April 13-17, 2010
Denver, Colorado, USA

Buckets and Vessels

Aaron Straup Cope, Stamen Design, USA


With the mass of digital "stuff" growing around us every day and simple tools for self-organization evolving beyond individuals into communities of suggestions, is the curatorial prerogative itself becoming a social object?

This paper examines the act of association, the art of framing and the participatory nature of robots in creating artifacts and story-telling in projects like Flickr Galleries, the API-based Suggestify project (which provides the ability to suggest locations for other people's photos) and the increasing number of bespoke (and often paper-based) curatorial productions.

Keywords: Flickr, communities, galleries, robots, curation

Complicating matters, the railway is the main thoroughfare of the area, so should be also indicated as a pedestrian area, and many of the creeks/sewers sometimes serve similar functions. ... Even a name may not be a name. The use of a structure changes more rapidly than the availability of money to repaint a sign. So the sign might show a beauty parlor, but it's currently used as a tailor, and everyone knows that and calls it by its ‘spoken name’. How can the map reflect both what residents already know, and what an outsider might need to know to navigate?

(Maron, 2010)

The Unfinished Swan

What the Internet has done to the field of journalism, it will do to the practice of curation. This is not a claim based on empirical study, but rather, a prediction based on the evolution of “social software”, communities of interest that form and exist principally in on-line networks and a need to find stable ground in a digital world where the means and cost of production and distribution has approached zero.

It's also not a bad thing.

The art of curation is alive and well. The practice of highlighting selected works and the relationships between them and of finding meaning in the sum of their parts is becoming as much a survival strategy in an age-abundant data as a cultural pursuit. The astronaut Rusty Schweickart once observed that to “listen” to the volume of radio signals the space agency NASA is collecting, daily, is not so much like hearing sounds with a single pair of dual-band headphones, but rather like having ears with as many channels as a bee’s eyes has facets. Out of necessity, people are beginning to wrestle with the challenge of making sense of that data by creating new ways to aggregate it, by becoming experts in particular areas of interest and relying on the similar work of others. In the process, they are discovering that to organize, guided by meaning or judgment and an aesthetic sensibility, is to create.

The rhetoric used to describe this kind of change has typically been one of “power shifts”. Authority and status are wrestled away from one group by another that is “storming the gates” that separate experts and lay-people. This is certainly the way the story of the Internet's impact on journalism has been told. I don't think this is a useful way of understanding what's going on. Notions of authority are not eroding. People will continue to seek out and reward expert opinion. No one is storming the proverbial gates, and there are still plenty of people who want to get inside them. What is happening instead is the creation of a de facto, rather than de jure, culture of curation to deal with a world that has become more of an abundant present than a considered past. This is by no means a phenomenon limited to the Internet, but an informal list of examples, specific to the Web, includes:

  • Wikipedia which is in some ways the ultimate curatorial experiment where multiple authors edit, and correct, an ever-expanding encyclopedia of knowledge. Similarly the Open Street Map (OSM) project has managed to create a comprehensive, free and open database of geographic metadata using a simple key-value tagging system. While on the surface this approach would seem unlikely to succeed, the quality of OSM’s data in the United Kingdom rivals, and in some cases exceeds, that of the publicly-funded Ordinance Survey (Haklay et al., 2009).
  • Tagging, generally considered to be a kind a short-hand or simplistic form of taxonomy, has been extended and abused to act as the mechanics for on-line games and other community activities. Tagging becomes the, admittedly blunt, tool used to curate context for Web sites like, and groups on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr like Delete Me! where, in their own words: we only accept incredible pictures, amazing, astonishing, just dare to submit your photos and see how we appreciate them OR how quick we will remove it from the group”(DeleteMe, 2010).
  • acts more like an art critic than curator for works sold on the community-based arts and crafts Web site but which publishes a regular digest, and critique, of the more offbeat and unconventional offerings (the site's motto is “Where DIY meets WTF?”).
  • The proliferation of awards and badges - sometimes referred to as “bling” since they are typically animated GIF images mimicking sparkly metals and/or rainbows - on sites like Flickr denoting excellence or inclusion in a particular group. Flickr's parent company Yahoo! went as far as creating an entire Web site and platform called BravoNation, as an “experimental platform for people to send virtual awards and achievements to their friends and family” as well as a gallery of those events: “After accepting, Bravos can be viewed, favourited, and commented on by the BravoNation community. ... All of your Bravos are then collected in your Bravo Case, which can then be removed or rearranged” (Baio, 2007).
  • is a Web site that allows users to create and send printed photo “strips” via the postal system composed of photos on their phones or photo-sharing Web sites like Flickr or Facebook. Instead of simply sending a single photo with a caption, users are encouraged to create a narrative from a series of photos.
  •, a social location Web site, allows people to identify their current location from an existing list of traditional points of interes,t but also to create their own “places” whether it's the office water-cooler, specific terminals at an airport or the entire route traveled by a city bus. I think foursquare is interesting because, while only a year old, it seems to be one of the first Web sites of its kind to have successfully created an environment that motivates its users not simply to record their location for the present, but with an eye to examine that information later on - to create small postcards from the past sent to the future.
  • In 2008, London’s Really Interesting Group printed a limited-edition broadsheet titled “Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet 2008” which was, more or less, what it sounded like. Since then they have gone on to commercialize the product under the name Newspaper Club to enable people to create their own bespoke publications.
  • Anecdotally, I've been watching as more and more small coffee shops and restaurants have been installing record players to play music instead of digital music devices programmed to extrude a constant and infinite loop of random musical possibilities. By virtue of the need to change, and choose, a new record to listen to at regular intervals, I like to imagine that the staff are forced to consider more carefully how each song relates to the others and to imagine an arc that connects them.

The Brooklyn Museum's Visible Storage Study Center is another valuable illustration of how the idea of curating is being reconsidered. Items that are normally considered to be in storage and out of public view are kept in glass display cases. This approach has been criticized for offering an unfettered view of the museum, whose role is generally understood to be a learned filter, but I think the value is that it demonstrates to visitors that the carefully crafted exhibitions they normally see are actually formed from a larger collection and that the value of the exhibition is as much what isn't shown as what is.

Managing the volume of data, whether it be cultural production or “pure” information generated by sensors or business transactions, continues to improve with algorithmic clustering and computation, and has yielded some success. But it remains problematic because it still requires computers to be programmed using a rigid understanding of the world that often bumps up against the subtleties of human understanding and association. The act of curation allows us not so much to examine every piece of data, but to have a methodology to slow it down and a force to be considered in a larger, often unrelated, context. Language is magic, and computers are still dumb.

Stamen Design’s Michal Miguski describes their work processing and taming Twitter’s proverbial firehose of messages this way:

I see the process of breaking and reforming continuity everywhere around me. I flew several times last month, and each time I passed through security I thought about the check-in process as an elaborate map/reduce [ed.note] implementation, atomizing a stream of passengers into packets of shoes, laptops, jackets, bags and bodies. (Migurski, 2010)

If all of these examples seem foreign to the norms and conventions of traditional curating, they should. They are. People are not suddenly self-identifying as curators. Rather, what we are seeing is a growth of tools being made available to allow people to exercise a curatorial muscle many people never knew existed, even if the results don’t always look like something we’re used to.

The phrase “The Unfinished Swan” refers to a video game by the same name which “is a first-person painting game set in an entirely white world. Players can splatter paint to help them find their way through an unusual garden. ... Our dream is to make the world a stranger, more interesting place” (Dallas, 2010). I think this is a useful metaphor to think about how we manage a world where everyone is actively tending to the information that surrounds them.

Gardens are strange spaces where life can grow, places where there is not necessarily order but they bring manifest what is important about our future. [Rodenbeck] sees Stamen’s projects as garden: it’s not useful but it’s delightful … it’s not quite useful, not quite art but “it’s a start“, which is highly important. What [Rodenbeck] finds interesting is that it’s not necessarily articulate but it’s there.

(Nicolas Nova, Nova, 2008)

What has changed is that whether people think of what they are doing as “curation” they are discovering that the practice affords them the opportunity to create something new. What has changed is that the Internet has afforded the possibility of a giant, messy and roiling party to spring up all around the gates. What has changed is that it's not so lonely on the outside of the gates anymore (cf. the Powerhouse Museum’s “Write Your Own Label” project where visitors are encouraged to write their own interpretations for works on display: the “Odditoreum” exhibition is a wonderful way to bring the party back inside the so-called gates.)

What is important to recognize is that people are curating outside the normal theory and praxis of curatorial praxis. They are doing it not just out of necessity, but because it is exciting and rewarding. There is an entirely new understanding and appreciation of the act of curation that is taking root. They are building communities of suggestion and, in effect, the professionals are being invited to their own party.

As George Oates, current lead of the Internet Archive's Open Library Project, remarked recently: Curation is the new black.” (Oates, 2010)


“Data are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them”, said Hal Varian (Varian, 2010).

In the fall of 2009, the photo-sharing Web site Flickr launched the Galleries project. Galleries are a feature on the Web site that allows users to choose up to 18 photos by other Flickr members and display them together, in an ordered manner, on a single page.

The goals behind the project were two-fold:

  • First, to provide a vehicle for members to highlight photos of quality and meaning, rather than relying on computational algorithms. At the time of launch, Flickr already had a collection of over four billion photos and struggled daily to find a way to show off the breadth and quality of its members’ work. The challenges of training a computer to automate the understanding of the nuances of the social interactions on the site - compounded by the risk of Flickr staff being seen to “bless” one user's work over another’s and thus deprive the former of real or imagined standing in the community - were high and continued to act as a deterrent to promoting new and interesting work on the site.

What if, instead of trying to navigate the uneasy waters of motivation, real or perceived, we simply asked our users to tell us about the work they thought was valuable?

  • The second goal was to actively encourage members to think differently about their role and contributions to the site. The only enforced constraints around galleries were the exclusion of a user’s own photo and a limit on the number of photos that could be included in a single gallery. We wanted members to think of Flickr as not just a vehicle for their own photographs and reputation, but also as a place for active investigation and creation of narratives drawn from their experience, and interpretation of other people's work.

To share your view about what makes a selection interesting. Even a sprawling retrospective of a genre or a specific artist wouldn't include every single piece of work available. A curator takes the time to choose a selection of artwork that together becomes something in itself. (Flickr, 2010)

This was not an idea that was always easily understood, even on the team. Members asked:

  • Weren't galleries just sets of favourites? [No; there are plenty of photos you might include in a gallery without qualifying them as something you like.]
  • Didn't we already have groups if people wanted to create a collection of other people's work? [No; groups require that the photo owner both join a group and submit the photo to the shared pool.]
  • Hadn't people done the same thing with tags? [No; tags exist in a global space and are subject to pollution (photos being incorrectly labeled) or more often than not, the victims of differing meanings, making them especially brittle for use with galleries.]

Aren't all these names confusing, and aren't they all just search, after a fashion? From a technological and implementation point of view, they are, in fact, all just “buckets of search” (Cope, 2009), but life is more than the itemized list of tools we use to pass the days. A coffee mug, a soup bowl and a wine glass are all just vessels (or “buckets of liquid”), each more or less interchangeable, except for the naming and the ritual that transform each one into characters that operate with unique meaning in our lives. Sometimes the form IS the function.

So we made an entirely new bucket for people to put photos in and hoped that something new and exciting would emerge. Within the first week of launch, 25, 000 galleries were created, and, as of this writing, there are over 450, 000.

Thinking about creating a portfolio and writing an artist's statement has been difficult. How do I narrow my work down to the essence of who I am as a photographer? It is hard for me to be objective because every picture I take is personal. I've been practicing with galleries on Flickr. Maybe curating other people's work will help me focus on my own! (Kristal Armendariz, Armendariz, 2010)

Little Big Pictures

This project has been the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I've ever done professionally. When I'm compiling an entry, gathering the photographs, trying to fit them into a cohesive story, it can often be a very emotional experience. More than once, I've found myself in tears when looking at rough layout of an entry for the first time... I really feel like I've tried to take the best advantage I can of this platform I find myself on: 165,000 Google Reader RSS subscriptions, tens of thousands of daily bookmark visitors, Twitter-powered ripple effects, frequent top spots on Digg and Reddit. (Alan Taylor, Taylor, 2008)

The inspiration for Galleries came from earlier on-line communities like The Mirror Project, but also from contemporary efforts like the Boston Globe's The Big Picture.

The Mirror Project (2000 – 2009) was a community Web site, started by Heather Champ, devoted to self-portraiture in reflective surfaces. While its efforts have since been dwarfed by contemporary photo-sharing services, there were still then, too many photos for visitors to view without forcing them to page through them all one at a time (Flickr, for example, receives as many uploads in five seconds as the Mirror Project received submissions in its entire five-year existence.). The Mirror Project introduced Galleries, and then later, Themes: sub-sections in 2003 as user-curated snapshots, organized around a particular topic, to help create new avenues through which visitors could explore the site. (Another important property of galleries and themes was that each one had a formal, human readable URL that encouraged users to think of them as first-class, and permanent, objects in their own right.)

The Big Picture was launched in 2008 by Alan Taylor, a Web developer at the Boston Globe. It is a regularly updated gallery of curated images from some of the largest professional stock photography associations around a topical theme. The Big Picture has received numerous accolades for its striking and unorthodox design (at least for a traditional news Web site) that emphasizes the individual photos over everything else. All of the curatorial decisions are undertaken by Taylor alone, even though he has no formal training.

During the development of Flickr Galleries, we would often talk about the idea of building a sister project called “Little Big Pictures”. If the Big Picture were the start of a conversation devoted to a particular topic, what if users had a way to create their own gallery around the same idea, but with a complementary or alternative view? What if all those galleries could be linked to one another in a thread or as a set of linked nodes, each one acting as a constantly expanding set of jumping off points for each other? What if we encouraged users to participate in the discussion not by mastering the language of expertise, but by harnessing their experience of Flickr, itself, to create an entirely new visual narrative? ie, to argue a point not in the formal rhetoric of debate, but by embracing the fuzzy and open-ended nature of meaning in a visual art-form like photography.

One simple way to bootstrap the project would be to use the official Flickr blog which frequently posts collections of topical photos (one might even call them “galleries”) as the root topic and then simply link back to it with an assigned piece of metadata, or markup, in a (Flickr) gallery’s description field. This would require third-party developers to aggregate the data, but it also removes most of the burden from users (Flickr, 2010).

Why? To give users the tools to build many small bridges between relationships. To present an alternative point of view to an argument. To curate.

Higher Order Activities and the Bias Knob

…in spite of everything that maps can do, the ones I enjoy most are the simplest of all, those that reveal geography by stripping away all but some particular phenomenon and showing little or nothing more than where it exists. It's the challenge of interpretation, or the self-satisfaction of recognizing something, or the imagining of a world to fill in the gaps, or something. (Andy Woodruff, Woodruff, 2010)

So, what's going on here?

The measures we use to distinguish roles are getting cloudier by the day. The age of mechanical reproduction may have started with the printing press, but the widespread adoption of digital technologies as a means to create and distribute, and just as importantly to market and sell, their work has made for a confusing time for artists, designers and crafts-people. For most of their histories, the carefully crafted roles separating each have been a function of the means of production. In the absence of those constraints, how are those roles distinguished when the only measures are the communities of interest that form around the work they create? I don't think anyone really knows, right now. The perennial debate around the distinction between the fine arts and crafts is made more confused by the question of whether designers, particularly those making “data visualizations,” are creating new art-forms or simply illustrating buckets of information.

I think that a similar blurring of roles, and their meanings, is about to happen to curators and art critics, and even docents. Where once the burden of production argued in favor of limiting access to publication to a limited and accredited group of thinkers, the Internet now provides an alternative framework. Curation and criticism have always been considered higher-order activities than, say, those of the museum docent, but because the burden of publishing on-line is so low, it acts as not only an open environment for people to express their ideas, but also, and just as important, a network of feedback to foster and craft ideas that might never have been more than an uncertain hunch; an arena better suited and more forgiving to the idea of “failing fast” and constant iteration.

Ultimately, this is a story about the power to name things, the economics of being wrong in public, and the impact on our idea of expertise. The same forces are affecting other “domain experts”, most notably in the arena of geography.

Matt Biddulph, co-founder of the travel Web site, dubbed the area where his then offices were located on London's Old Street along with a number of other Web start-ups “Silicon Roundabout,” mostly as a joke between friends. What started as a joke has slowly been crystalizing in to an established colloquialism, as it is reported on by the news organizations, and one can easily imagine it assuming the mantle of historical nomenclature for the neighborhood. The same phenomenon can be seen happening in services like foursquare, where users are labeling otherwise uncharted or unacknowledged spaces like “the tarmac at DFW” (Dallas Fort Worth Airport ). They are curating the ‘proximates spaces’ that surround them (Cope, 2009a). In a recent article about hand-drawn maps, Julia Turner wrote:

Stiff believes that we amateurs have something to teach the pros. Our [handmade] maps are efficient - they edit out unnecessary information. They often include what Stiff calls "an error detector, something that tells you something's gone wrong." (If you see the red barn, you've gone too far.) They adhere not to mapmaking norms but to the user's particular needs. … Examining these bits of personal cartography - studying the ways "we edit, we twist, we rearrange, supportively" - can teach us how humans really perceive and understand maps.

(Turner, 2010)

In 2008, Flickr launched the Corrections project which allows users to change the names associated with their geotagged photos. Because Flickr tries to associate the geographic coordinates for a photo with a place name (a bucket, so to speak), it eventually became obvious that there were too many edge cases to rely solely on an algorithmic solution. (As of this writing, there have been a reported 2, 000, 000 corrections to photos geotagged on Flickr, with The Vatican enjoying the distinction of the most "contested" place, having 700 distinct “correctors” alone). In the end, the only viable solution was to let users decide their own meaning of the geographies in which their photos were placed because “all neighbourhoods are disputed around the edges.(Cope, 2009c)

In 2009, the Suggestify project was launched, using the Flickr API, to enable users to suggest locations for other people's geotagged photos. Currently, Suggestify does not allow suggestors to correct their own suggestions, but instead relies on photo owners doing so via the Flickr Web site. In 2009, the Dutch National Archives launched a similar project, MapIt1418, which invited viewers to help geotag photos from their collection of works from the First World War. Gary Gale, Director of Engineering for Yahoo!’s Geolocation Platform, has written that “being your own source of truth continues to be of major significance when sharing your location with the world at large”(Gale, 2010). Like foursquare, the obvious next step is to allow users to define their own labels - place names - with the suggestions and use Flickr's Clustr software, used to trace the geographic shapes and boundaries derived from geotagged photos, to generate complex user-defined (curated) spaces.

Michal Migurski's Walking Papers, software designed to round-trip paper and digital edits to Open Street Map, has recently been used by professors at the University of California’s Berkeley’s School of Information to enable “a sort of psychogeographical dispute resolution between high school students in the town of Richmond marking up maps of their school and neighbourhood with tags like “stoners”, “asian gangsters” or “make-out spot” ( By allowing participants to manipulate the perception of their environment they are given a sort of bias knob to adjust the psychics and gravity of one space over another and to create a truly personal map of the world.

[It is this writer’s opinion that too much ink has already been spilled discussing the Situationists and their, admittedly pioneering, work around the notion of “psychogeography” so it is left as an exercise to the any reader unfamiliar with their ideas to learn more. I would suggest starting not with the writings of Guy Debord but rather the archives of the Conflux Festival, held annually in New York City:]

In 2010, following the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Open Street Map (OSM) project quickly became the most important mapping resource for disaster relief agencies, as well as the United Nations and World Bank. By coordinating on-the-ground updates and corrections as well as tracings of satellite imagery done by volunteers all over the globe, OSM has created the most authoritative mapping of a territory previously ignored by commercial interests in just under a week. Steve Coast, one of the founders of OSM, has said that: “NavTeq and TeleAtlas only have 10, 000 drivers in cars but we have 100, 000 users [now estimated to be closer to 200, 000] all over the world. How can we lose?”(Coast, 2009).

Dan Catt has suggested applying this idea to entire cities, where the building themselves become not so much curators as archivists:

When that person, takes that photo near that building, that building should offer them free WiFi, for them to upload that photo to Flickr (other photo-sharing services also exist). But in return ... it gets to keep a copy of the photo on it’s servers, in the basement. All large buildings should offer that service … The building need not do anything else with the photos, its main job is to protect them. … The city becomes its own protective cultural distributed archiving network. (Catt, 2009)

A city where every building is its own “Cornell box” (

The Tragedy of the Archives

If you had to ask yourself that, you are not a curator. You are, at best, a filter. You may make a name for yourself by excelling at some kind of selection process, but you are not a curator. “Curator” does not mean “I have good taste”. That just makes you some kind of fleshy gauze for the rest of us. The good come to us whilst all the pus and snot that came through your information media streams stay on your side. You are a makeshift step before a more advanced algorithm is invented. … I have becoming increasingly frustrated by the nonsense being stuck to the term “Curator” because people struggle to find the word for “Someone (Else) to Sort Through This Rubbish”.

(, 2010)

With every passing day we are generating, whether it is deliberately curated or “simply sorted”, ever more stuff to make sense of. Cultural heritage institutions are already all too familiar with the burden of collecting and storing and making sense of enormous pools of artifacts. Most institutions have large, and growing, collections of work still to be catalogued sitting in back rooms and storage facilities, to the despair of everyone involved. Why would we want to encourage anything that will exacerbate the problem? How do we attempt to manage it?

The Flickr Commons has been one attempt to harness the knowledge and energy of a larger community to address the problem: member institutions upload works from their collections in the hopes that the Flickr community will help to improve and document the associated metadata. Generally considered to be a success by both Flickr members and participating institutions, there have been criticisms of the quality of data that the project has generated.

In his essay “"Lick This": LOC, Flickr, and the Limits of Crowd Sourcing”, Larry Cebula, an historian at Eastern Washington University, writes:

Flickr users may also add comments and tags to images, and organize them together into sets. But here again the crowdsourced noise overwhelms the signal of useful historical information. There are over 100 comments attached to this one photograph, all but a few devoted to the picture's composition (well it is a photography Website after all) or how pretty the woman is or posting just to post something. Within the chaff there are a few grains of wheat - as when user BeadMobile adds some pencil drawings made by his grandmother when she worked in a factory during World War Two. But you really have to dig.

(Celuba, 2009)

The criticism is not without some merit. The nature of the participation Commons has generally been more conversational in tone and tenor than academic. On the other hand, the successes are clear: the scholarly achievements have been demonstrated by multiple institutions (cf. The project has been the catalyst for some institutions to re-think and change long-standing policies around access to their collections (Bray, 2009). There is an entirely new vocabulary with which to consider those works. Finally, the works themselves have been seen by a larger audience than ever before.

The value of the Commons in not as a digital storage archive; that's largely a technological problem that's been solved. The value is the larger context in which the works included exist, specifically the community, but also the mass of unrelated photos that surrounds them: The pictures of kittens and beaches and weddings and even the absurd awards and comments. The value of the Commons is that, like the Brooklyn Museum’s Visible Storage, it offers a broader environment in which to imagine the work, to ground it in a larger possibility space of associations and meanings.

Writing about the Open Street Map project and the struggles they are facing adapting existing tools and creating new ones for a wider audience, Steve Coast says:

At the same time, we’re growing into the realm of a new school of thought. We're increasingly hitting people who can contribute enormously but just not in the way we're used to … Everyone in OSM has basically been contributing for the kinds of extended periods of time as above, not the minutes or hours. Many see someone contributing so little as wrong or pointless. I say just the opposite. The people who spend minutes or hours disappear because we just don't welcome them.

(Coast, 2010)

This is a lesson the cultural heritage sector overlooks, not so much at the risk of being replaced or overturned, but simply of being ignored. To dismiss the value of non-expert contributions simply because the tools don’t lend themselves to an established form, or because they lack grace, is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath-water. It is entirely possible that tools used by the Commons project, like “notes” or even tags, on Flickr don’t scale beyond small and tightly knit groups. That they are used at all and that they are over-used to their breaking point suggests, however, that the desire to contribute in the process of understanding a work and of deriving meaning is enormous, largely untapped - and an opportunity.

Even before Flickr launched Galleries, groups like Indicommons were already curating photos from across the Commons collection on their own Web site. Galleries were a deliberate attempt to motivate a particular kind of behaviour (to find meaning “sorting through all that rubbish”) and to encourage users to self-organize around a simple set of constraints that left enough room to explore and redefine. Maybe Galleries are a better fit for the Commons but, more importantly, they are just one bucket among many left to be tried.

Time Keepers

8-Bit NYC is an attempt to make the city feel foreign yet familiar, smashing together two culturally common models of space: the lo-fi overhead world maps of 1980s role-playing and adventure games, and the geographically accurate data that drives today's web maps and GPS navigation. … Maps offer us visual architectures of the world, encouraging us to think about and interact with space in particularly constrained ways. Take some time to think about New York a little differently. Set out on a quest. Be an adventurer.

(Brett Camper, Camper, 2010)

Here’s another way to think about the problem. We are all trying to bookmark time, in some fashion. We are still a long way from being able to build machines for perfect recall but, in the last decade, we have also leap-frogged from its being a purely theoretical possibility to some flavour of practical reality. This is not a new problem. It is, and has always been, a hard problem. It is also a problem whose technical challenges we are close to solving. What we continue to lack are the conceptual devices with which we can measure the texture of the problem, and it’s not clear that established conventions are going to be applicable in any meaningful way to the larger community.

Just like the collapsing geographies between the fine arts, design and craft, or critics and curators and docents, the distinctions between libraries, museums and archives are blurring. That may seem like a daunting prospect because it will probably upset a variety of well-understood and established roles in the process. I argue that it is a change that should be embraced because what hasn't changed is the core rationale of the mission for all those institutions: to collect and nurture the past and to use it as a guide and a prism for the future - to be “history boxes”.

At the same time, commercial enterprises like Flickr's parent company Yahoo!, suddenly find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to be “time keepers”. Whether or not they asked to be, entire communities are now assuming that those companies will not only preserve and protect the works they’ve entrusted or the comments and other metadata they’ve contributed, but also foster their growth and provide tools for connecting the threads.

These are not mandates that most businesses take up willingly, but many now find themselves being forced to embrace them because to do otherwise would be to invite a betrayal of the trust of their users, from which they might never recover. On the other hand, this is exactly what the cultural heritage sector does, does well, and has spent a lot of time thinking about.

So, what does it all mean?

The short answer is: No one knows, yet. The long answer is: No one's going to have any better idea for a while to come. The question is not fundamentally “how” but rather “what and why”. The former is only an issue in the service of the latter. (If you find yourself thinking that Flickr ever really understood, empirically, how to approach the problems of scaling to 2 billion photos, later 3 or 4 billion photos, or 50 million users, all I can say is: You’d be wrong. We learned a few tricks over the years, but mainly it was a constant process of re-invention where the only constant was the motivation for starting the site in the first place.) We are in open-territory, and in the absence of anyone having already mapped the terrain, the best we can do is to leave sign-posts of what not to do and then launch ourselves in another direction. Josh Greenberg, Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship at the New York Public Library, calls this “betting on the future”. It is loud and messy and confusing, but at least, at the end of every day there is still a strange and beautiful monster that gives you a reason to come back for more!


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Cite as:

Cope, A.S., Buckets and Vessels. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted