Histor-ego-graphy

There’s no getting around me.

In the past, I’ve made a virtue of this, asking why more historians don’t make themselves characters in their own work. But today I’m thinking about the pitfalls of pratfalls of Ego.

I’ll tell you what prompted this: I’ve been thinking a lot about the way different types of people interested in history use social media.

I tend to share articles and posts from other writers that address intellectual and political issues I’m interested in, or reply to messages and comments about similar things. I’ve written posts for my own blog and for shared blogs. Sometimes I share tidbits I’ve found in research: a funny story, a good image. This is all tightly focused on issues that I deal with in my work and professional life.

There are many other ways to use social media if you are interested in history, but I want to contrast what I do with just one of them: the prolific OTD industry.

What is the OTD industry?

I’m talking about social media pages and accounts, blogs, and websites, some of which are immensely popular, which share widely available information packaged for quick consumption.

I call it the OTD industry because one of the most valuable things these users do involves posting about things that happened ‘on this day’ in the past.

Here in the UK, it’s hard not to notice Bonfire Night – when we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 – or V Day, which commemorates the end of World War Two (in the West) or September 11th. Important commemorations, and very different ones – a foiled plot, a military victory, a plot that was not foiled.

But what about everything else? The official nature of these commemorations gives them a disturbing power our constructions of our pasts.

What the OTD accounts can do complicates this, presenting us with many anniversaries: ‘on this day’ the births and deaths of important thinkers, the discoveries that changed history, but also the tragedies, including the forgotten ones.

The OTD industry can be a shot of historical corrective in the morning.

Of course, it can be many other things as well.

I’ve unfollowed and unsubscribed from accounts that churn out huge amounts of material that verges on clickbait, accounts with a problematic fascination with the quirky, the scandalous and sexy, and the gruesome. There are elements of all of that in my own research, but what I find problematic in some of these accounts is the distance between source material and social media.

I’m thinking of blogs that retell historical incidents with no indication of the provenance of the narratives, or repackage well-known images. It’s something we might all be guilty of at different times, but to engage in it systematically raises serious problems of accuracy and plagiarism.

Are the narratives that appear on these accounts all true?

The line between legend and history is easily blurred, which is not to say that legends aren’t important. But the questions we ask them are different. We want to know when they were born, how they were transmitted, and why. They need to be analyzed, not repeated as truth.

And what about the thorny issues of whose labour is being taken for granted by an industry that rehashes research and knowledge that cost time and effort. If knowledge should be open, so too should acknowledgements…

But I think there’s something else to be learned from the OTD industry about how I do history and social media, and how I interact with people every day.

I tend to be quite embarrassed or at least tight-lipped about my research with most people I know. Partly this is because I don’t want to bore them with something that they probably don’t care about

But I was thinking recently that partly it’s because I am over-invested. I am jealous and insecure because I feel like this topic is mine. Like I found this thing, and researched it, and made it a Thing, and it belongs to me.

But it doesn’t.

The opposite extreme of plagiarism is academic protectionism.

Think of the OTD industry. Their methods are problematic. But their fascination, and their desire to share that fascination… Well, it’s almost refreshingly innocent. Anything quirky and remarkable is fair fodder, and they are unashamed to promote it. No fear of boring others, no jealousy of topic, no fear that the boredom of others will hurt their pride.

I need to get over myself.

My topic does not belong to me. People who find it boring, or don’t see the point of it aren’t criticizing me, they are making their own judgments about a topic they may not know a great deal about. They don’t about the work I did to make it a Thing, and perhaps they don’t even share the same assumptions as me about what matters, and what a Thing should look like…

They’re wrong, of course, but let’s leave that little bit of ego for another day.

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4 thoughts on “Histor-ego-graphy

  1. I do some of what you’d probably call OTD history on my own history blog, and I’ve wrestled with the ethics and quality issues myself.
    Since it’s intended to be a popular history blog, I haven’t set rigorous scholarly article rules, by no means. But I have set myself a few rules. Repackaging old source material is definitely OK, because otherwise my readers probably won’t ever see it, and my repackaging will typically add some context. On the other hand, repackaging ONE present-day historian’s work as the substance of the blog post is not OK, not unless it’s marked as a review.
    It’s what’s in between those extremes that calls for judgments. How much do I rely on contemporary source material? Are the ideas I’m supplying commonly known, at least among historians? Do I supply much of my own thinking on the subject? Should I credit some book I found particularly helpful? (Yes, usually.)
    Curiously, a friendly blogger I follow who is not a trained historian sets herself a much higher standard in documenting her posts, usually preferring to identify an online source, which can range from Wikipedia to online British archives. But her objectives in writing are different from mine, so that practice makes sense for her blog.

    Like

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