September 15, 2003

Web-based Oral History the Right... and Wrong Way

The Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California, had its AppleLore event, and WIRED News was there to cover it.

One of the things announced at AppleLore was the launch of an AppleLore Blog, officially supported and run by CHM. The AppleLore site is similar in ways to what I'm planning for the upcoming PLATO History website, that will go along with my book on the PLATO system. But there are some important differences.

For one thing, the CHM has placed rules on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the blog. From the AppleLore's home page:

What Type of Stories?   In addition to the obvious - how technological innovations were developed, stories about major product launches, marketing "firsts," and about the unique culture of Apple. You can post a story about an event that happened in any year from 1976 through 1993, or to one of many specific topics. This is your chance to tell the world about all of the cool stuff that happened at Apple ... about the passion that made everything you did so great and so much fun ... about the unique people and events that made Apple different.

Guidelines for Recording Your Story   We want narratives - not dialog. This is NOT a chat room or a threaded discussion board. We are looking for short stories that have a beginning, middle and end. It would also help to include a timeframe with your story. While several people may add a story about the same timeframe, event or topic, each story will stand on its own. And, don't be surprised if some stories contradict one another - it happens all the time in historical records.

The Rules   Yes, we have a few. All story submissions will be reviewed by a volunteer Editorial Board prior to being posted to the weblog. The Editorial Board will not edit the stories for accuracy since the story reflects your perspective; however, before posting your story for all to read, stories will be edited for foul language, derogatory comments about specific people, gossip or anything else deemed inappropriate. This isn't the National Enquirer Historical Record and we want your children and grandmother to be comfortable reading your story or stories from your colleagues.

I believe the CHM does society a disservice by having these rules. Why?

First of all, it makes clear above that it wants stories about the "unique culture of Apple," using words such as "cool" and "so great" and "so fun" to describe the culture. I did not work at Apple, but I am sure that there was indeed an incredible amount of cool stuff that was indeed so great and so fun. It's widely known and documented that Apple was one hell of a place to work --- intense, hectic, every day a history-making adventure.

But you don't have to do much research at all to know that Steve Jobs was an SOB, a highly effective and successful one, but an SOB nonetheless. Why, just look at the WIRED News story again:

"Everyone has their Steve-Jobs-the-asshole story," said one attendee, who asked not to be named.

One former manager, for example, recalled that Jobs told an entire team of engineers they would be losing their jobs right after they came back from Christmas vacation. "What a thing to do before the holidays," the employee said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Everyone dreads getting caught in an elevator with him," said another.

Yet another former employee remembered how Jobs "ripped me a new one" for failing to deliver a project that met his high standards. Jobs sidelined the employee, who quit the company a couple of months later after working there for nearly a decade.

Nonetheless, few begrudged Jobs' high standards and what he has done for the company since he returned as CEO in 1996.

Now, question is, would these kinds of quotes be permissible in the AppleLore blog? I'm guessing not. And yet, I'm guessing that if you worked at Apple Computer between 1976 and 1993, you have your share of Steve Jobs stories. Good, bad, and ugly ones. It was part of the Apple culture. An important part.

Second, I think the AppleLore folks might want to reconsider the "this is NOT a chat room or a threaded discussion board" restriction. I believe that in order for a web-based oral history-gathering tool to work, you have to let people do whatever they want, however they want in order to feel comfortable sharing their recollections. Otherwise, you're not going to get anywhere near the level of participation you need to make the whole effort worthwile.

Some data: probably the best online oral history mechanism I have ever seen is the =platopast= notesfile on the PLATO/NovaNET system. Started around 1977, =platopast= is still up and running, and has been a valuable resource for me to mine for anecdotes, names, dates, places, and issues. Why did it work for so many years? Because it was essentially a "chat room or threaded discussion board." Yes, it was moderated --- all notesfiles on PLATO had moderators --- but very leniently. And commentary and discussions about the stories posted were welcome and often led to some of the most valuable insights, because the original posting served as a catalyst, triggering memories in others, and then others would post their perspective on the issue or story. Now the historian has multiple perspectives with which to "triangulate" on the essence of what happened.

More data: The WELL has numerous cases over the years of topics opening up to discuss some historical point. Hundreds or thousands of replies later, a rich conversation is the result, full of great oral history that, because it's in conversation form, tends to self-correct as it goes along.

More data: The Before the Web website, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is a living example of a site that, while its mission and goals are worthy and honorable, probably hasn't lived up to its full potential. Partly, I believe, because of its architecture: it invites people to post stories -- great -- but nobody can comment on them, and the people running the site apparently don't follow up with questions or clarifications. So what's left is a collection of relatively brief personal statements from people who did stuff online before the rise of the Internet or Web or AOL. Some of those stories are indeed interesting, but they seem kind of disjointed and tip-of-the-iceberg to me. As a computer historian, I want the whole iceberg.

I decided not to open a PLATO history message board or other public means of oral-history gathering because I felt it would not be as effective as direct contact with individuals or small groups, through face-to-face interviews and email correspondence. I've used the Web to find people, and have had incredible luck gathering information and oral history this way. I've have a huge temptation to open it up to the public to practice what I'm preaching above, but I worried I wouldn't be able to run a very busy message board as well as write a book at the same time (this is a one-man operation, no Sloan funding for me, unfortunately.)

What I've found to be crucial is the give-and-take of question and answer, as well as coming back to person X after getting the story from person Y, and reading Y's story to X and getting X's take on it. This is the kind of thing that can work very well in a threaded discussion board, the very thing CHM wants to avoid.

So, unless CHM changes its rules and rethinks the site's architecture, I suspect that AppleLore will not become anywhere near as valuable as it could be for historical reference. Let's check back in 2004 sometime and see who's right. Posted by brian at September 15, 2003 07:51 AM


Hi Brian, Enjoyed your article and agree with you completely.

I am working on a Oral History blog at the moment attempting to collect all kinds of resources relevant to the topic. Would appreciate your comments and additions to the blog -

Thanks, Sue

Posted by: Susan at February 19, 2004 12:36 AM

Thanks Susan. I'm aware of, and will keep an eye on it.

I'm also very interested in Andy Hertzfeld's site, which I believe is a great answer to CHM's restrictive AppleLore site (intentionally or unintentionally).

Posted by: Brian Dear at February 19, 2004 01:35 PM

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