Print Project Proposal: History on Reddit

For my print project I will evaluate the use of Reddit as a platform for historical discussion regarding the causes of the US Civil War. Reddit is the world’s sixth most popular website and hosts discussions, images, and videos on nearly every conceivable topic, including history. There are three main subreddits on which historical discussion take place through crowd-sourcing; r/history, r/askhistorians, and r/badhistory.

Crowd-Sourcing, Word-Bubbles, and Historiography

I will examine these communities with regards to their handling of the causes of the US Civil War. I will also explore Reddit as a platform for crowdsourcing and how the discussion on this social media platform fits in to greater historiographic context. Using in-built Reddit tools as well as Voyant I can determine levels of user interaction, significance of contributions, and popularity of content. Thanks also to the efforts of users I can examine the demographics of each community to determine education levels, topics of particular interest, as well as age, gender, and several other categorical determinants.

For this project I will also examine how each community approaches the process of creating history. Each subreddit enforces a different set of rules regarding the treatment of source material and historical interpretation. I will compare these subreddits to one another and finally to a sample of academic works on the topic at hand to determine the usefulness of these crowdsourced communities in generating accurate and informational content.

Voyant will allow me to examine the prevalence of different language to describe certain events and historical actors. Voyant is also an excellent tool for creating visualizations of language relationships in different discussion threads, subreddits, and academic works.

Imperfect Tools

There will be several obstacles in conducting this project however. Voyant is an imperfect tool and without significant curation any results are likely to indicate only that repetitive interface controls somehow factor into the discussion. Voyant is also incapable of interpreting context and I will therefore still have to rely on representative samples in gathering certain information.

Reddit also presents several obstacles. Should users choose to self-censor or community moderators choose to delete contributions there is no way to access what was written before edits or deletions were made. This prevents me from establishing with certainty how unpopular facts or popular inaccuracies are perceived by the community at large.

The scope of this project presents the largest obstacle. As with any macroanalytic approach there is simply too much content for any one person to make sense of, at least with current technology. Even narrowing the focus to solely the causes of the Civil War necessitates a reliance on a tiny sample of representative material. Searching the smallest of the three subreddits for threads directly related to the topic yields hundreds of results. Due to the limitations of the tools available to me the time requirement to conduct the analysis that this topic deserves is infeasible. However, even a small analysis of snapshots into these communities and discussions will yield interesting and valuable results regarding crowdsourcing, language analysis, and the role that social media plays in the creation of history content.

2 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: History on Reddit”

  1. This is interesting, especially as r/AskHistorians has grown rapidly in the last few years and has such strict standards compared to r/history. I would be curious if this project would have a component that looks at who exactly answers these questions — flaired users or unflaired users? Do they have advanced degrees, or are they undergraduate students, or hobbyists? I think the credentials or lack thereof could be an important component to this.

  2. Looking at how history works and does not work in Reddit is a great idea. Taking some of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s ideas from the first week, there is a lot of the “history web” that now happens in Reddit and understanding more about the nature of that discourse is going to be quite useful.

    In that context, I think you are right to be cautious about the utility of the distant reading tools to be particularly helpful in all of this. It may be better to just focus on doing some close reading of how discussion works in this space and what the assumptions are that are part of that discourse. As an example of what a study like this might look like with just close reading, here is a paper I wrote years back that focused on analysis of discussion threads for folks that modify the game Civilization

    Given that the focus of this study would be on how history is being enacted in online communities on Reddit, you could cover the bases of studying something digital without needing to use computational methods.

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