Since 2009, Nick Stanhope has been the CEO of We Are What We Do, a Britain-based nonprofit that creates products and digital tools that aim to affect people’s behaviors for the better. Historypin, one of the Oxford University graduate’s latest projects, is a website and smartphone app that allows users to “pin” old photographs and video or audio clips to Google Maps at the very locations they were snapped and recorded. The photographs can be searched by place and time, organized into collections or tours and even overlaid onto Google Street View for dramatic now-and-then comparisons.
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For instance, one can see King George VI’s stagecoach passing through Trafalgar Square on his coronation day, May 12, 1937, transposed over the modern-day intersection. And, with a slide of a switch, a photograph of the ruins of the Marriott World Trade Center hotel, taken on September 11, 2001, fades to reveal the spot as it looks today.
“Historypin is a new way to see history,” says Stanhope. I spoke with him about his budding site just weeks after its mid-July launch.
How did the idea for Historypin first come about?
The roots of Historypin are in the intergenerational divide between older and young people. We focused on some of the things that we might be able to contribute in order to increase conversations, relationships and understanding and reduce negative perceptions across different generations. The most compelling part of that work was looking at the role of shared history and what a picture or a story could do to start conversations.
How do you see it being a useful tool?
Our organization as a whole spends a lot of time thinking and talking about this concept of social capital—the associations, networks and trust that define strong communities. What Robert Putnam has done, and other sociologists like him, is trace the disintegration of this social capital. I think it is a huge trend, and not something that Historypin can solve by any stretch of the imagination. But we think that by boosting the interest in local heritage and by making it exciting and relevant to people, by starting conversations—across garden fences, families, different generations and cultural groups—about heritage, we can play a role.
We talk a lot about there being a difference between “bonding” social capital and “bridging” social capital—bonding being between similar social, economic or cultural groups and bridging being across different groups. Something like Facebook is great for the social capital between people that know each other and have a connection, but it doesn’t make links beyond that. We have a very long way to go, but the aim of Historypin is to start conversations about something that is shared between people who didn’t necessarily think that they had something in common.
What has been the biggest surprise in how users have taken to it?
We’ve really loved the fact that it’s created a very diverse set of addicts. We have that core audience of institutions, history associations, local history geeks and societies, but it is also reaching into other environments and audiences in really compelling ways. We’ve had e-mails from people who run elderly care homes saying that we’ve created these fanatics who are spending time on Historypin talking about what they found, adding things, figuring stuff out. We have really liked that a younger audience is using the app to capture modern history. Our relationship with the past is stronger when we see it as a continuing process of which we are a very important part. The street corner that we walk past every day is a street corner that millions of other people have walked past for a very long time. I am fascinated by what happens when there are thousands and thousands of pieces of content related to a particular block or street corner. It allows you to see the passing of time in one very specific location. People are capturing exactly that kind of history and adding that to the archive.