Come Here to Me blog discussion at the 2013 Dublin anarchist book fair


If you are not familiar with the infamous Come Here to Me blog then you should really have a look at it or the book and join thousands of other readers finding out about social history in Dublin. There are over 2,000 stories on the site addressing many different facets of everyday life and culture in Dublin from forgotten lanes, to overlooked monuments through to stories about the Gards, the eating habits of Dubs, and clubbing in the 50's and everything in between. The site has won a number of awards over the years and two of the authors spoke at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair to a crowd of academics, librarians, archivists and many interested members of the general public.

The discussion took the form of highlighting several examples from the site and using these to illustrate several lessons learned. What emerged is a telling tale of the both the power of the web to educate, inform and influence public opinion but also the dangers of centralisation of power to global companies with agendas that don't match the needs of the people.

Open Tools.
The site is built using a piece of software known as wordpress, that allows the authors to easily manage the content that they are building without the necessity to worry excessively about the technical problems of security, hosting and managing the website. Such open source platforms are becoming increasingly popular developed by hundreds of independent software engineers across the world. This model of organisation is very decentralised and allows the project to meet the needs of the end user very well. In many ways it puts into practise anarchist principles of self-organisation. More importantly it provides a low cost way of publishing and enables people on a limited budget to access a large audience.

Many of the examples, but in particular the 1911 census data, built on the publically available records that anyone can access through the census database. This fascinating data allows historians and lay people the opportunity to quantitatively assess changes in the Irish population over time. The blog highlights one example, focussing on religion and the changes in such demographics over time. At the beginning of the last century Ireland was still overwhelmingly a religious country. The authors looked at some of the certified non-believers and others who used the census data as a form of protest marking themselves down as Suffragettes in the religion section. Many of the self-confessed godless where visitors to Ireland, perhaps less fearful of the repercussions of declaring oneself to being an atheists since they didn't have to hang around. Such insights into the make up of the country over time would previously only have been available to overworked civil servants who perhaps wouldn't have had the time or the inclination to delve into this data and uncover some of these fascinating details. By opening this data up to the public the government have increased our cultural capital and ability to look objectively at ourselves and the changes within society over time. In another example of the re-use of opendata the blog used Ordinance Survey Ireland (OSI) data to map the locations of assassinations by the state during the Civil War. Hopefully, over time more examples of this couragous move to open, in a non-commercial way, access to government information will become more commonplace. Governments are increasingly waking up to the need to become more transparent in the way that they operate and how they control access to information.The real challenge will come in the future: if all information is available the battle will move from controlling information to controlling the narrative and the presentation of the data.

The Social Network.
The authors demonstrated the power of social media on the web to add and enrich the narrative of story telling. The site has generated over 5000 comments which have added all kinds of information to the original stories. These comments range from correcting factual inaccuracies, to relatives of the subject matter offering up new leads on old stories. This platform for discussion of history is in stark contrast to the often closed doors of the Ivory Towers of universities where history is about a succession of powerful men and the wars they fight. On Come Here to me we discover in exquisite detail the lives of the people involved in the Civil War, the reality of life as an emigre in London and through this gain an insight into the social history of Dublin.

The power of the network to add to the narrative was well illustrated by the examples chosen in the talk. Silver surfers hunting for references to their past haunts came across the discussion of ethnic restaurants and added valuable insight into the atmosphere of Dublin at the time of the opening of these venues. For them this was an opportunity to find other interested local people and rekindle old discussions about the places in a time before hyperlocal restaurant guides were available. Photos were added to the stories of the Civil War participants by family members, adding visually to the story. These kind of stories show how it is possible for consumers of history to become producers of history through their comments, pictures, first-hand accounts and insight into the situations being discussed. Such examples are powerful testiment to the ability of the web to transform the means of production and widen participation.

The final example of building a facebook museum for the Archive of the Irish in Britain raised some of the most challenging questions. Whilst facebook and social media in general has no doubt widened participation in history; issues surrounding archival and ownership of information arose in this section of the talk. The project managed to garner good coverage in the mainstream media and was a success in many respects. However, the question of who owns the data underpinning the project and who is responsible for the longterm survival of the project and others like it was raised in the discussion. Such community archives exist in the physical realm here in Dublin - the Irish Jewish Musuem being a fine example. It is very clear who owns the property here and what the strategy is for the longterm survival of the organisation. But in the digital realm where accountibility is loose and people's attention and motivation for projects is so transient the danger is that such projects will become defunct through indifference. What archivists in the 21st Century face is a question of how to access the data and what data to preserve. Should all the facebook messages in a group talking about a social history experiment be recorded for posterity?

The question of who owns the data and who controls it has been discussed for many years. The authors highlighted the pioneering work of Howard Zinn and his attack on archivalists demanding that they create an archive of the lives of people. Whilst social media platforms have empowered many people what are the longterm consequences of publishing on networks like facebook or blogger (owned by the ad agency google). The authors of Come Here to me have settled on a nuanced compromise whereby the leverage the network on facebook but strive to use open tools. The gaunlet they laid down is that we need to create powerful tools for social networking in the same way we have for publishing.

The clear message emerging from this talk was that there is a demand for more accessable ways to engage with social history and for ordinary people to tell their visions of the past. The recently published book demonstrates the maturity of this particular style of historial record and the acceptance of their method by the general public if not by all of the establishment historians. The discussion highlighted the real challenges facing historians in todays sea of information and the dangers of the data deluge. The authors showed how a small dedicated team could overcome these problems and produce an excellent resource for their community that could be enjoyed by anyone.

WORDS: Guest reviewer - Doopa