Start Making Sense: Navigating Digital Public Space

By John Fass

Royal College of Art

This doctoral research is focused on the challenges represented by proliferating digital records, both public and private. New types of digital material, such as the hundreds of millions of tweets (and associated metadata) archived by the Library of Congress every day, are changing the way archives are understood and used. As new data types make their way into formal archives and personal collections, new ways of structuring and understanding them will need to emerge. Private digital collections consist of text, videos, photographs, and music; but also the more informal daily generation of data that occurs when people click around their favourite websites and participate in social media networks. Both types of data occupy digital public space and both embody specific challenges for meaning-making, navigation, ownership and curation.

National institutions have been encouraging private citizens to contribute to public archives for decades, but traffic has been predominantly in one direction. Archival status is reflexively conferred on the personal object or text by inclusion in structured and curated collections. Drawing on the connectionist theory of mind and on user centred design methodologies, this research takes narrative production as the central cognitive process through which meaning making is manifested. The research proposes a system that captures and reveals visitor behaviour. The traces of visitor interaction are seen as a form of patina, offering clues to how records are linked and contextualised. Digital patina is represented by the trails the content itself has followed (e.g. how it has been navigated, reblogged or retweeted). The less measurable ways interest-paths have influenced and changed the archive can also be captured. If these paths can be made more permanently visible and tractable, their journey through the archive can be reflected in the collection in the same way that stories take shape and develop over generations.

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