Print Project Proposal

The Internet and Institutionalism: Are Academics Elite or Egalitarian?

Modern technology has transformed the way society works. Information can be disseminated over large areas of the globe with the push of a single button, and communication can take many forms, including print, sound and video. Regardless of a person’s education or standing in society, anyone can contribute to various discourses through open source sites and wikis, like YouTube and Wikipedia. Given these changes, we must ask how academia, history in particular, has and will be affected by the digital age. While scholars are increasingly utilizing the Internet in obtaining and researching primary and secondary source documents in online digital libraries and archives, this ease of access also encourages non-scholarly participation. To what degree are individuals outside of academia engaging in academic discussions, and is their input given any validity? Also, do “new technologies foster elitism and institutionalism or … allow for increased egalitarianism and individualism?”[1] To answer these questions, this paper will be divided into two parts. The first part will examine literature on both sides of the elitism-egalitariansim argument to determine the effects of digital technology on academic scholarship. In addition, in this section I will also compare the various features of open source websites and wikis to establish whether the theories regarding the Internet’s elitist or egalitarian nature can be seen in practice. In order to see how the Internet is being used and whether historians are engaging with a larger non-academic public in their research, the second part will specifically look at recent scholarship in history focusing on politics during times of crisis. Whether or not certain works use open source information, their conclusions and arguments will be compared and contrasted to those ideas discussed on Wikipedia. By narrowing this study to politics and crisis, subjects the general public often engage in, we should be able to determine whether scholars are allowing the egalitarian nature of the Internet to influence their work.

The debate regarding whether the Internet is exclusionary or not has existed since the World Wide Web became public and continues even today. Recent scholarship has tended to lean toward arguing that the individuality the Internet initially promised has been increasingly threatened by elite interests. In The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman argues that the Internet provides a platform for the monopolization of websites by corporate entities such that elites can maintain their power over defining authoritative information through such technologies as algorithmic search engines.[2] Given that these are controlled by large corporate entities like Google and Microsoft, Hindman reminds us that “it may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard.”[3] Despite the possibility of media monopolies, other scholars remain optimistic regarding the Internet’s possibilities. For instance, according to Cass Sunstein, “with the Internet, the situation is definitely better, not worse.”[4] These studies, however, focus on the general and theoretical applicability of the Internet rather than examining its impact on specific subjects.

In order to determine the Internet’s effect on historical scholarship, it is important to start by examining what historians have written concerning the Internet. As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig explain, “new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past. Almost every historian regards a computer as basic equipment.”[5] While this may point to changes in the tools historians use in writing and researching, it does little in addressing the possibility of ideas and theories being incorporated into their work. Fortunately, Cohen and Rosenzweig include a case study on the history of one crisis in American history: September 11, 2001. To illustrate the impact of the Internet on constructing history, they show how “scholars, students, archivists, businesses, and members of the general public started online collecting projects in an effort to record the terrible events of September 11 and its aftermath.”[6] Including any of their findings regarding the politics of crisis should yield important insights concerning egalitarianism in historical research on the Internet. Also, in another article on the possibility of open source history, Rosenzweig asks, “Are Wikipedians good historians?” More importantly, he goes on to examine how historians can utilize such sites as Wikipedia and, if they do, how they could “allocate credit, which is so integral to professional culture.”[7]

When Wikipedia has been used by scholars in studies of crisis, it has not been historians but political scientists that have been willing to incorporate such open source technology. However, when Wikipedia is used, it is often accepted only as an authorless encyclopedia. In her study of the political crisis regarding nuclear weapons in Iran, political scientist Saira Khan uses Wikipedia when defining hegemony.[8] Another example of increasing acceptability of Wikipedia is Armando Navarro’s The Immigration Crisis. In this book, he uses Wikipedia in his explanation of the National Alliance, a white separatist political organization, and their role in fighting illegal immigration into the United States.[9] Beyond simple definition queries, however, Khan and Navarro rely solely on scholarly works and give no further consideration to open source information. Does this limited use of Wikipedia illustrate the destiny of open source information as a last resort of information? More importantly, in their aversion to using such sites, are scholars maintaining an elitist institution while dismissing a more egalitarian version of scholarship? These are questions I hope to answer in searching through recent historical studies on crisis, as well as modern essays on digital history.[10]


[1] Dennis Beesley, “YouTube and Apocalyptic Rhetoric: Broadcasting Yourself to the Ends of the World,” in Network Apocalypse: Visions of the End in an Age of Internet Media, ed. Robert Glenn Howard (Sheffield-Phoenix Press, forthcoming).

[2] Matthew Scott Hindman, The Myth of Digital Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 138.

[3] Ibid., 142.

[4] Cass R. Sunstein, Republic.com (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 207.

[5] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” Center for History and New Media <http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/>.

[6] Ibid., <http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/collecting/7.php>.

[7] Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Center for History and New Media <http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42>.

[8] Saira Khan, Iran and Nuclear Weapons: Protracted Conflict and Proliferation (New York: Routledge, 2010), 124 (footnote 19).

[9] Armando Navarro, The Immigration Crisis: Nativism, Armed Vigilantism, and the Rise of a Countervailing Movement (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009), 226.

[10] Recent historical scholarship examined will include the following: Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martins, 2011); Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War (University of California Press, 2011); and Craig R. Smith, Silencing the Opposition: How the U.S. Government Suppressed Freedom of Expression During Major Crises (State University of New York Press, 2011). The essays on digital history are those assigned for this course.

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal”

  1. This is a great review of literature and I think it leads you to an important set of questions.

    I would encourage you to think about this less as a project where you are trying to decide if the web is more egalitarian or elitist but more as a exploration of in what specific ways it in what specific instances does it tend to be egalitarian and in what specific ways in which specific instances does it promote elitism.

    Far to often, conversations about openness and closedness end up going back and forth when they end up being very different in very specific contexts. This is to suggest that the selection of the incidents on the wikipedia and or on any other site that you explore are going to be of the utmost importance. You would want to spend a fair amount of time thinking about and justifying what specific pages and interactions you are going to look at and what kinds of things you are going to be able to say about them.

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