History and the Internet

Let me come clean. Despite my being what many would call a “digital native,” I found myself surprisingly hesitant about what producing history in such an unregulated space such as the internet might do to the field. I automatically presumed the dangers associated with leaving historical interpretation to those with little or no professional training or expertise in a given field—my point of reference, of course, is domestic politics. Databases with transcription tools, genealogy sites that connect people to their ancestors, and websites and exhibits built and maintained by professional historians (in concert with design and tech professionals) on the other hand, seemed like safe and responsible ways to let people engage with history online. I often championed what Roy Rosenzweig refers to as “possessive individualism” because it was the most familiar principle to me in the historical profession. It is as though this weeks readings gave me permission to find excitement in what may well be limitless possibility for crowdsourcing history on the internet.

People from all walks of life and with a host of different skillsets and interests have a tremendous capacity to make historical information available to the masses. Causer and Wallace’s piece on Transcribe Bentham was a fascinating example of the enormous potential for volunteer contributors and staff to work together to make a voluminous sum of archival material available to any interested party. (As an aside, in 2017, TIME Magazine named Steven Pruitt, a.k.a. Ser Amantio de Nicolao, a volunteer Wikipedia editor and contributor as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet.) As they themselves indicated, crowdsourcing for projects like Transcribe Bentham are almost entirely volunteer-based out of necessity. The humanities have never (at least to my knowledge) been funded to the point that faculty and students need compete for relatively scarce resources. Crowdsourcing is, in these examples, collaborative, not exploitative.

I have no doubt that volunteers would benefit from fair pay for their contributions to community-based projects, transcription or not. Brabham’s argument is a convincing one. The overwhelming number of members of the crowd are equal in qualification and skill to those who have the good fortune of being tenured or tenure-track. And his argument is principled and one that not only I do not dispute, but rather wholly support. Graduate students such as myself often lunge at opportunities to assist researchers or contribute to projects in part for the much needed and much appreciated additional income. And for students who may be preparing for lives in academia, recognition of such work acts like capital in a marketplace; it raises our profile and further integrates us into a system that excludes those without major publications or service to the academy. But that said, there is something to be said for volunteerism. The humanities has always relied on committed individuals who understand the value of imparting knowledge to present and future generations. Thankless (unpaid) work is just as no less important to the humanities, and especially to the digital humanities, as the seminal article or paradigm-shifting monograph. “Enthusiasm,” write Causer and Wallace, is the steady force behind the “formidable” contributions of volunteer crowds.

That said, the internet is as much a wild west as it is a sort of terra nullius. (Unlike the land west of the Mississippi River, the space of the internet is actually unclaimed and open for cultivation.) Vigilance is needed to direct and coordinate advancements in the field of digital history. According to Edson, the notion that museums are meant to be physical structures visited by commuters and travelers is as false as the scientific argument that the universe is only what is visible to our naked eye. Museums and their staff have the whole of the internet to play around with and put to work in service of their institutional missions. Through using the example of the Vlogbrothers, Edson seems to suggest, and rightly so, that “memory institutions” like the Louvre need to be open to experimentation. Vulnerability and a welcoming attitude toward the crowd, coupled with institutional safeguards to prevent squirreling away the institution’s resources, is necessary if museums expect to compete with the likes of YouTube’s biggest celebrities.

This week’s readings present a favorable and much deserved narrative of crowds. The exception is Ford’s synthesis of WWIC— “Why wasn’t I consulted?” He gives the example of Wikipedia. “It tapped into the basic human need to be consulted and never looked back.” Yet there is a difference between people who think they understand the subject with which they are engaged and those who actually understand the profound potential implications of their contributions for how people use the past. The internet can be collaborative so long as its collaborators are limited to groups of people more interesting in getting work done than in argument or in being a contrarian. For that matter, historians and digital humanities professionals should continue to develop new methods of historical inquiry, of fostering intellectual curiosity, and inspiring bravery among people who are among the majority of site visitors to Transcribing Bentham who did not begin or complete a single transcription. It may be that collaboration is only possible if the digital humanities can convince larger and larger crowds to commit some of their leisure time in service of the humanities. It may also be that professional historians have yet to fully embrace the same sense of adventure and enthusiasm as Wikipedia contributors and editors and Transcribing Bentham contributors in bringing the humanities to the digital world. But my guess is that it is only a matter of time until this happens.

One Reply to “History and the Internet”

  1. Hi Jonah! I really enjoyed your post- it’s very thoughtful. I completely agree with your point that museums, and other “memory institutions,” need to let go and try experimenting with the opportunities the Web can give them. That being said, I particularly liked the idea of “openness” Edson described in his article and I liked how you mentioned “vulnerability,” because some of these institutions will feel vulnerable or uncomfortable with the idea of being open to the public, but that can lead to some great collaborative opportunities.

    We know that there is an interested and enthusiastic public who cares about our work and, as the Bentham Papers Transcription Initiative showed, a lot of them were willing to help when presented with the project. Being open with the public and welcoming their help can really benefit memory institutions and create better relationships with the community, especially when that public knows they have contributed to something they find important.

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