In 1937, Mass-Observation was founded in the United Kingdom. It aimed to record everyday life in Britain by recruiting volunteer observers to maintain diaries and answer questionnaires about what they saw around them. At the same time, other people were paid to anonymously capture what was going at the workplace and public events. The work was kept up until the mid-Sixties, had a revival in the Eighties, and has been used during historical events since then. Currently, the records for the Mass-Observation are kept the University of Sussex where they continue to inform and educate as an important historical and sociological work
Recently the call went out for a Mass-Observation of the Covid-19 Outbreak (this has happened repeatedly since the heyday of the project). People are asked to send in responses as writings or drawings. These will be collected and made available to researchers moving forward.
I have been fascinated by this project since reading, Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self. It awakened my awareness of the project but also got me thinking about how the process could be improved through the use of technology.
Right now, they collect all of the material, which is centrally located. This is useful for researchers, but it is not convenient, timely, or open. So my question is why not online writing?
During the Covid Crisis, what if thousands of people were given blogs and asked to write daily about what they saw, heard and felt? They could be anonymous or put their name on it? Then what is all of that blog content was aggregated into a centralized site? One that is actively edited with an emphasis on categorization?
At the very least we would have a living record of people from all walks of life. Something that could be referenced by future generations.
But I think it could be much more.
A decentralized blogging network would allow people to tell stories that the news does not have an interest in, either because they do not meet a journalistic standard or simply cannot be easily monetized. Sure we would see the stats and politics, but it would be from a single human being, their agenda being wholly their own. It would be the very definition of human interest.
Feeds of this aggregate could be made available to any publication that wanted it. With a proper API, they could even pull and display very specific content without having to do much in terms of editorial on their own end.
As I keep diving deeper into the promise of aggregation, I am frustrated that it has been a dead-end for so many other organizations. It’s a straightforward concept with a tremendous potential to serve the public good. Using it during this crisis would be a powerful display of that potential. It just needs some people who are willing to get behind the idea.