Fans Will Be the Most Comprehensive Curators

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by: David Jennings

There’s a section in my book called "Creating and Curating the Archive" where I wrote,

In future, if they’re not already, fan communities will quickly become the most authoritative archivists for the artists they follow. They collect memorabilia and ephemera — from ticket stubs to magazine interviews and amateur bootleg recordings — that most people would dismiss as tat… As well as memorabilia, these items will include what are currently rare and hard-to-find audio and video recordings, which will be collected by both human foraging and automated ‘sweeping’ of the Net. Expert fans will catalogue them and record their digital fingerprints, to help identify whether further discoveries are duplicates or new additions to the archive.

Many of my projections in this area were based on observing the way Andy Aldridge has developed the Head Full of Wishes fansite for Galaxie 500 and associated ‘downstream’ acts. I profiled Andy in the book and also in this interview.

Yesterday Andy posted to the Head Full of Wishes mailing list about a new tagging framework he’s created for the site. This enables him to ensure that his site is able firstly to collect details of everything that’s out there on the Net and is connected to Galaxie 500, and secondly to organise and present that information in a coherent way. As he wrote,

I did this because I was finding interesting stuff "out there", tagging it in delicious and it was quietly getting lost now I can "catalogue" everything — if I find a video on youtube of Dean & Britta doing Tugboat [a Galaxie 500 song] in London (I wish) I can tag it with the relevant show and track tags and it will always be available of the page of that show (and that track)…

You can see it in action on the tugboat page where in the "On the Internet…" section you’ll find a few links to various bits on the Internet about that song (actually all youtube clips but that’s because that’s the section I’m working on first).

On that Tugboat page you’ll see the tip "To add to this list tag an item in delicious with this tag ahfow:trackid=9". Andy is using Web 2.0 techniques to enable the fan community of practice to help him. No matter how obsessive he is (and, believe me, he is!), he can’t find everything on his own. So he’s using social bookmarking and its API to make it easy for others to contribute.

At this point, some of you are thinking that just searching with Google and YouTube ought to be enough to find all the versions of song that a reasonable person would wish to see or hear. Do we really need to be that thorough?

Well, it helps if someone is, and we need to prepare for the scenario that Paul Lamere outlines for the future where the number of music tracks available online runs into the hundreds of millions (see Paul’s description at the start of this talk).

With numbers like that, we need all the help we can get to organise data about what’s what.

There are competing interests in this field, from privately sponsored initiatives like Gracenote and allmusic to the MusicBrainz database which is ‘crowdsourced’ by music listeners and is partly Public Domain (and partly Creative Commons licensed).

But none of the other players have the depth of data about Tugboat that Head Full of Wishes has. A community of fans can take shared focus and commitment for granted, and when you add smart technology, smart organisation and good leadership to the mix, the community is pretty much impossible to beat in its chosen field.

I asked Andy whether he has plans to cross-reference his data to that in MusicBrainz to increase the value of both. What was I thinking? Of course he has. I’ll spare you the full technical details of his reply, because frankly I don’t understand them myself. Andy has the advantage that his day job is working in an archive, so he’s both professional and amateur rolled into one. (I’ll bet his employer benefits quite a bit from the things he teaches himself, and experiments with, in the course of supporting his hobby.)

All of these details are, as Andy admits, deeply unsexy — un-rock’n’roll, even. In the book, I put it this way,

there is a yin and yang about rock’n’roll in the way that, for all its devil-may-care abandon and improvisation, it relies on its opposite to sustain it… In the Web 2.0 world, if the yang is the unrestrained flow of independent opinions across the net, then the yin that complements it is the canonical metadata that helps detect when people are talking about the same thing.

And this won’t stop at integration with MusicBrainz to provide a comprehensive catalogue of everything that’s online. The next step is offline, as my opening quote implied, to the world of physical memorabilia, which in time will also be tagged and catalogued. Every poster and setlist purloined from the stage becomes a spime.

[Update, 25 May 2008: Andy has just posted more about the thinking behind his plans, including a reference to David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous. He is also candid about the risks and weaknesses of his approach.]

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