the life story of a missionary named Otto Koning, relating the lessons he learned working with a tribe in New Guinea. Otto is a masterful storyteller, and I probably listened to the tapes dozens of times. Hearing him describe his experiences almost made you feel like you were there, and gave a really unique insight into a time and place that would have otherwise been undocumented.
When I started working my first internet job at a small ISP in San Marcos, Texas in 1995, I began to spend a lot of time riding shotgun on tech support house calls with Chad Neff. By now Chad has probably fixed half of the computers in San Marcos, but before he became the town’s resident Internet Guy, he had an entire career as an artist and printmaker. You still see his work popping up on eBay, and his prints as set dressing on movies and TV shows, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. Chad also did a stint in the Army, in signals intelligence, plus a bunch of years in the Mounted Park Patrol and Police Reserve. Needless to say, Chad has a lot of stories.
When Chad wasn’t telling stories, we’d brainstorm the big idea that was going to make us internet millionaires (back then being a millionaire was an impressive thing). One of the ideas that we had, probably on the way to one of San Marcos’s funeral homes (Chad designed the awning over the entrance to one of them), was the Permanent Internet Memorial. The internet has the unique ability, compared to traditional headstones, of actually telling you something about a person that’s longer than a few sentences. We knew back then that storage and bandwidth were just going to get cheaper, so it seemed like a logical idea: Start a company designed to last forever, and charge a one-time fee to create a permanent memorial on the web.
Needless to say, the idea didn’t go any further than that ride, but the core concept of extended longevity on the internet, mashed up with the explosion in self publishing and data driven explorable sites eventually coalesced into the idea for The Archive Project. These ideas solidified in early 2000, and this is the concept as I had it then:
The Archive Project is a web database for personal stories, index-able by place, theme, time, person and object. The building block of The Archive is the story, a personal anecdote about something that happened to you. Once you’ve created a story, you tell the system where it happened, when it happened, and you can tag other people in it.
Users would be able to tag people in stories that may or may not be users. Eventually if a user signed up, they could claim all those people tags as themselves, assuming the original author validated it was really them.
I think I was designing this system before geocoders were as prevalent as they are now, because I actually requested and received a burned DVD copy of the USGS’s global gazetteer. The idea was you’d be able to type a place name like Austin, Texas into the system and the site would be able to drop the story on a map, which you could then make precision modifications to. With Open Street Map this is really easy, but at the time it was still something of an unknown.
When pinning a story in time, you’d be able to say broad things like The Early 50’s or Spring 1976, or burrow down to specific dates. You’d be able to put together strands of memories into an overall story, like Our Year In Paris.
My goal was to create a site where people would be able to publish their life story, like the vanity autobiography publishers of yesteryear. By wrapping the anecdotes that make up a life story in semantic data, you’d be able to surf through the system in what I hoped would be really interesting ways. You’d be able to explore stories from people who lived in San Francisco in the 60s, or who migrated from the midwest to New York in the 70s, read about what it was like from an adult point of view when you were growing up. You could read stories by people who travelled great distances when they were young, or from people who stayed in the same place their whole lives. You’d be able to read stories about sewing machines in New York or stories about cars in Arizona. You’d be able to find a narrative across all kinds of contexts.
Some stories would have associated media, photos or audio recordings or video. It would be like a museum for the human race, the opportunities for interesting curation would be enormous.
For the authors, the people who contributed content to the site, they would know that The Archive existed solely to serve as a caretaker for their stories. Like Wikipedia it wouldn’t be sold, and their kids and grandkids and great-grandkids could add new stories to theirs, and their contribution would be part of a permanent family history.
There’s even an opportunity to have a Real and Fictional versions of the Archive, where fans could assemble consolidated versions of their favorite stories or characters lives. For instance, on December 18th, 2009 in Colorado, Jeff Winger had a fight with some fly dancers, and was rescued by his friends.
Imagine the mobile possibilities: You could be standing in a random location, open an Archive browser app, and read stories that happened there before. There’s nothing stopping museums, or a place like Mount Vernon from creating stories from George Washington’s life.
The Archive Project never got beyond dreams and some rough architecture diagrams. I knew what I wanted to build, but the scope was large and I knew it would be difficult to promote. It would be way too easy to fail, and once you accepted your first story from a user, you would be honor bound to host the thing forever.
Things are a little different now. It’s become possible to host vanity projects, even at a reasonable size, for not that much money. Creating socially conscious organizations is easier than it was, and there’s more support. Most importantly, though, over the last dozen years we’ve gotten really good at creating database centric social web sites without reinventing the wheel. Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from building Specialized Bicycle Components social network, the Riders Club. Specifically, features don’t matter if they aren’t easy to use, and in the end you’re really there to enable their use of the site, they’re not there to populate your dream.
Privacy was always a sticky wicket with the archive project. It could be a gold mine for identity theft, mostly in enabling spear phishing social engineering, but these days the risk is less, I think, because people realize that so much of their lives are already available to people who want to know. The reward from publishing your memories is greater than the risk of someone doing something bad with them.
Aaron Cope’s talk at the New Zealand National Digital Forum sparked some interesting thoughts about The Archive, since it’s essentially a catalog of memories. The idea of assigning artisinal integers to each memory, and building the entire thing in a way that it can be human shardable (something I’m going to write a blog post about soon), makes a lot of sense. Having the system be able to collate data from both a centrally hosted repository and a network of individual Archive sites that individuals could run themselves or for a group would be really powerful, and act as protection against the collapse of the central site.
I think you could prototype a version of The Archive pretty quickly these days, and I may spend part of early next year doing just that. I think the idea is still valid, and if things like Storify have shown us anything, it’s that people crave narrative.
The Archive is one of those things I want to exist. If Wikimedia had something like this already that wasn’t a wiki (I don’t think people should be able to edit others stories unless they have permission), I’d put this idea to bed. But it hasn’t happened, and it needs to.
We have the technology to record and share our experiences. We could hold on to our history, but we’re letting it slip through our fingers. The best stories get passed on to the kids, and maybe to the grand kids, but a few generations out the person is just an entry on a family tree. I’ve interviewed my parents on video about their lives, but I don’t have a place to put it, or best practices on how to turn it into something other people could learn from, so the project has stalled. Individual communities have started story archiving projects, and there are Best Of or focused media collections like StoryCorps, but nobody’s taken this to the web, to make it easy for everyone.
So let’s make it happen. If you’re interested in working on The Archive, if you have thoughts or ideas, or if you know of a project like it that already exists, drop me a line.
One thought on “The Archive Project”
Let’s chat about archives some time! There’s a lot of stuff being written about “personal digital archives” in the archival field at the moment that might be relevant.