Magazine article History Today

All Contributions Welcome: The Enormous Growth in User-Generated Content Made Possible by Such Developments as the Wiki, Presents Exciting Opportunities as Well as Potential Perils for Historians

Magazine article History Today

All Contributions Welcome: The Enormous Growth in User-Generated Content Made Possible by Such Developments as the Wiki, Presents Exciting Opportunities as Well as Potential Perils for Historians

Article excerpt

User-generated content is a term that was first popularised in 2005, when websites began to offer users a chance to create material for publication online. It can refer to anything created by visitors to a website, from a short review posted on Amazon to a lengthy Wikipedia article. Such websites are creating new possibilities for historians to access and share information.

Genealogists were among the pioneers of user-generated content. RootsWeb, one of the first family history websites, began in the 1980s as an Internet mailing list and moved onto the web in 1996 as a collaborative collection of genealogical databases. More recently, websites such as Geni and MyHeritage have used social networking models to allow users to share or connect their family trees. The biggest of these extended trees, or 'forests', has over 35 million members.

One of the most popular forms of user-generated content is the wiki, a type of website that allows entries to be written quickly and collaboratively. The term originates from a Hawaiian word for 'fast'. The best known example of a wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales, whose entries can be written or edited by anyone in the world. The amount of information it contains about the people, places and events of the past is probably unsurpassed by any other single secondary source. It also surpasses any other source for the amount of controversy it generates. Some university faculties prohibit undergraduates from citing Wikipedia in essays; others encourage students to contribute articles. One such entry, on Edward Owens, supposedly the 'last American pirate', was revealed to be a hoax created by students at George Mason University in Washington DC.

There are more specific ways in which wikis can be used by historians. The Your Archives site, launched in 2007 by the National Archives, provides a wiki which any users of the UK's archives can develop as they wish. Some contributors write articles on their particular expertise, or guides to specialist archives. Others share transcriptions of sources. Your Archives is currently encouraging users to collaborate on creating a glossary of common local and family history terms.

User-made content is not limited to written text. Websites such as Flickr and Picasa allow users to upload and share digital photos. Institutions such as the US National Archives and the Beinecke Library at Yale have used Flickr to host images of their collections. However, the site has been put to equally good use by individual enthusiasts. Thousands of groups have been created to allow photographers to pool images of heritage sites, scans of old photos, or reproductions of archival sources. …

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