|Title:||Electronic Resources Column|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Electronic Resources Column
vol. 10, no. 2, August 2007
Electronic Resources Column
Web 2.0 for Historians: An Introduction
The last few years have seen the rise of an important but debatable concept for users of the World Wide Web: Web 2.0. In "What is Web 2.0," Tim O'Reilly, a strong proponent of Web 2.0, argues that the term signals a redefinition of how users create and interact with content on the Web.  Among other things, Web 2.0 fosters a breakdown of hierarchy, easy sharing of content, and the collaborative development of content among all users. While its detractors characterize the term itself as another marketing buzzword with little significant meaning, its proponents herald Web 2.0 as an important shift in ideas about relationships among producers and consumers of web content. The truth is that, while Web 2.0 as a term may be meaningless, Web 2.0 as a philosophy and practice for the Web is far from useless, and in fact signals a significant change in how business, research, education, and communication takes place in the ether of the Web.
With all the various Web 2.0 services and sites available, where do you start? What services are good, and how should you use them? And, most importantly, why? To answer that last question, I would argue that the world is quickly and freely sharing various forms of information through blog posts, bookmarks, images, video, audio, and news. As historians who value the positive aspects that new media has to offer, we should do our best to learn more about how the rest of the public is using the web to share information, and actively participate in this exchange. We as historians have much to offer to the public, and the public equally has much to offer us.
The following is a modest breakdown of several Web 2.0 services, divided into the categories Social Bookmarking, Photo and Video Sharing, Blogging, Blog Tracking and Reading, and Collaborative Writing. This is an admittedly brief survey, but one I hope will help readers learn more about how various Web 2.0 service work.
Social bookmarking is a method of posting or saving bookmarks on the web, through a hosted service, and sharing those bookmarks with other users. Instead of storing your bookmarks on your local machine in your browser, you store your bookmarks through an external service. This not only allows you access to your bookmarks from any computer, it also connects you to other users who have tagged similar websites.
Two of the more popular social bookmarking services are del.icio.us and Ma.gnolia. Both services allow users to add keywords or tags to their bookmarks. Users of their respective services can then browse through bookmarks by a particular tag (and even subscribe to the RSS feed for a particular tag). For example, you can keep track of all the sites that users tag "history" at del.icio.us by going to http://del.icio.us/tag/history, and at Ma.gnolia by going to http://ma.gnolia.com/tags/history. Both services are free, and offer a variety of other features for users, including RSS feeds, social networking among users, various other ways of organizing tags.
Image and Video Sharing
Uploading and sharing images and videos is one of the most popular activities on the Web. For image sharing, Flickr provides an easy, intuitive interface, and numerous ways to organize your photos. Easily the best photo sharing service on the web, Flickr is free, but the free service has a monthly upload bandwidth limit. "Pro" users (those who pay a yearly fee) get unlimited upload bandwidth. Interestingly, lots of Flickr users put historical content on their accounts. Some examples include a Swiss Graphic Design History set and a 19th Century Iron "pool" that users across Flickr contribute to. And, like social bookmarking, users can add keywords to photos. Lots of interesting photos are tagged "history." For a more thorough explanation of Flickr and its features, take the Flickr Tour.
Likewise, video sharing is becoming increasingly popular. Countless users are creating and sharing video content. Two useful services for video are YouTube and Google Video. YouTube is particularly useful because it now allows you to record video directly to your account (if you have a video camera attached to your computer). Accounts are not required to use either service, but creating an account allows you to upload your own content, create playlists of videos, tag videos as favorites, and share your lists and content with other users. YouTube is full of historical videos (and videos that have appropriated history content for other, oftentimes interesting, ways).
Academics interesting in blogging have, at their disposal, two basic options for blogging: A hosted service or self-hosted software that requires the user to have web space on a server and access to a database. For those with little technical expertise or interest in installing blog software, the hosted option is an easy and reliable way to quickly publish with blogs. Others interested in tinkering around with the technology, doing significant customizations, or simply want more control may want to install blog software. It can be a very rewarding (but time consuming) process.
Among the best hosted services include WordPress.com, Blogger, and Typepad. WordPress.com allows users to have multiple blogs under one account, add multiple authors to one blog, and provides a host of themes to change the look and feel of your blog. While WordPress.com is free, TypePad offers free and paid hosted blogging. With TypePad, users can customize colors and layout (not so with WordPress.com), and paid accounts include photo albums and multiple blogs.
WordPress and Textpattern are a few of the many available blog platforms available for download and installation. While Textpattern is a content management system for various kinds of websites, WordPress was originally design for blogs. WordPress.com, for example, uses the WordPress blog platform in its hosted sites. Both platforms have enormous users bases and numerous developers building plugins for almost every conceivable need. Both are also open source, but require PHP and MySQL.
Blog Tracking and Reading
With over 20 million blogs in circulation, web surfers need a way to track and sort through the millions of blog posts written daily. Blog tracking and aggregating services help sort blog content by topic, location, and date, and give web users a way to find new blogs with great content. The leader in blog tracking and aggregating is Technorati. And, similarly to social bookmarking services, you can keep up with all the blog posts that its author(s) tag with a certain keyword; See all posts tracked by Technorati that are tagged "history" at http://technorati.com/tag/history. Other useful blog tracking sites include IceRocket and BlogPulse.
Once you've sorted through some of the weblogs in circulation, you’ll need a way to check them frequently with little hassle. Any blog worth its salt will offer an RSS feed—some with full text, others with only excerpts. RSS is a standardized XML format for publishing frequently updated content, such as weblogs, audio and video podcasts, and news sites. RSS makes it easy for those who regularly read blogs to subscribe and read new content in one place, without having to visit the site itself. And RSS is immensely useful for more than just blogs; All the services mentioned in this review offer RSS feeds of their content, in various forms.
Two useful (and free) blog reading services are Bloglines and Google Reader. Users of either service sign up for an account and enter the URL of a blog's RSS feed to subscribe to that blog. Then, users can come back to their account, and see what blogs have published new posts, all in one location. Additionally, Bloglines allows users to make their subscriptions open to the public, and share subscriptions with others; this is a great way to find new blogs, and connect to other Bloglines users with similar interests.
Wikis and Collaborative Writing
Most readers of this journal are probably familiar with Wikipedia, that much used (and much maligned) online encyclopedia to which anyone (and everyone) can contribute. But what is a wiki? A wiki is simply a type of website that allows for easy collaborative authoring. The term is derived from the Hawaiian word "WikiWiki" meaning "quick." Like blogs, wikis are available either through hosted services aptly called "wiki farms," or as downloadable and installable software packages. MediaWiki and DokuWiki are two examples of downloadable and installable wiki software. Installing wiki software is slightly more complex than installing blog software.
A hosted wiki is hassle-free to set up and get running. PBwiki and Wikispaces are two good examples of "wiki farms." Like other services listed here, users will need to create an account (free, of course), and begin adding authors and collaborating on any imaginable project. And some wiki farms offer plugins to enhance their wikis. PBwiki, for example, has plugins that, among other things, add a live chatroom and shared calendars to a wiki. On a wiki farm, a user's wiki usually has its own address, which allows for easier sharing and public access.
1. Tim O’Reilly, "What is Web 2.0?: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software"oreilly.com, September 30, 2005.