Derek Mitchell and Michael Tuck
The History Commons is a social media website that provides a online space where Internet users can collaborate in the documentation of historical events. We refer to users who add material to the History Commons database as “contributors” or “authors;” more experienced users become “editors” as well. The History Commons (HC) is people-powered and people-driven, as opposed to being driven by powerful entities that represent a very narrow band of society. Contributors to HC work together to build an online documented version of the historical record. It is a socially and politically significant exercise because it has the potential to create a version of the historical narrative that is written by a wider swath of society, and therefore serves a broader scope of interests. It is a narrative that is less subject to control by the dominant sectors of society. Contributors participate for a variety of reasons. In most cases they are people who have an acute interest in politics and who have a perspective on history and current events that is in conflict with the narrative that is broadcast by powerful interests such as governments and the major media networks. They write because they want to create a written record of alternative narratives that checks the power of these interests. This is a key element of the History Commons’ “people-driven” nature, where the diverse contributions of its users make it possible to produce a record that transcends particular ideological and social agendas.
The History Commons is not unique because it offers a space where individuals can challenge mainstream narratives. Blogs, alternative media organizations, and other products of the New Media revolution also do this. What makes the History Commons website unique is the fact that it does this differently. Blogs and news articles represent the observations and ideas of a specific moment. Such documents are critically important to understanding events; however, they generally are not ideal for getting a current overview of a certain issue or event since such sources quickly become outdated. This is where HC provides a invaluable service to the public. The History Commons is unique because it offers its contributors a means to connect the dots in a chronological fashion that can be sliced and diced according to a number of different criteria. Other sites have made attempts at doing this, but from our experience, they lack the focus and extensive, comprehensive array of information that we do. Some such sites have an overt partisan or ideological viewpoint.
The event summaries in our database are continually updated as new information surfaces. As such they are extremely useful for people who need a basic understanding of an event, as well as for researchers who are looking for a good secondary source where they can begin their research. The History Commons is not a primary source of information, but it does provide a comprehensive information base from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of sources, cataloged and arrayed in chronological form. This is a tremendously useful resource for historians, authors, researchers, and the like, as documented in the user comments we have received. Since the database is comprehensive and searchable, and because each entry is cumulative, the History Commons website makes it quite easy for people to acquire a basic understanding of events within a short timeframe.
Comparison to Wikipedia
Wikipedia is a very popular site that boasts some of the same features as the History Commons. Its structure and contributor base makes it one of the most useful, comprehensive, and easily accessible, encyclopedic sources of information on the Internet. However, where it pales in comparison with the History Commons is its its ability to present information in a larger context. Wikipedia excels in presenting individual snippets of information. It does not present information in a larger contextual continuum centered on a specific topic. This is the heart of the History Commons’s unique function. Visitors to the History Commons website find timelines, not articles. It Wikipedia does attempt to present such contextual relations between its entries, in its “related topics” and other features. However, the number of Wikipedia visitors who use this function is relatively small, and the Wikipedia design does not lend itself to these features functioning with ease and efficiency. The History Commons is structured to make this feature a central function of our application. It is our interconnectivity that makes us unique, and uniquely useful.
How it Works
The History Commons timelines are compiled and structured by the HC web application from people-created event summaries in the Commons database. The user can choose to view timelines that consist of events chosen on the basis of a number of different criteria — topics, regions, entities that participated in the events, “projects” (collections of entries compiled by contributors), and so on. And these timelines are powerful as they feature quick cross references between events and entities. For example, a user can click an entity tag (an entity such as a person or corporation that participated in an event) and the web app will generate a timeline showing all events in the database in which that entity participated. There are also timeline tags. Timeline tags are links to user-created timelines that also contain that focus event. One of the most powerful features of the History Commons web application is the “context timeline.” When a user clicks the context link, the History Commons application generates a timeline that consists of all events that are related to the focus event. Context timelines are scalable. A context timeline with a low scale number usually only includes a small number of events, but ones that are very closely related to the focus event. Timelines with larger scale numbers includes events that are more distantly related. Thusly, the user is able to conduct a finely tuned search for specific information regarding a specific entity or event, or can launch a more broad-based search for information of wider interest.
Contributors write summaries of events, add the sources and related entities, specifies topics, regions, and other meta data, and indicates which user-defined timeline they want the event to be added to. Anonymous users can not edit existing entries or add new ones. The user then saves this event as a draft or submits it for approval. Other, more experienced users then review the entries and approve or reject them.
Everything that is published in the History Commons is peer-reviewed before it appears on screen for visitors to use. Here is another area in which HC does not display the problems associated with Wikipedia — the anonymous, partisan edit. Wikipedia has secondary, after-the fact peer reviews; contributors make whatever changes they like that appear instantly, and peers come behind them and make changes if needed. On controversial issues, events, or persons, this can and does quickly degenerate into a back-and-forth conflict, with users making unacceptable changes, Wikipedia personnel undoing changes, and so on, over and over again, until the page is locked down or restricted. This does not serve the user’s best interests. Everything we publish goes through a peer review process with at least three people reading and reviewing the material before users see it.
There are three steps to the review process. After an entry is submitted, it is reviewed for content to ensure that it is well-written and well-sourced. Sources are checked to ensure that what is in the entry accurately reflects the source material without resorting to plagiarism. An entry approved for content is then submitted for copyediting, using the HC style manual as a guide. If the event is rejected during the first step, it is sent back to the user, who reads over the comments and then resubmits the entry. If it is approved, another user, who is in charge of managing the user-defined timeline that the event was submitted to, then makes a decision whether or not the verified event should be added to the timeline. Each event is thoroughly reviewed for accuracy and proper grammar and spelling.
The current version of the History Commons web application is written in Java, driven by a MySQL database accessed through JDO, and runs on Tomcat. The presentation layer is done in JSP using a templating system called Bricks. Subversion is being used for version controlling while Trac is being used to manage tickets and documentation. The coding structure serves its purpose, but is limited, out-of-date, idiosyncratic, and inefficient. HC administrators, project managers, and contributors have created a large and varied list of proposed improvements to better enable contributors to add material to the system, and vastly increase the usability and efficiency of the system.
- 2004-early 2006 — Mike Bevin, a Java programmer from New Zealand, created the application in his free time. He had no intention of turning this into a big project, and the demands from all the contributors for new features and bug fixes, quickly burned him out. The demands for new features also meant less time for refactoring.
- Late 2006 through Mid-2007 — Since no one was developing, by this time functional limitations and bugs had become a huge bottleneck. With History Commons having a tight budget, Executive Director Derek Mitchell took it upon himself to learn Java, and over the next year fixed more than a hundred bugs and implemented many new features. While modifying the system he learned about design patterns and basic architecture modeling principles; since then he has continued his study of Java and programming, and written a new application for the system.
- Now — History Commons now has a stable functioning application, but additional work remains to be done to support our plans for additional features and functionality.
- Hire a social media expert to help us conceptually design an interface and architecture that will attract active users
- Hire a company to design the user interface so that it is intuitive and usable
- Hire someone to produce a professional design that compliments the website’s purpose
- Hire a company to develop the application
Some of these functions can possibly be done by volunteers, but we want something efficient, attractive, and usable; this requires professionally created products.
Possible New Features and Improvements
- Make it more social — allow comments, and people to maintain profiles that have more features.
- Develop an open-source PHP application that anyone could use to create timelines for their own website. The app would allow them to submit copies of the timeline entries they create to the History Commons. From the user point of view, they have an app that allows them to create timelines. Submitting to the History Commons database would require little extra effort.
- Archiving of sources — when a user cites a source, the webapp caches it.
- Favorite/Recently used/Most Frequently Used sources — makes it easy for people to use sources that they frequently use.
- Allow people to mark entries as favorites and group together in their own user-defined timelines. There would be links to these timelines on their profiles.
- Create graphical representation of the timelines.
- Create an investigation process, e.g., Step 1 — Create Timelines, Step 2. Submit entire timelines to peer review, Step 3. Create a report that summarizes findings and offers conclusions. Findings would be published as a report and be accompanied with a Flash-based animation that summarizes timeline. This would be published on the Commons, Youtube, etc. as an easy way to publicize the information to a broader audience. The Center for Grassroots Oversight, the History Commons’s parent organization, would provide funds to hire someone to create the Flash animation.
- Allow anonymous editing and submissions.
- Improved submission process (would be a challenge)
- Better way to organize content, better taxonomy. Perhaps using tags or something…
- new schema. The concept of a “project” is difficult for people to grasp in the context of our website. One suggestions is that a “Project”, which we define as a group of timelines that a group of people collaborate on, be instead referred to as a “group”, which would refer instead to the people involved. But each group would still focus on a narrow subject scope.
We feel that the History Commons provides a uniquely valuable resource for authors, researchers, students, and anyone interested in gathering information about social and political events in a larger, more expansive context. History Commons provides a resource unlike any other of which we are aware. However, HC has fundamental technological problems that prevent us from fully serving the population. We know what needs to be done, and how to do it. Currently we lack the funding and the human resources to make it happen.
These upgrades require a significant investment of time and money; if you would like to support this project by making a contribution, or if you know of possible funding sources, click here.