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Courage, Conflict, and Context: Digital Timelines Chart Our Lives

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Cowering under my jeep on a side road in San Salvador, caught in a vicious crossfire between guerrillas and Salvadoran soldiers, I was thinking survival, not historical context.

A bullet ricocheted off the pavement and hit my gas tank, a few inches from my face. I yelled for two other journalists I'd driven there - also pressed to the ground - to jump back in the vehicle. I slammed it into reverse and we got the hell out of there. This was November, 1989.

A few days ago, I got a call from Larry Ross, a reporter who'd been around that night, the beginning of an historic offensive by leftist rebels that eventually led to peace. He brought back for me that terrifying moment. I liked having the anchor of someone else's intersecting memory. And I'm anxiously waiting for the video he said he shot of my jeep as physical evidence of my own presence in an historical timeline.

Remember looking up in the night sky as a kid and thinking about what a meaningless speck you were? OK, maybe that was just me. But who doesn't want to know where they fit in life's larger narrative?

Two weeks ago, I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel Grand Ballroom podium, giving an International Women's Media Foundation Courage Award to the elegant, eloquent and forceful Latin America journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto.

I'd never met her before this, but I realized as I started to introduce her that our lives had also crossed in the arc of Salvadoran events. She had broken the story, in 1981, of the vicious massacre by soldiers of nearly 1,000 men, women and children at the rural town of El Mozote. Nine years later, I reported on the repatriation of refugees to that same area who had been driven across the border into Honduras by escalating violence, culminating in the Mozote carnage.

There was one living witness, Rufina Amaya. Alma and I had both spoken with her, separated by time and each of us in our distinct Salvadoran war experiences. Amaya had given us both tours of the abandoned El Mozote, a place forever cursed by its past. Ravaged bodies greeted Alma in 1981, which had turned to bones still sticking out of the ground by the time I got there in 1990.

But we were joined by Amaya, by people, facts, history, images and geography, and I talked about the fortunate accident of that conjunction in introducing her at the L.A. Courage event.

After Alma came up to get her award, she mentioned the mystery and wonder of how "souls cross paths."

I already knew plenty about Alma and her hugely controversial massacre story, El Mozote and Salvador. But the awards dinner that night caused me to go back and surf the web for stories, details and dates of an historical occasion neither one of us would forget. That trolling experience was, like the web itself, jumbled, messy and a little overwhelming.

In our hysterically sharing but existentially unsatisfying social world, thousands of "Friends" or a mayor's badge from a local bar can't necessarily answer the bigger contextual questions of your life and where it fits in the grand scheme.

But the technology universe is just now providing us with some mapping possibilities to find ourselves in space and time. It can now tell us more than ever before about our own personal histories, and how they intersect with other people and events.

"Timeline" tools like Dipity, Intersect and Historypin easily gather our memories - whether recorded through text, audio, video or photographs - and chart them together to tell a much richer story and help us each get a bead on our place in history and the world. Suddenly geocoding and social-media-storytelling mean more than just "Checking In" at your favorite sushi restaurant or sharing drunken stories from last Saturday night.

Dipity is a straightforward, utilitarian tool that's free and fast: anyone can use it to create their own timeline. "Our mission is to organize the web's content by date and time," Dipity's site proclaims. "Users can create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive, visually engaging timelines that integrate video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps."

Intersect is more whimsical: think geocoding mixed with old fashioned storytelling, with a dash of Fourquare. By bringing together personal and/or public storylines and intersections, the site's founders hope to "make sharing on the Web more interesting, more enjoyable, and more powerful."

Historypin takes photos from both national archives and private-sector collections, and "pins" them over Google Maps Street View to "create a fascinating fold in the space/time continuum." Archive photos can be dated and geotagged. Users can also submit their own pictures and stories. The idea is to paint "a precise portrait of how specific locations have changed."

Both Intersect and Historypin are relatively new - Intersect describes itself as "Really Beta" - and their successes largely depend on the size of their user bases, but I can see great possibilities, as both a journalist and a human being.

Also, while it may seem like I'm disrespecting mainstream social media sites as being a little too superficial, I mostly love what tools like Twitter provide in the way of communication and information. And they're regularly creating new timeline technology that adds depth: just today the NY Daily News introduced a Foursquare-based feature that allows you to "check in" at certain areas and see a photo of what the place looked like 100 years ago.

I'm guilty of not having tried out all of these sites yet, but I will soon and can imagine how satisfying it would be, both professionally and personally, to have all the pieces of Salvador charted out in a timeline, with contributions from other witnesses.

I believe that is an experience helpful not just to journalists and historians, but to all of us.

As Ben Bradlee, probably the last leonine newspaper editor alive, said awhile ago: Good journalism has always been about telling a good story. Still is. Today we have better tools to do that.

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