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, (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 <>.

[6] Ibid., <>.

[7] Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Center for History and New Media <>.

[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.

Only the Wiki Survive

As Jerry Butler once wrote, Only the Strong Survive, but what about the wiki? As technology continues to be developed, there seems to be no reason not to create our own “wiki-pads,” “wiki-pods,” and maybe even “wiki-phones.”

Historians could attempt to learn html and create their own websites, but why bother when there are so many online tools that provide the space and templates that can guide us through the process? Of course, beyond just sharing our own individual work, we are encouraged to engage in more collaborative research, like this article suggests. Again, the space for collaborative research has also been laid out for us.

PBworks allows for businesses, educators, and individuals to set up their own “wiki’s,” or collaborative spaces where groups can share and edit information. For those who wish to create online workspaces without the necessity of learning code, applications like these make it easy for anyone to “click and insert” whatever information they desire.

We should ask, however, how is this website, PBworks, any different from other do-it-yourself sites? Google Sites allows for the same type of collaborative projects and has its own templates that individuals and groups can use. There are probably a hundred different websites that allow anyone to create their own wiki’s, many of which will host them for free. The question is, what do these sites suggest for scholars in the humanities? Basically, there’s no reason not to have your own website, whether for presenting your own research or creating collaborative projects for others to participate in your research.

In terms of education, PBworks is specifically designed with templates for the syllabus, course readings, class assignments, etc. Schools and classrooms can create their own online workspaces, like this one for an AP American History Course, where students can engage online with various content. While I personally see this as helpful in the classroom, it seems less significant when it comes to scholarly research.

This is not to suggest that certain wiki’s have not been created to aid in historical research. A Digital Research Tool Wiki (DiRT) was created where contributing individuals present hundreds of tools and resources to help scholars with their research. In a way, it’s like a phone book of digital tools.  Do you need help with organizing research tools? Check out these possible resources. What about creating interactive multimedia works on your own to enrich the presentation of your research? Try one of these. Regardless of how much help you may need, this site guides you to many resources available online. The problem is, how do you know this site exists without being guided there. You can get there through Google, but you have to know to search “digital research tools.” There isn’t really a database of PBworks sites, so unless you are part of the group you may never know it exists. Many PBworks sites are set up for exclusive groups (i.e. schools, classes, etc), so you would have to be invited to even access the material. This is naturally a benefit for those workgroups that want to keep their research confidential until published, but able to access it across the globe.

To get to know PBworks, I went ahead and created my own workspace. I used their platform to create my Interactive CV. Basically I just uploaded my CV with links to proposals of each of the articles I’ve worked or are currently working on. If anyone requested to contribute, they could post comments and suggestions to my proposals. Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to request this sort of engagement, especially since no one would even know this site existed without my specifically inviting them. Nevertheless, while working on setting this up, I realized how helpful digital tools like this one are along with its affiliated tools (i.e. uploading slideshows, etc) for various workgroups. If I was collaborating on a book or paper with multiple authors, we could use PBworks to upload our drafts, scanned copies of primary sources, links to other secondary sources, and then comment on each author’s work without needing to worry about any of the group’s research being compromised before publication.

What other types of wiki’s would you set up in a group setting and how do you think this site can help collaborative historical work? Is there a valid use for this site when compared to all the other options out there today?

Well, if you’d like, setting up your own wiki is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

1. Choose a Plan that fits your needs.

2. Choose your address:

3. Accept the terms of the site and… “Take Me to My Workspace.”

Or should we call it Wikispace?

The Digital Future is… Processing.

When can we stop asking about whether the time has come for the humanities to enter the digital age and start exploring how digital humanities started long ago? In The Digital Future is Now (Fall 2009), Christine L. Borgman calls upon humanities scholars to take the initiative to “design, develop, and deploy the scholarly infrastructure for digital humanities.” Borgman must not realize that these initiatives have already begun! In order to accomplish her goals, Borgman suggests looking at the successes and failures in eScience, including such plans as the National Science Foundation’s Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery. As a beginning point of comparison, she identifies six factors for comparison between science and the humanities. Let’s look through these six areas and the ways in which the Digital Future has already begun to be realized not only in science but also in the humanities.

1. Publication Practices: Everything is going digital, whether we like it or not. In the sciences, scholars have such sites as to post and search through new papers on physics. Guess what? This site is sponsored by Cornell University Library. In other words, for the humanities to create similar sites, it requires institutional plans for such depositories. Do we have these? While Borgman argues that humanities journals are slow in moving to online publications, there are thousands available through such sites as JSTOR and Project Muse and, increasingly, other journals are moving toward electronic publication. Also, it must be understood that the kind of information historians want to access is not  limited to current experimentation/theorizing, but historical documents and primary sources. In addition to accessing these on sites created by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian, various universities have begun setting up their own sites. The University of Washington has a database on African-American history here. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent site of southern history sources here.

2. Data: Borgman spends quite a bit of time discussing different categories of data in science, including observational data, computational data, experimental data, and records. According to her argument, “we are only beginning to understand what constitute data in the humanities, let alone how data differ from scholar to scholar and from author to reader.” I have a suggestion. There are two types of data in the humanities: primary sources and secondary sources.  In other words, scholars in the humanities have always understood what constituted data, and they don’t complicate it any further than it needs to be. The fact that theory and methodology may be different from scholar to scholar does not complicate the situation, either. Now, in regards to accessing this data, as Borgman explains, intellectual property rights makes it difficult since scholars don’t own the rights to historical records they use and often need permission to print or reprint such documents. In other words, individual scholars themselves cannot take the initiative the way Borgman wants. These sources can only be made electronically public by those institutions holding the rights, which many are doing, as discussed above.

3. Research Methods: I suppose an important question in this section is whether history or the humanities can become as “open source” as modern science in such venues as in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. History can not easily be made open source, as Roy Rosenzweig so eloquently explained in this study on Wikipedia. Rosenzweig does question why so many academic journals are not being made available without costly subscription fees. However, in a field where publication is essential to progress and the hopes for tenure, do scholars in the humanities have the power (or desire) to challenge reputable (and, therefore, costly) journals and choose instead to give up any “prestige” by publishing solely on completely “open source” websites where they would be competing with anyone who has access to a keyboard? Who would be willing to moderate such sites, and without pay, in order to have it all available to the general public without fees? Indeed, modern writing in the humanities may never be fully “open source,” though primary documents can be placed more in the open. Borgman mentions the Perseus Digital Library but, as mentioned above, many other libraries have placed their sources online.

4. Collaboration: In the face of scientific collaboration, Borgman sees only the image of the “lone scholar” in the humanities. While it is true that individuals must conduct their own research, planning, and development of dissertations, the entire historical field is one of collaboration. Can any scholar write an argument  without addressing his/her critics? Are scholars allowed to ignore methods and theories of others regarding race, gender, class, religion, etc? I would argue that the entire field of humanities is one single collaborative work with thousands of scholars from the widest range of disciplines.

5. Incentives to Participate: In many respects this section is about disincentives more than incentives. Either way, Borgman concludes that “the digital humanities encounter most of the same incentives and disincentives for sharing data and sources faced by the sciences and by other disciplines.” Indeed, we all have the incentive to publish our findings and hope that we can publish them before someone else does. Having data available online rather than behind closed doors that only we as individuals have access to changes the game quite a bit, though we’ve already been playing this game for quite some time now.

6. Learning: This section is about “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning.” Um, basically everything we’ve already discussed above, except Borgman places emphasis on the need for a “common technical platform” for all the information to be available openly online. Well, given that the Internet is supposed to be one of the most democratic tools available to allow a multiplicity of viewpoints and platforms, is a single, common platform for the humanities really desirable? Perhaps it would be nice to create a platform for libraries and institutions to place their own links for the researcher to be able to find multiple sources simply by going to one site. Of course, there already are sites like this one, not to mention historical associations like this one.

The digital future IS now, though I think it’s been around for quite some time. What do you think?

Image found here.