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Preserving the Zeitgeist

The internet is a weird place. It seems like nothing that you’d prefer to forget ever dies while whole chunks of your life can disappear into the cloud with very little warning. People worry about preserving all the digital ephemera that we produce, or about deciding which categories of ephemera are worthy of these efforts. And while actually losing content is the stuff of librarianish nightmares, it seems to me that there’s another aspect of internet life that we are continually losing without even realizing that we had it, and that’s the thread public conversation that holds all the individual streams of blog posts and news feeds together.

In other words, even though my blog and my friends’ blogs haven’t disappeared off the face of the internet, it would take a lot of work to recreate the moment in time in which any given post was written and see the broader environment of posts and discussions that make up any given posts’ context. Even this post is part of a conversational environment that includes the post I linked to above (and the posts to which it links), one other blog post that I can’t find any more, a couple of conversations on FriendFeed, the simple fact that an issue of Walt Crawford’s Cites & Insights came out recently, Greg Schwartz’s weekly requests for “newsworthy” content to talk about on Uncontrolled Vocabulary, and an IM conversation with Steve Lawson. That’s a lot of conversational context, each piece of which will be preserved in its own space (each blog’s archives, the Cites & Insights archives, the Uncontrolled Vocabulary audio, blog, and wiki archives, FriendFeed, and chat logs). But the moment that brought them all together, that asynchronous conversation, that zeitgeist, will probably melt into the cloud and render each piece of the conversation less rich for those coming back to them later. In fact, this post’s context is already melting since there’s one piece of if that I can no longer remember well enough to find.

There are a few vehicles that I know of that preserve these conversational contexts to varying degrees. Cites & Insights is one of them (and the one that I think defines the genre I’m imagining), Uncontrolled Vocabulary is another, This Week In LibraryBlogLand will be a third if it ever resurrects, and the now-defunct Carnival of the InfoSciences was often a fourth. Each of these gathers together the posts of others and strings them into some sort of narrative about contemporary issues in librarianship. But each also has its weakness as a Preserver of Zeitgeist. Cites & Insights preserves the issues that interested Walt, for example, and Uncontrolled Vocabulary preserves issues that Greg deems newsworthy. These foci are necessary and by no means a fault, but it leaves me wishing that more people had the time, energy, inclination, and ability to take on the task of this kind of preservation so that more pieces of the intenet conversation would get named, recorded, and preserved.

8 thoughts on “Preserving the Zeitgeist

  1. Interesting post (and always a delight to be used as an exemplar!)

    A bit of serendipity: I hit this post just now because I was going to your blog to pick up elements of your November 17, 2008 post "Whatever happened to library blogs?"–as part of an article for C&I, or in this case a section of an article that talks about conversations and blogging… and, of course, now I'll include this post as well.

    I'd forgotten about TWILBL, but the state of that and Carnival are indicators: Weaving these things together is actual work, and unless you're a little strange (like the proprietor of Cites & Insights), it may not be particularly rewarding work. The group of half a dozen library ezine/newsletter publishers that was briefly COWLZ is now down to…well, one.

  2. Hmm. First, I think I meant coincidence rather than serendipity, although there’s a touch of serendipity as well.

    Second–well, I’m quoting the whole post in the article I’m working on; hope that’s OK. It’s too cogent and tightly written to excerpt…

  3. I do ask for newsworthiness, because that seems the most straightforward, but what I'm really seeking are topical conversation starters. Actual newsworthiness is only one piece of that, albeit an important one.

    Walt highlights the reason that Cites & Insights works and the Carnival didn't. C&I is the work of one truly impassioned (and perhaps strange, but likely not much stranger than me) individual.

    A blog carnival is, by design, a community effort. Our community might not have been right for the kind of self-promotional instincts one has to have to submit to a blog carnival. Or perhaps I didn't try hard enough.

    We never had a problem finding someone willing to do the editorial legwork on a weekly basis. The idea was to distribute that time and energy commitment, so that we didn't have to worry about people tiring of it. But it was the lack of wider community participation that killed it.

    Uncontrolled Vocabulary survives because of a small group of people who make me feel like I'm not alone in my interest in the conversation. If it was just me, as it was with the original Open Stacks podcast, it would be an unsustainable model of loneliness for all but the strongest of wills (such as Walt's).

    Point being that folks like Walt are few and far between and that, if our goal is to preserve zeitgeist, what we really need is a dedicated collaborative effort. People working on the problem in isolation just creates a deepening of the same problem of fragmented conversational context.

  4. I’m not sure that working on it in isolation “creates a deepening of the same problem,” but I do agree that an isolated effort here or there won’t do a whole lot to fix the problem. Not that it’s really a “problem” I suppose. I guess the wanna-be historian in me craves some way to catch moments rather than isolated streams. Which will always be impossible anyway since we interpret moments, and our interpretations are also subject to the moment. In lit-crit speak, moments are always already uncollectable. This doesn’t stop me wishing, though. :-)

  5. I guess what I’m saying is that, if I go off and create another synthesis-oriented project of my own, what I’ve really done is create yet another contextual fragment that is then seen as something to be synthesized by the next person trying to synthesize the conversational context. And so on and so on in an endlessly recursive process. And maybe that’s all to the good, but it’s not how I’d go about it. Actually, it probably is exactly how I’d go about it, which is why I’m the one directly responsible for the Carnival and UnVocab. Huh.

  6. This is part of what I love about blogs. Random impossible ideas spark discussions that get me thinking about the nature of what I’m doing and how it fits into the bigger picture. It also reminded me (just when I needed that reminder) that there is value in keeping up that can never be replaced by catching up. The moment will have passed if I let things slide for a while and then catch up with my favorite blogs.

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