@HistoryinPics brings history to the public. So what’s the problem? (History@Work blog)

February 20, 2014

The following appeared as a two-part series on the National Council on Public History's History@Work blog, February 18-19, 2014. To read it in its original format, see part 1 here and part 2 here


Suppose you’d never heard of @HistoryinPics, and I told you that a new social media account had grown to more than a million followers by featuring a different historical image in its feed every couple of hours.


As a public historian, you might be intrigued. “Really?” you might ask. That sounds pretty cool.


In fact, how @HistoryinPics and its copycat accounts have grown has ruffled our collective feathers. From a cautionary article in The Atlantic about copyright to scathing attacks in Slate and on Sarah Werner’s Wynden de Worde blog about improper citation, inaccuracy (or downright untruth, in some cases), lack of context, and no links to actual historical research, the prevailing reaction has been negative.


Which led me to wonder: what’s at stake here? And can we have a conversation around this phenomenon that results in useful takeaways for public historians?


First, the background, for the uninitiated. @HistoryInPics is a social media account that posts old photographs in its Twitter feed. Created by two teenagers, it now has twice as many followers as the Library of Congress. As Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic uncovered, the virality of the account is no fluke: the duo have created several other social media accounts, each with hundreds of thousands of followers. The pair have generated revenue based on their social media success to the tune, in one case, of nearly $50,000 per month. They are natural digital marketers, as so many of their generation seem to be (at least to this old-timer). They spot trends on social media, exploit them to gain massive followings, then monetize the traffic. It’s a business model, not an attempt at serious research.


And therein lies the discomfort: while museums, archives, and libraries worldwide are starved for funding, fighting for relevancy, and arguing daily for the value of serious historical research, two teenagers come along, grab a bunch of old images without permission, throw them up online without context, and suddenly they are social media superstars. Is that “right”? Does that contribute to the public good? Are we jealous?


The last question may be a bit jarring, but I believe we may feel a tinge of jealousy—and I write that knowing it causes me discomfort to think so. When any of us—academic and public historians alike—posts to social media, we want followers to click, or “engage.” We want people to interact with our collections and ideas, to learn, and to be excited. Why else would we post? Public history organizations have invested resources and commissioned studies in order to attain the level of engagement these teenagers reached in two months. The duo have cracked the code—but cheated in the process, by relying on other people’s work and embellishing it for effect. While we detest their methods, it’s permissible to admit we would accept their results if they were achieved differently.


Playing for the click on social media is not a sin. But is it just, or fair, that two teenagers so obviously playing for the click and nothing more can achieve popular success so quickly? Some commenters on Sarah Werner’s blog post suggest that the high number of followers is evidence of the decline of societal intellectualism, accelerated by the Internet. I applaud Werner for steering clear of this argument. However, the @HistoryInPics success does remind us that we have to recognize the Internet for how it’s evolved (and may continue to evolve). For many users, the Web is a place of fun, of curiosity, of whimsy, and of communication. This is not to say that nothing of depth, seriousness, or artistry exists online. But according to (where else) the Internet, the majority of American adults who use the Web do so for browsing; communicating with family, friends or strangers; file transfers; news updates; entertainment (videos, games, celebrity gossip); marketing; and making money. Deep research and formulating a critical understanding of the past are not atop the list of what people do online.


@HistoryinPics successfully combines many elements the medium favors: celebrities (e.g. Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Muhammad Ali), photography (some of their images are quite captivating), and whimsy. I couldn’t help but feel whimsy as I scrolled the feed, reluctantly enjoying the pictures. Is it immoral for the feed to use historical imagery to pull at our heartstrings and ignite our curiosity? As digital entrepreneurs, the two teenagers believed not. They set out to make a product that would be a success in a particular medium, and using what’s known to work best in that medium, they succeeded and will now monetize that product. If we accept this rationalization, we could see the feed as not so different from corporate marketing: corporations present us with feel-good commercials and beautiful visuals that distract us from serious investigation of their products, with the end goal of making us their customers. @HistoryinPics would be different mainly in that it presents its images as undeniably real, whereas with brands the images are understood to be manufactured.


Unlike corporations that use historical images as a marketing strategy, museums, archives, libraries, and national historic sites are caretakers of history whose goal is not to distract from serious investigation but rather to promote it. We want people to understand context, to ask questions, and to dig deeper into sources. We appreciate the beauty of old objects and know that history can be fun. But ultimately we recognize that history has the power to motivate people to act in ways that have legitimate consequences in the world and on how human beings treat one another. So when a million people accept a feed such as @HistoryinPics at face-value, are we, perhaps, disappointed that an active and engaged citizenry has not stood up to challenge the whimsical imagery placed in front of them and asked “Can that really be so?” The practical consequence of people believing that John Lennon once played guitar with Che Guevara is probably little (this was one of the doctored images in the @HistoryinPics feed). The more urgent point is remembering that images can be doctored, human emotions can be manipulated, and we should always question what we see no matter how slick its presentation. 


This strikes at the heart of the question about the public good and at the use of the word “History.” Had this account been called @ThePastinPictures, the outcry may have been more muted. The usage of the word “History” makes a difference. History must be researched. Sources must be worked with. Interpretations and re-interpretations must be thought through. History is, in essence, the process of formulating a story about what has happened in the past. A critical difference between “history” and “the past” is that history is the process of looking for what actually happened in the past based on evidence and then figuring out what that might mean. We do get things wrong in the process, but we always attempt to get it right. Most importantly, we do not accept historical sources at face value but rather ask questions of them in the search for meaning. In fact, the Greek word that became history originally meant to inquire.


The founders of @HistoryinPics make no attempt at inquiry, accuracy, or meaning. They attempt simply to be popular and then capitalize on that popularity. By invoking history, we must respond and protect the word as well as the ethics and standards of the profession that have developed over time and will continue to evolve. What if I logged into Twitter today and created the handle @MDinTweets and began to dispense medical advice in 140 characters based on what I found on the Internet? Eventually some doctors might want to know that I had some medical training and had properly examined my sources before offering them as truth. Why should it be different for history?


Still, @HistoryinPics forces us to recognize that the landscape is shifting. In 2014, two teenagers can post a bunch of random old photographs online and generate more traffic than the Library of Congress. For a historian, that’s unsettling. But no brave new world was ever conquered by standing still. @HistoryinPics proves that the public can be and is fascinated by history, and that history can reach every corner of the world in this new digital age. @HistoryinPics offers insight into our own zeitgeist, which historians can seek to understand and incorporate into our practices. There are lessons here and with them an opportunity to educate, inform, and innovate.Can we offer meaning and interpretation in 140 characters? Can digital marketing natives be brought into the profession and their skills put to use? Can we marry the “I want to share this” twitch with substantive related material for users to explore further, as my colleague Trevor Owens asked during an email exchange on this topic? Can we stay true to our values at the same time we evolve in-step with the advancement of the Internet? Can the immediate gratification that people seek from social media be reconciled with the thoughtful analysis we wish to see as historians? Can research and the readiness to question mythic versions of the past be reconciled with the instantaneous and whimsical nature of the Web?


I believe the answers to all these questions are yes, but it will surely not be easy. History will always be popular because history is interesting, provides enjoyment, causes us to think differently about the world, and provides us with an identity. Our great collections in our collected institutional holdings are the evidence we can use to make those arguments. Perhaps @HistoryinPics can give us all new ideas on how we present that argument to the world.


~ Jason Steinhauer is a Program Specialist at The John W. Kluge Center at the U.S. Library of Congress. Recently named one of D.C.’s “50 on Fire” by In the Capital, his writings have been included on The White House blog, the Library of Congress blog, and the blog of the National Council on Public History. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer. On the web: http://www.jasonsteinhauer.com.

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