A Cool New Way to Share Your Old Photos

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 12 2011 1:41 PM

Historypin: A Hot Web Time Machine

When I was in Taipei earlier this summer, I discovered the best use of my laptop so far: Sharing cat videos on YouTube with my 93-year-old grandmother. (No one, it seems, can resist the awesome power of a cat dressed like a banana eating a banana.)

Technology can, indeed, bring generations together. And that’s the idea behind Historypin, a new website that allows users to share their old photos, audio, and video by “pinning” them to a Google Map and tagging them with dates, titles, and personal stories. Historypin’s maps can be searched by location but also by time, so you can see, for example, what your neighborhood looked like in the year you were born—or in the year your grandparents were born.

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By far the coolest, most whiz-bang feature of Historypin is its integration with Google’s Street View. By pinning photos to a specific location, you can layer old images over contemporary ones—much like they do on the evocative Tumblr Dear Photograph, except that on Historypin, you can actually fade those layered images in and out. That allows you to see ghosts of billboards past haunting modern-day Times Square, or the crowd at Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration floating over the current Capitol building. It even works with video, and it can be shiver-inducing.

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Eventually, the UK nonprofit We Are What We Do, the creator of Historypin (with tech partner Google), hopes to spur millions of individuals, schools, and other institutions to contribute and label the stuff they’ve got moldering in their attics or lingering on hard drives—producing, in essence, a massive, shared archive of memories.

When I saw the demo last night, I got most excited about using Historypin as a personal documentary tool. I love the idea of designing a living map that traces my relatives’ moves all around the world—a kind of corollary to the family tree and photo archive we’ve been compiling for a few years now—and having both the process and the finished product be something to share with my grandmother the next time I visit. The one thing that’s keeping me from dumping all those yellowing photos of my relatives cavorting in Shanghai, Canberra, and Lucknow onto the site is that, by doing so, I’d be agreeing to make them completely public and viewable to all Historypin users—a key ingredient to the site’s open-source history aims, but one that makes me, as a private user, a bit skittish.

Until I figure out how I feel about putting my grandmother’s sweet mug on the World Wide Web for all and sundry to gawk upon, though, there’s plenty of other stuff to do on the site, like helping to tag old photos from my neighborhood or using the smartphone app to see what my block looked like back in the day. Or I could just watch this all day.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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