Hero of the Week: The Painted Woman Blog

Or, Why I Love the Internet

I will start by answering that tease:  I love the internet because it makes authors of us all.

I don’t mean this in a snarky way.  I’m being completely serious. The internet is the world’s greatest publisher, and the greatest platform for crowdsourcing information in human history. All it requires is one person with a passion for some strange, random niche, and the rest of the world can access in a matter of minutes or hours what that person spent days or weeks or years researching.

Most of us are not researchers, in that we are not happy digging through material that may or may not contain the information we need on the vague hope that it will.  Especially for my Generation Google, that is a disgusting waste of time.  Sure, you might learn a few interesting facts along the way, but are they really worth those lost three hours when you could have found what you needed in three minutes on the web?

Most people who blog on very narrow topics share a few things they intentionally set out to find, but vastly more things they just stumbled across along the way. What makes the internet awesome is that it gives people a place to share those snippets instead of shrugging and moving on to the information they were really after. And what makes the internet even more wonderful is that it’s free for the rest of us to find that information–free, in a financial sense, yes, but more importantly free in a more abstract sense, in that the information available is no longer limited by what the gatekeeping institutions of publishers and editors and librarians and archivists judged to be important.  It doesn’t matter if some literatus thinks the information or perspective is worthwhile to publish just for posterity, or likely enough to attract an audience to be profitable to publish; what matters now is if someone, somewhere, was engaged enough by the information to write a few sentences or paragraphs about it. 

Also, of course, the wonderful specificity with which the information can now be searched removes one of the other great inhibitors of free information.  Information now can be parsed quite narrowly with a discerning data matrix so that you find exactly and only what you were looking for.

The specific case that has me thinking about this is my Grand Friday story, which I have rapidly realized will take at least a few brush strokes of research on:

  • clothing
  • accessories
  • modes of travel and times involved
  • luggage
  • automobiles
  • cocktails
  • southwestern England (climate and geography)
  • art deco houses (decor more than architecture but perhaps architecture, too)
  • names

The autos are a simple Google search, the names a US Census Bureau/baby name book search, modes of travel and times from Wikipedia, cocktails from a cocktail revival movement website. 

The luggage, accessories, and clothing I snagged in one place, a fabulous (and sadly, seemingly defunct) blog about life and glamour in the 1930s, The Painted Woman.  There are enough posts and enough words on the site to make a short book, at least, but the writers never got paid for it, never had to worry about whether the topic had a broad enough appeal to be “worth” publishing, never had to see their research consigned to the dusty university library shelves never to be unearthed again because the closest Library of Congress could bring anyone needing the information to their book was “History: America: 1930s: Travel” and “Fashion: History: 1930s.”  Compare those to the Google algorithm search terms of “popular luggage brands in the 1930s” and “what went in a handbag in the 1930s.”

Oh, and the sources the blog references? They link to them, and I can follow the immediate gratification trail to the Metropolitan Museum website for their exhibit of exquisite evening gowns from the era, or the British Museum’s collection of jeweled cigarette and powder cases, and when I’m done perusing those side topics, I can go back to the first site and keep reading.  Or I can save the other pages for when I’m done with the first, depending on how much my ADD is acting up, but what I don’t have to do is leave my seat and go find another book and then physically thumb through it to find the information I need, which may or may not be in more depth in that volume than it is in the one which credited it as a source. With the internet, if the source cited is not yielding anything new, it is a matter of minutes wasted to discover that instead of hours.

I know scholars and professors and researchers will blather about the “unreliability” of information on the internet, but the fact is that most people out there writing about the topics too esoteric to exist in traditionally published books are knowledgable about their topic.  Why there should be an assumption that more people would take the time to talk about something they don’t know well, than something they do, is beyond me.  If you’re spending your time researching a time period becuase you love it, are fascinated by it, secretly wish you’d been born into it, and want to share what you’re learning with someone else who might feel the same way, why would you share misinformation?  You wouldn’t, at least not intentionally, and if you do and find out where you went wrong then you correct it with an open mea culpa.  You share the things you learn, and you share your sources–the 1930s Girls About Town frequently use old dress pattern books and advertisements in their posts–and help make the topic as accessible and transparent as possible to those who are coming to your site, reading your hard work, and benefitting from your passion…which was the entire reason you decided to start the website about it in the first place.

I love that I can find websites like that which have a singular focus and can provide me exactly what I need to know. I do not mind researching or reading widely on a topic if I can see that I’m getting exactly the knowledge I need and other useful knowledge I didn’t even know I needed but can tell that I do need upon seeing it; I have read almost the entire archive of that site, and it took me several hours of fairly intense focus to do it. So when I say I’m not a researcher what I mean is, I don’t have the patience to read 500 pages to distill the useful 50–but I will gladly and attentively read those 50 someone else distilled for me.  I can and will spend hours reading on a topic…but only if I’m finding what I need. What I cannot and will not do is spend hours reading and have only a small fraction of them be useful.

So, Internet, I love you.  Forget all your elitist haters; they’re just mad because you have stripped away their relevance. And 1930s Girls About Town–thank you for your blog.  It was amazing while it lasted, and I, for one, have both enjoyed and been enlightened by your words and your research. My story will be stronger for it, and you enabled me to continue its tight publication schedule because you gave me in one night everything I needed to know to move forward.

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Filed under Digital Revolution, Ramblings, Research

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