Week 8: Grace R Morrissey – Digital Putty

Nothing hints so strongly of the potential for participatory media sense making as an archive of raw data. It’s like a lump of clay just waiting for a pair of hands (or the digital version thereof) of those so inclined to give it definition (spin /angle) in an infinite number of ways.

“Rawness” is the operative word. Some forms of digital putty are more capable of manipulation than others. Some “raw” data can be so complete in themselves that attempting to do anything more with them defeats the purpose.

This week’s featured projects show this variation in manipulability. I find the “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank” to be the one that lends itself the most to remixing.  Aside from putting out bits and pieces of factual events, the sheer accumulated volume of these data morsels coming from the archives of different organizations ensure that no one interpretation is inherently prevalent in the database, inasmuch as it is concerned with the perspective of ordinary people who experienced the events.

A balanced spread of data is important if we hold that the basic raison d’ etre for a database like this is as source for database journalism or other kinds of fact-based writing among people who do not have direct, contextual knowledge of the events involved.  In fact, we should hold the database to a higher standard of balanced reporting than any journalistic effort that will be derived from it. Just imagine what it would have been like for 20th century historians if the only documents available about the American Civil War came from one side of the conflict.

My bias for balance and objective distance is the reason why, as much as I derive some voyeuristic pleasure from browsing through the “Post Secret Archive,” I won’t really consider it a database, except in the sense understood by a cultural anthropologist.

It is simultaneously less than and beyond being a database. As a repository of “secrets,” the project’s context is hard to get at. Those anonymous, confessional postcards necessarily float in a social void.  And again, they don’t need that much more remixing to amplify their impact. They remind me of William Burrough’s experimental literary style, as described by Charlie Gere in “Digital Culture.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 comments to Week 8: Grace R Morrissey – Digital Putty

  • jarrattt@uoregon.edu

    After reading your insights into the database and its purpose, I am feeling like my own reading of the usefulness and interactivity of these week’s websites, particularly the HDMB and Post Secret Archive, might be wrong. I thought that Post Secret Archive allowed the most interaction from an observer because people could post comments and have some kind of conversation around the posts, which wasn’t allowed on either of the other sites. Now, I am feeling like this interaction might be where the material ends. True, you can share it, but once removed from it’s context on Post Secret Archive it loses something, possibly a frame of reference, and it would be hard to use it for some new journalistic purpose that didn’t always require referring back to its site of origin. Can the secrets stand alone and be understood? Maybe that isn’t necessary. Though if a database is all about providing raw material (which was a really helpful point!) then there isn’t too much that is raw about the material on Post Secret Archive (though the secrets are pretty raw!). The material on the HDMB on the other hand does have that raw quality that gives it the possibility to migrate to new journalistic pieces that people might want to write, even though they didn’t have a first hand account of the storm. The ability to interact with them directly on the site might be prevented, but the ways that the different stories, photos, and videos can be used in other locations and remixed (as you mention) seems endless.

  • Grace

    Jarratt, I was evaluating these databases solely as basis for factual, journalistic type of works so the HDBM had more value for me, simply because the information there can theoretically be traced back to a source and you can use them as starting point for further off-site investigation.

    There certainly are other ways of evaluating their value. Again, I can imagine some social science researcher finding value in the Post Secret entries, (and people’s comments and interaction with them) as cultural data, much in the same way you can analyze Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. These are a rich lode of material for content analyses of the zeitgeist for a particular period of time. I guess you just need to cluster the data properly (but you need that for all types of databases).

    Those Post Secret data are really as raw as you can get (because the people providing them can drop social inhibitions) but I was thinking about them when I wrote that some “raw data can be so complete in themselves that attempting to do anything more with them defeats the purpose.” I was thinking not just about each postcard but the totality of the blog. The WordPress blog seems to me like an optimal way already to present them. That’s why I said it’s beyond being a database.

  • bjh@uoregon.edu

    Although I agree with your concept about how Postsecret is not truly “factual” in that there is bias, i would in fact argue that it is factual. Postsecret is the truth according to a single person and to that person it can be considered fact. To tell some of these people that would probably be completely devastating and insulting to them. That is why Postsecret is in fact a database. It is a database of people’s thoughts and emotions. True not completely useful from a journalistic perspective, but from a view of the human condition it is completely true.

  • Grace

    Hi, I do not mean to imply that Post Secret is not factual. In fact, a lot of the material in the HDMB will fall in the same category of being based on people’s thoughts and emotions. There is a lot of subjective truth there as well.

    However, the one big difference between these two projects is that it is possible to get a fuller context of the information in HDMB. It is possible to trace the source. That is important for certain kinds of fact-based writings. It is not a question of whether one is more truthful than the other. We are both taking their truths at face value.

    If anything, considering how much purposiveness people put into postcard-ing their secrets and their freedom from social inhibition while doing so, some of them might even be more psychologically truthful than those people talking about their thoughts and emotions in the HDMB archives.

    And again, one of the points I was making is that those postcard secrets as presented in the blog are so complete in themselves that they are beyond being a database. As far as I’m concerned, I do not need to see them remixed in another form to appreciate them.

  • hdemich2@uoregon.edu

    I would toss out this question to you all in this thread (Lauren’s) and here in Grace’s — Could I have programmed WITNESS and ENGAGE MEDIA in the Database Week…or HDMB in “User-Generated Media?”

    How might the lenses have changed or not? Is WITNESS or ENGAGE really usesful as a dynamic database available to journalists for sourcing?

  • Grace

    I just edited a couple of sentences. Thanks Jarratt and Brett for helping clarify my thinking further on this issue.

    Helen, I notice that WITNESS observes quite rigid standards when it comes to accuracy. They put annotations in the videos to correct any less-than-accurate information put out by the contributor. They also have practices to protect the privacy and dignity of the people in the video. And of course, each of those videos probably are traceable to concrete sources. If Engage can also make those claims, I certainly would program both of them in Database Week.

    We have a term called “kuryente” (literally electric current) in Philippine journalism which refers to a situation where a journalist gets “electrocuted” by a “bum steer, false story, planted or otherwise.” http://www.manilamail.com/archive/nov2004/04nov21.htm

    When you consider that you’re actually getting second-hand information in database journalism, the more you would want to make sure that your sources are credible and traceable before you publish anything.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>