History 2.0: Interactive Vietnam Wall Is a Place for Reflection, Online

Article ImageThe black granite from which the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (aka The Wall) in Washington, D.C., was constructed was chosen specifically for its reflective quality. Each year, millions flock to the memorial to do just that. Every day, personal mementos such as notes, photos, and medals are left behind in remembrance of the brave soldiers who lost their lives during the divisive war. On March 26, Footnote.com introduced its Interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial—a Web 2.0 way to make history new again by providing an online space for reflection and sharing.

Footnote.com, launched in January 2007, is a site that makes original historical documents accessible through a social network, allowing site visitors to experience and share history in a thoroughly modern forum. Its collections feature documents related to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, as well as the administrations of U.S. presidents. The site’s latest collection focuses on the 55,256 names etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The idea for an interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial struck Chris Willis, VP of social media for Footnote, while he was out for a jog along the Washington Mall in the summer of 2007. Willis elaborates: "As I walked past the names, it struck me that the Veterans Memorial is a document, it is evidence. Footnote’s mission is to let people access and enrich historical documents. The Memorial was different from our other documents in just one respect—its names are etched in granite, not paper. What I—and many others—have observed is that the Memorial is a place where people do more than seek names. They leave personal tokens. Each night, those letters, medals, and dog tags are gathered and archived. Online, they’ll remain attached to each name."

The Footnote team, along with photographer Peter Krogh, got to work on the interactive Wall. To create the online version, Krogh, a National Geographic photographer, had to take nearly 1,500 individual photos of the memorial. Those photos were then stitched together over a 5-month-long process, resulting in an image nearly five gigapixels in size.

Through a partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration, Footnote.com was able to make the names on the wall clickable and searchable. "Each name is indexed and sortable by more than 50 different criteria from hometown to casualty type to military unit. By structuring the information this way, people can not only find their loved one or neighbor, they can also discover answers to questions about the war," explains Willis.

Further, Footnote.com has opened up its interactive Wall to the public by allowing site visitors to contribute photos and stories about soldiers they may have known. Says Willis, "We felt strongly that The Wall online needed to be a public online space. Just like the real Wall, anyone can leave an artifact—a picture, medal, or a memory. Is there a chance for abuse? Yes, but the opportunity to understand, heal, and connect with others is much greater."

When a historical document is on paper or granite, there are only so many people who can touch and experience that piece of history. The idea behind the interactive Wall—and Footnote.com in general—is to make history available to everyone with the click of a mouse. Willis notes, "About 4 million people visit the Memorial in D.C. every year. But for each one of those people, we think there are dozens more who will never get there. Our hope was to provide not just a virtual experience, but to encourage private reflection and contribution. The online version can provide both community and intimacy."

Though it sounds contradictory, Footnote’s new venture has, in fact, fostered an arena in which community and intimacy can coexist. The interactive Wall allows people to not only reflect privately from the comfort of home, but to make connections through the sharing and trading of information as well. The interactive Wall puts the public to work to expand upon history’s story through sharing stories that have never before been heard and photographs that have never been seen. "Folksonomies are powerful because they help people leverage the knowledge that they have in more powerful ways. Their digital breadcrumb has the potential to change someone else’s life," says Willis.

Only time will tell what kind of an impact the interactive Wall will have in further memorializing the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. For Willis and the rest of the Footnote team, providing an online forum that has the potential to cultivate discussion, discovery, and sharing was simply "the right thing to do."