There seems to be little debate that the inauguration of Barack Obama will attract the largest audience of any presidential inauguration in U.S. history. Some estimates have the crowd exceeding two million people while tens of millions of others watch at home on TV, or at work on their computers. At the same time, there also seems to be a widespread acceptance of the idea that Obama’s inauguration will also be one of the most documented events in recent memory, with thousands of digital cameras poised to record various aspects of the ceremony while others microblog the event on Twitter or Facebook.
But there is something about the documentary-mania that has been leaving me feeling a little skeptical, and I haven’t quite been able to place it precisely. I’ve written and deleted at least two bog entries on this topic in the last couple of days, and I’m still not convinced that I have anything coherent to say about what might be described as a massively collaborative documentary project. I am excited to see such collective activities as a Flickr group dedicated to collecting photographs of the inauguration, and the P.O.V. blog also lists a number of resources where people will be documenting the inauguration online, including a Flickr stream set up by the Presidential Inauguration Committee designed to document various aspects of the day, including a set devoted to inaugural balls and another devoted to parade rehearsals, among others. They also have a Twitter feed. In addition, The Washington Post also has an Inauguration Watch page devoted to following a documenting all of the action at the inauguration, including a webcam and a blog designed to keep readers apprised of the day’s events.
And, in one of the more ambitious documentary projects, CNN plans to use the new Photosynth technology to document, or perhaps create, The Moment, which will combine user submitted 2D photographs to create a 3D simulation of the inauguration moment. Users are asked to submit photos taken precisely as Obama raises his hand to take the oath of office, and the Photosynth technology will map similarities within each photo to create a 3D image. This latter documentary project is doubly fascinating in that it offers the (illusory?) pleasure of collective authorship while also offering the (equally illusory?) fantasy of presentness at the making of history, at the historical event itself.
To be sure, there is a long history of seeking to document these key historical transitions. Thomas Edison famously used the then-nascent medium of motion pictures to record William McKinley’s inauguration and, later, to re-enact the execution of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz (I wrote about these films many years ago). So it’s no surprise to see CNN and other organizations use the newest technologies to preserve these latest historical transitions for future audiences.
But, as Liz Losh points out, with the inauguration fast approaching, it is probably worth reflecting on how this material will be archived for future audiences. The survival of the Edison footage is a useful reminder that significantly less than half of the movies filmed before 1950 have survived in a viewable format. For example, she cites Dan Cohen’s concern about posting images to social networking sites that are “not in the forever business,” as well as concerns that pictures posted to Facebok may be restricted only to friends and acquaintances, making them inaccessible for future historians and researchers. One solution that Liz offers is to submit material to government and non-profit sites such as Change.gov and the Internet Archive, which will also have volunteers in the crowd documenting the day’s events, in order to make sure that this material is preserved and stored in away that will make it available to all, hopefully in a navigable fashion.
I realize this entry has ranged all over the place, but I think that comes from my own fascination with how these events have been documented and concern with how those texts will be used (or not used) to provide us with a full tapestry of such an important historical moment.