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What can social media do for oral history?

When I was four years old my father brought an reel to reel tape recorder home with him, it had been discarded at the place that he worked and he fixed it up and used it to record my sister and I talking and singing.

Fast-forward thirty-something years and while that reel to reel tape recorder has gathered dust in my parents’ attic, technology has, of course, moved on.

Today, my eight-track tape recorder is my iPhone. This travels with me and I can record my children’s lives and share these experiences with my wider family through email, photo messages and social networks.

The sound quality that my iPhone gives me may not be much better than the soundtrack of my childhood, but this ability to share the experience so easily is revolutionary.

A few years ago, this kind of sharing may have seemed like the preserve of the geeky few, but sharing your activities, opinions and your creativity on social media is now the norm – there has been a socio-cultural shift where it has become acceptable, almost expected, that you will share intimate details of your life in a way which would have seemed incredibly narcissistic just a few years ago.

While technology can enhance oral history, it can’t change the essential appeal of good story, and StoryCorps is all about good stories. Over 30,000 have been recorded by the project since it was founded by radio producer Dave Isay in 2003.

Its mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs.

They started in October 23rd, 2003 with a StoryBooth in Grand Central Station in New York City, a sound proof booth where people could go to record their 40 minute interviews.

StoryCorps interviews take the form of a conversation between two people who know each other (as pictured above). They can be friends, family, or just acquaintances, though someone from StoryCorps is at hand to give advice on how to get the most out of a session.

Once an interview has taken place, the participants receive a CD of their interview and, with their permission, a second copy of each interview is archived at the American Folk Life Centre and the Library of Congress for future generations to hear.

The stories also appear on the StoryCorps website, tagged and categorised to make them easier to search. As well as allowing people to listen to the stories, visitors to the website are also encouraged to share the stories through social networks.

A quick search of social media websites finds that people are taking the time to link to the stories, virally spreading the word about StoryCorps and sharing personal favorites.

The animation shown above is one of a series created by StoryCorp based on recording which were made by members of the public. I really love this animation, I think that it will take these oral histories to a completely different audience.

One of the really nice things about these animations is that you can embed them in your own website, blog or facebook page, taking this Storycorp content and sharing it with your own networks.

The way in which the StoryCorps stories have been recorded was quite traditional and could have been done in a similar way thirty years ago but the way in which the content they are capturing is then distributed by members of the public who choose the share these recordings virally through their own networks, is very new.

Earlier this year, StoryCorps launched an iPhone application featuring stories which have been recorded by the initiative. This is another innovative way of sharing their content, but what interests me more is that they are also using this as a tool to collect more stories.

The app includes a ‘how to’ guide and links to an audio recorder, giving people the tools to record and share their own stories. I especially like the part of the app which suggests questions which you might want to ask the person you’re going to interview. These are categorised by the person you’re speaking to or life experiences.

Looking at StoryCorps you get the impression that everyone must have a story to tell. And it made wonder if other websites were collecting stories in this way.

Digging through the web I came across StoryVault, a UK based website which is trying to position itself as kind of a social network for oral histories – a place where you can upload the life story of your friends or family.

While I love the idea of this website, I have to admit that I found it quite intimidating; the featured stories which appear on the homepage are perhaps too good, with eye-witness accounts of everything from being a Japanese Prisoner of war to seeing the Berlin Wall come down.

While, as a viewer, these are really interesting stories, these world-changing events are quite a contrast to the kind of things most people could talk about, and I couldn’t post a story about my own life in this context, whereas StoryCorps seems like it is open to anyone.

Perhaps this is a good thing, and over time StoryCorps may become buried underneath so many reflections on ordinary lives that the great stories will be lost in the clutter, while StoryVault will be more focused a few ordinary people who witnessed remarkable events.

This idea of stories becoming lost in the clutter is an important point to make, if technology is making it easier to collect stories, how do we make that data accessible, mass starts to become a problem.

Both Story Corps and StoryVault use tags, descriptive words to help you to search through the content. These are added by the person uploading the video, this is good, but it only allows one perspective that of the content creator to be recognized. An idea that these websites could steal from online museum collections, is allowing the public to also add tags to these videos.


The picture above shows an object from the Online Collection on the Brooklyn Museum website, the tags next to this object have been added by the public. I really like this because it allows the public to interact with the collection and add value to the search information.

To highlight one of these tags, the descriptor ‘Bird Lady’ has been added as a tag to this object. Reading the official description of this object it is clear that ‘Bird Lady’ doesn’t have any curatorial meaning, but if a member of the public thinks that this is a valid descriptor, then this could make an object easier for another member of the public to find.

I think the same could be very true of audio or video for oral history projects, where giving the public the ability to tag content could make it easier for the public to find the stories which are most valuable for them without any additional work for the producer.

Looking at StoryVault again and seeing past the contents focus on great world events, I wondered if video is a barrier to entry or if asking members of the public to record their own oral histories is asking too much of people.

Forrester Research categories six different ways that the public interact with the social web in their social technographics tool, these are:

Creators – Critics – Collectors – Joiners – Spectators – Inactives

Forresters research suggests that only 24% of American’s might be willing to create video content and upload it to a website like StoryVault, but this statistic is misleading, or at least wildly optimistic. Lets compare that 20% statistic with the percentage of YouTube visitors who upload video to the world’s biggest video website. Just 0.16% of YouTube visitors upload content to the website, the vast majority of YouTube visitors are active in other ways, whether that is commenting, scoring, collecting or just viewing content.

Anyone who has spent time using YouTube will know how light the bulk of the content on that website is, dancing cats come to mind. So if only 0.16% of people are prepared to upload pointless rubbish to YouTube, how many will sit down to record there life stories for StoryVault.

I think we need to acknowledge that even if we are living in a world of status updates, sitting down to record an oral history and share this through a website is still a large barrier to entry and if we want to make the most of the opportunities that this offers us, then we need to make it as easy as possible for people to do this.

I think that the StoryCorp suggested questions that I mentioned earlier is a great example of making it easier for the public to get involved.

But as well as making it easier for the public to get involved at that top Creator motivation we should also be aware of the other ways that people want to participate online and think about how we can let people score content, add comments and share content.

Afterall you wouldn’t create an exhibition for just 0.16% of visitors and with online projects we need to also think about how we can serve as wide an audience as possible.

Another innovative project which is championing participation is UK SoundMap which was launched by the British Library earlier this year. This is an audio project, but they are not interested in oral history, this is instead an attempt to map the sounds of the United Kingdom.

This archive of the sounds of everyday life in Britain will act as an historic record of life at the start of the 21st century.


Recordings range from a car park in Hull to a supermarket check-out in Ipswich, from a gale in the Shetland Islands to a cat walking on gravel in Plymouth.

While the sounds are quite everyday, the decentralized way in which the UK SoundMap is being made is quite innovative.

The project allows any individual to contribute by uploading a recording through Audioboo, a social media platform which lets people capture recordings through their mobile phones and share these with people through the web.

Anyone can sign up for a free account with AudioBoo and get started in minutes, and, having made a recording, I simply have to tag it with the project id UKSM and it is pulled straight in to the project website and added to the UK SoundMap.

Ian Rawes the editor of UK SoundMap told me that the content submitted to the project is moderated, but the vast majority, 93%, is approved. Reasons that the recordings have been rejected vary from rights issues, typically recorded music being too prominent in the upload, swearing or hateful language, issues of quality or recordings where the person making the recording is talking but no environmental sounds are present.

Over 1000 recordings have been added to UK SoundMap, with contributions ranging from an individual recording through to 45 recordings added by the most prolific contributor.

Looking at the number of recordings each individual has added I wondered what makes one person add only a handful of recordings and another to add dozens.

I mentioned earlier the way in which the Brooklyn Museum have asked the public to help them to tag there collection, and they have used an interesting method of encouraging participation by awarding points for each tag that you add.

This points scheme gives recognition to those who contribute towards making the collection more accessible. As the leaderboard shows several users have added thousands of tags, and it is easy to see how something as simple as a points system and a leader board could encourage the people who are contributing records to UK SoundMap to be more active.

This crowdsourced approach allows the project to reach the whole of the UK, while keeping the costs at a minimum, and with spending cuts hitting heritage organisations across Europe, I think we can all see a benefit in empowering our audiences to help us to create this kind of project.

Another pioneering project is The Black List project – an exhibition which took place at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008. It brought together twenty-five portraits by internationally renowned photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders which looked to explore being Black in America.

The education team at Brooklyn Museum wanted to gather visitor responses to the exhibition which typically they would have done with an electronic comment book. But it was felt that video would better capture the more personal stories that they were asking people to share.

Originally they intended to set up filming times to take video responses in the gallery, but concern over the amount of time it would take to edit and collate responses made them look for a more automated solution.

The solution came in the form of YouTube and their Quick Capture feature, which allows anyone to use a webcam to directly record a video to their YouTube channel.

During the Black List Project’s four month run, visitors recorded 482 videos, of which 236 were shown on the Black List Project YouTube channel. Those which were rejected were mainly people messing around or pressing record and then walking away, only one of the 482 recordings was removed because it violated comment guidelines.

The 236 films which made it on to the Black List Project YouTube channel received 43,386 views from the public, though roughly half of these were for one video which was featured by YouTube.

The large amount of traffic that a website like YouTube receives is one reason that using an established website to host your video may work better for you, because rather then having to entice people to come and view your video on your own website you can simply post your video where lots of people are spending time online already.

Moderation of the videos was done at the end of each day, and typically took the staff at Brooklyn Museum no more then 15 minutes.

While the videos were generally within the comment guidelines set out by the Brooklyn Museum, one problem that using YouTube as a platform presented was the websites user base have a reputation for posting offensive comments. Sadly this allowed people to post racist comments under the films and staff from Brooklyn Museum needed to delete these comments and ban a number of users from being able to make further comments.

I think that it is testament to the Brooklyn Museum’s inclusive values that they didn’t switch off the ability of all users to leave feedback on the videos, preferring to moderate the vocal few rather than ban all feedback.

You can view the Black List Project videos here.

So at the start of this article I asked the question ‘what can social media do for oral history?’.

I’ve pulled out five main points from the projects that I have highlighted.

1. Social media can change the way you collect content
As we saw with the projects I have talked about today, technology is giving us new ways to collect content through webcams, mobile phones and crowdsourcing.

You no longer have to sit face to face with the person your interviewing, perhaps by empowering people to tell their own stories you will come across people and stories that you wouldn’t have found through traditional methods.

2. Social media can educate and empower our audiences
I think that these tools can help you to educate people about how to tell their stories, as StoryCorps are doing by giving people the tools to ask the right questions and record their own oral histories.

Social media also allows us to empower our audiences, making them think differently about themselves and their place in the world.

3. Social media can make your content more accessible
As we saw with the Brooklyn Museum online collection, we can ask our audiences to help us to make our content more accessible by tagging content with keywords.

4. Social Media can make your content viral
Content has become easy to share through the internet and I think this brings both opportunities and challenges for oral history projects.

On a positive note I can take brilliant content like the StoryCorps animation which I showed you earlier and embed this in my blog, spreading the word about storycorp and letting people see content which they might not have come across otherwise.

I think this kind of sharing can be incredibly beneficial for both the public and oral history projects, but I am aware that some content is very sensitive and the ability to share content might not always be wanted.

5. Social media is evolving
I started my presentation by talking about the shift which has taken place which has made it the norm to share the details of our everyday lives with others through websites like Facebook.

While it would be foolish to guess how this will continue to change, change is inevitable and just as I can stand here laughing at the state of the art technology used by my parents to record my childhood, I am quite sure that my iPhone, Facebook and the internet as we know it will seem archaic in far less then thirty years.

But something’s never change and even as someone who passionately believes in the benefits of social media I have to say that all the technology in the world is pointless in the context of oral history without a good story, and while technogies may change a good story and good storytelling is timeless.

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