Collaborative History

Uptown16From 1973 to 1977, I photographed the people of a neighborhood in Chicago called Uptown. The project was a self-assignment but many of the photos I took there were later published by the Chicago Tribune. Then the images laid in a drawer for almost 40 years.

I recently rediscovered them and posted them on my photo blog,, not to be confused with this blog at Robert The response has been overwhelming. has received 1.5 million hits in the last month. I say that, not to brag, but to introduce the subject of this post, collaborative history.

Many of the people in the images have written to tell me more about their circumstances and growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. I’ve heard from policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, residents, widows, gang members, writers, historians, shopkeepers and more.

Dozens of people have sent me valuable information that is helping to deepen my understanding of the neighborhood as well as the social and economic forces in play at the time. To put this into perspective, the year I started photographing there, the big news stories were “OPEC Oil Embargo” and “Watergate Tapes.” The embargo quadrupled gasoline prices in a year, threw the country into recession, and caused inflation to skyrocket. The tapes brought down the Nixon presidency within two years.

Lesser stories, including the struggle of working class families to make ends meet among these circumstances, got lost in the fog of time. Now, with the help of the Internet and readers, I am piecing their stories back together again. I hope to have a book ready by the end of the year.

When published, it will be more than a portfolio of my early documentary photographs. It will be a collaborative history of one of Chicago’s most fascinating neighborhoods, made possible through the spread of social media on the Internet. As readers see themselves in photos, they spread the word to their friends who are in other photos. Then they write me with the stories behind the photos.

While the stories I’m discovering do not all have happy endings, they do have important lessons. I learned last week of the fate of a gorgeous young woman. I wrote about her, “If she hadn’t been in Uptown, she could have been in Vogue.” She died young of HIV.

I also photographed a family with three kids. Two of them were in gangs. They always had cigarettes danging from their lips because it made them look tough. According to the widow of one, both moved to Alabama to escape the gang culture in Uptown, but then died from esophageal cancer in their mid-forties.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Chicago firefighter after I posted a picture of his station house. He informed me that his engine company was the busiest in America during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s. This helped put the slumlord protests that I photographed into perspective.

I’m finding many life lessons in the emails I get. I doubt the inventors of the Internet had collaborative history in mind when they designed the medium. But the social networks that the Internet spawned have created a tool to do just that.

The Internet and History

Bottle Refund BoyWith more than two trillion pages of information, the Internet has rapidly become the world’s biggest information archive. From a historian’s perspective, however, it presents several problems.

First, web sites come and go. Pages come and go. An active link today may yield a “file not found” error tomorrow.

Second, file formats change over time. I remember reading a story in the Smithsonian about twenty years ago. The magazine claimed at the time (just ten or fifteen years into the computer revolution), that librarians were worried about the ability to access information stored in file formats that were no longer popular. Prior to the last century, there were just two file formats in the whole of human history: rock and paper. Since the dawn of computers, there have been hundreds of thousands.

Imagine all the information lost for all time because the computing platform, operating system, and application it was created on are no longer commercially viable. The rate of innovation, while a boon to mankind on one hand, is a curse to historians on the other. But the news isn’t all bad.

Having said that, I had a personal experience recently that shows the positive side of the Internet when it comes to history. I published a series of documentary photographs that I took almost 40 years ago in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on, my photo blog. A blogger in Chicago who specializes in the history of Uptown, Joane Asala, found them and posted a link to them. They quickly went viral.

As a result, tens of thousands of people have gotten a glimpse into the past of a neighborhood that is quite different today. I had pretty good notes about where I took most of the pictures, but they were incomplete in places. So I invited readers to email me if they recognized people or places in any of the images. Numerous people emailed me about themselves or friends, and places in the images.

Yesterday, I received an email from a man who thought he recognized the architecture in a corner bar at Buena and Broadway. So I went to the street view in google maps. Bingo. The same building was still there. Everything around it had changed. Signs and trash that once littered the street were gone. They were replaced by trees. The contrast was striking. You can see it for yourself by going to the image and clicking on the link embedded in the caption.

Tools like Google Maps were intended primarily to help people navigate. But they have an unintended and quite positive consequence. They can be used to give people a wealth of information about then and now. They can be a boon to historians trying to explain the how and the why of change.

The Importance of Properly Assessing Risk in the Purchase Decision Cycle when Developing and Placing Advertising

shutterstock_86919787The rise and fall of mediums affect the ways people assess risk when purchasing products and services.

I have long believed that the worst advertising any company can have is unhappy customers. It’s very important that companies get their products and services into the hands of people who will have a good experience with them. That requires understanding the types of risk that potential customers face.


Four Types of Risk

People always judge products and services, in part, by the amount of risk that the purchase involves. Risk falls into four categories:

  • Price risk = “Will this ruin me financially if the product/service doesn’t work?”
  • Performance risk = “Will this product/service do what I need it to do?”
  • Social risk = “What will other people think of me because of this decision?”
  • Self-image risk = “What will I think of myself because of this decision?”

Every purchase decision has a distinctive risk profile. The nature of this profile affects the form, content and placement of communication. The higher the risk, the more important things like trust, credibility, reassurance, warranties, recommendations, reputation, past experience, and relationships become.

Large industrial or business-to-business purchases, such as a new plant or production line, have huge price and performance risks. Therefore, committees often make decisions. Because of this, social and self-image risks escalate as well. Bad recommendations can ruin careers.

Consumer automobile purchases also rank high on each type of risk.

The choice of a medical provider and hospital for coronary artery bypass surgery can have extremely high price and performance risk, but social and self-image risk may be negligible.

A person’s choice of clothes may have high social and self-image risk, but little price or performance risk.

Impulse purchases, such as candy or ice cream, have very little risk of any type. This is why people buy them almost without thinking.

Meeting Customer Expectations

When developing content for an advertisement, copywriters and art directors must properly address the type(s) of risk that the reader will most likely feel. Failure to properly articulate the degrees and types of risk that the reader is feeling will result in objections that torpedo the sale. Worse, it could result in unhappy customers that kill the brand.

Risk assessment affects message placement as well as creative development. Certain mediums are better vehicles for addressing certain types of risks.  For instance, addressing performance risk may be easier in television than print because video lends itself to product demonstrations. Likewise, addressing social risk may be easier on the Internet than other mediums because of social networks.

The feedback that the Internet gives companies helps them design products that better meet the needs of users. It also helps them better understand customers and match products with market segments based on risk profiles.

Risk of Not Considering Risk

For advertisers, the risk of not considering risk in message creation and placement is irrelevance, lost sales, and brand vitality.