Democratizing the Digital Humanities?: The "AskHistorians" Experiment in User-Driven Public History
'Democratizing the Digital Humanities?: The "AskHistorians" Experiment in User-Driven Public' was a panel presentation at the National Council on Public History's 2017 Annual Meeting. In addition to the texts of the papers presented provided below, a recording of the panel was released as a special episode of the AskHistorians Podcast.
"A Short History of AskHistorians" presented by Dr. David Fouser of the University of California, Irvine
"AskHistorians in Context" presented by Brian Watson of New England College
"Yelling at Nerds about Swords on the Internet" presented by William Knight, an Independent Scholar
"Democratizing the Digital Humanities: A Future for AskHistorians" presented by Cait Stevenson of the University of Notre Dame
"A Short History of AskHistorians" presented by Dr. David Fouser of the University of California, Irvine
The subreddit was established in August of 2011; the founder, a still-somewhat-mysterious user named Artrw, established the subreddit by asking for contributors.
The idea was simple: to provide a place for the public to ask questions about history, where historians could answer. (I should note that there also exists, created not long after, an /r/AskHistory subreddit. The difference is instructive, because in AskHistorians, one is specifically asking particular experts for their understandings of the past, which in AskHistory one is asking a more general, more abstracted 'past.' This often seems a distinction without a difference to the lay public, and we know this because it is often the case that people will ask in one, and then be surprised to learn of the existence of the other. For many readers, the difference has simply become that AskHistorians is good [and big, and busy, and strict], while AskHistory is bad [and small, and slow, and loose in its standards].)
Artrw explained this in his initial request for 'flairs': He opened the very first post in the subreddit's history by explaining that the idea (his idea, really, as the founder) was 'for normal people to ask professional historians questions about the past! Anybody can help to answer a questions [sic], but the panel is a way to make it more obvious that you are a worthy source of information!' You are qualified, he explained, 'if you possess a deep understanding of a specific subject area, or a wide amount of understanding (more than what you would acquire by walking through museums) of a large subject area.' He did not include any formal qualifications, and noted at the beginning that no one would be asked for verification. Flaired users would be 'held to a higher standard,' which he outlined in the following way: 'Whenever possible, cite sources. If you are caught making an obvious lie, your tag will be removed. (We will be fair about this, people make mistakes).' 'Just be honest,' he asked.
Included in this early request for flaired users was myself. I joined and began to contribute actively when the sub was just days old, and when the number of readers - never mind the panel of historians - was still in two digits.
The specific rules at the outset are difficult to reconstruct; the first surviving record of them is from June of 2012, by which time - as we shall see - the subreddit had already grown to over 20,000 subscribers, and the need for more clarified rules was pressing. From what I can gather and what I remember, however, Art's initial rules were simple: be polite, avoid jokes in top-tiered comments, and use sources when possible. However, we should also note that Art had (and presumably still has) a particular ideological view of moderation: that it should be light, and should be done by the community through upvotes and downvotes. His view was that the AskHistorians readers and flairs should police themselves, and for the first six months at least, he took almost no mod actions other than to eliminate obvious spam, usually posted by bots (a program designed to carry out some online task, usually to try to sell something or drive traffic to a particular site).
About six months in, in February of 2012, he gave a kind of update post on rules and moderating. He also noted at this point, however, that he was considering adding another person to help with the moderating, though at that point it was a still a limited job. He wrote: 'So that you know what you are getting into: the only things you really do as a moderator is update tags [flairs] and clear the spam filter. You almost never delete anything. In my time here, I've only deleted one post and one comment, both obviously posted by bots.'[Mod Address, OP, by Artrw, 2/27/12]
In the early days of the subreddit, it resembled a kind of seminar, or perhaps the Q&A section you might have in a large college survey course, just before the midterm - but with no real boundaries on topics and with no anxieties about what would be on the exam.
- Questions were wide-ranging, though of course we noticed immediately certain biases in the questions that continue to this day, and that are functions of the nature of the readership of reddit in general: overwhelmingly English-speaking and dominated by Americans, heavily male, young-ish. Questions from a readership with this demographic profile often focus on military history, American history, World War II and the Nazis, the Romans.
- But, with a relatively small population of flaired users answering just a few questions - for some months it was my habit to sit down at the end of the evening with a beer and browse the half-dozen to a dozen questions asked throughout the day - there weren't experts for every topic, or even close to that. So, the early practice became taking a stab at questions that you might know something about. The early community of panelists developed a culture of policing one another, though loosely, as Art had wanted. We preferred sources, and would challenge one another to provide them, but were also willing - because of the shortage of panelists - to give a lot of latitude in answers. One might take a question on the Vietnam War, for example, and spin it out into a discussion of anti-colonial nationalism and insurgency in the post-1945 period. Not precisely what the original poster (OP) was asking, but relevant.
The community developed organically at that point, and it was a kind of Golden Age. The subreddit also began to grow, though fairly slowly at first, and slowly enough that new readers and new flairs could see and learn the expectations, and join in the culture through upvoting and downvoting.
It is clear that at that point, AskHistorians began to fill a gap in quality that existed on reddit, and perhaps on the internet broadly: people had questions about history, and wanted to get answers from knowledgeable people. And, many people (many many) wanted to take part in broader conversations - asking questions, interrogating answers, and even trying out answers themselves. And, on the part of the flaired community, AskHistorians clearly filled a need for people who knew things about the past to speak about the past. And speak they did: the subreddit began to produce a steady stream of long, detailed, rigorously sourced answers to people's questions, and these answers began to draw traffic to the sub as they went not quite 'viral,' but were certainly shared outside AH itself.
The mechanism for this was 'aggregator' subreddits, particularly BestOf and DepthHub. These are subs that do not produce their own content, but that instead aggregate the best of the rest of the site. 'Best of' includes everything from the best jokes to the wildest stories, while 'Depth Hub' is a place for sharing in-depth discussions of any topic. AskHistorians began to become a hit with these subs around March of 2012. Posts by eternalkerri (whom we'll see as the first dedicated mod) on the history of piracy, by myself on Irish identity and the history of bread, by a poster named NMW (who would also become an early mod) on World War I, by Daeres on all things Greek, began to generate immense amounts of traffic. They would be shared across reddit, and they began to drive a rapid and accelerating growth of the subreddit. AskHistorians began to dominate DepthHub in particular, and users there complained that it was becoming nothing more than the 'best of AskHistorians.'
It became a regular occurrence for an AskHistorians comment to be shared, to gather thousands of upvotes (which could mean tens of thousands of views, or more), spend all day as the top post on multiple subreddits, and to prompt people to join the community. A single post could bring several thousand new subscribers. It was at this point, between March and May of 2012, that the subreddit reached its 'Eternal September.'
'Eternal September' is a concept with deep roots in the lore of the internet. In the very old days of quite limited internet access, there were usenet message boards, each of which had its own particular culture, its norms and expectations maintained by the community. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, the membership of these early internet communities was fairly stable; not that many people had internet access. But, each September, a new cohort of college students found that they had internet access when they entered higher education, and they quickly found these communities and wanted to take part. Thus, each September, a wave of new users showed up and disrupted these communities, ignorant of the particular conventions of each one. After a few months, some of the new users had moved on, others were acculturated to the community, and things settled down again. In the mid-1990s, however, AOL and other early internet providers began to grow substantially, resulting in a constant influx of new members to internet communities: hence, the creation of an 'Eternal September.'
This raised a set of issues, in embryonic form, as the influx of new users began to outstrip the ability of AskHistorians to integrate and acculturate them:
1. The question of 'quality': what was a good answer, and - just as important - what as a good question? More users meant more people who wanted to ask and answer questions. In a small community, it's fairly easy to work with people on both aspects of that issue. With thousands of new users at a time, this became impossible, and, predictably, the number and volume of complaints began to accelerate.
2. The tone and atmosphere of the community.
- Reddit has a well-deserved reputation for some truly vile communities and vile individuals. I find it most accurate to think of it as like the internet overall, however: lots of smart, interesting, engaged, kind people looking to connect with others, and an equal number of people who are the opposite of that.
- We were fortunate, I think, in that the early community happened to be much more composed of the former than the latter. This allowed the development of cultural expectations within the community that insisted on civility, honesty, and genuine engagement. But, a constant influx of people, many of whom were not subscribed, disrupted this. They were often less invested or even totally unaware of the norms of the community, and wanted to crack jokes, were happy to turn even arcane discussions of history into very pointed political discussion. It's at this point that we also see constant conflicts about quality: posts about the need to eliminate jokes and more aggressively police behavior became common.
3. By what mechanism does one enforce these rules (and are they even rules, or are they better thought of as customs, traditions, norms of behavior)? And what role should the broader community play in either articulating or enforcing these rules?
The breaking point was the infamous Game of Trolls, Bill Sloan AMA, in May of 2012.
From that moment on, we knew two things: AskHistorians would continue to grow as growth had become essentially self-sustaining for at least the time being; and if we wanted to keep what we had built, and keep the good parts of what we had built, we would need to fight against entropy. That meant, then, that a much more strict moderation policy would be necessary: it would take more labor, and we would effectively have to institutionalize the governance of the sub. That is what happened over the following months and years, as the mod team grew - despite near constant turnover - and it is through the institutional structures put in place following the onset of eternal September that AskHistorians has continued and thrived.
"AskHistorians in Context" presented by Brian Watson of New England College
My name is Brian Watson, and I am a historian of pornography and obscenity, but I'm here today as a member of Reddit's AskHistorians community.
The purpose of my speech is to explain to the uninitiated what exactly Reddit and AskHistorians are, but almost more importantly, it is my job to contextualize our forum within the larger scope of what it means to be a public intellectual practicing history in the digital age. With this information, you will be able to fully understand the following presentations that my colleagues will give, which will drill deeper into what we have learned about online history outreach, and how it applies to others. So without further ado
Our case study is AskHistorians. Essentially this is a subforum of a much larger website called Reddit. Founded in 2005, Reddit stylizes itself as 'the front page of the internet,' and is a series of thousands upon thousands of bulletin boards on every possible topic imaginable. Indeed, if you were to visit the website today, you would see links and posts about anything from current politics, to scientific breakthroughs, sports, television, cute animals, or even personal finances. The difference between the front page of reddit and the front page of a curated newspaper like the New York Times is that registered users can 'upvote' posts to the top, or they can choose to 'downvote' them to the bottom and off the page.
Thus it is important to note that a game layer is built into the very bedrock of the forum we used to build our community. The specific up-vote/down-vote game-layer of the Reddit platform is a strength in that the content of thousands of subforums (called subreddits) allow the users to (hopefully) vote the best content to the top, and thus create an eclectic and hopefully interesting take on what is important on the internet at any given time. When a person makes an account with reddit (which requires nothing more than a username and a password) they can also choose their own subreddits based on personal taste and thereby curate their own front page. For example, a San Francisco based photographer might subscribe to the San Francisco, nature, hiking, and photography subreddits, whereas a computer programmer in Boston might subscribe to the Boston, nerd, programming, or videogame subreddits.
A registered user can also create their own subreddits with subreddit-specific rules and goals. What this means is that Reddit can sometimes be like a major city - there are both good neighborhoods and bad ones, places you want to go and places that should be avoided. One of the good subreddits - and a place we hope you will go - is AskHistorians, the purpose of our panel today.
AskHistorians was founded in 2011 by Arthur Wardle, an undergraduate student at Utah State University. In doing so he was inspired by another popular subreddit called askscience. The premise of AskHistorians is that any registered Reddit user can ask any sort of question out of our panel of experts. It is the simplest kind of community one could build ñ a question and answer session, and for our purposes here it is great. The bare-bones interactions reveal a lot of important things which people might not consider when approaching digital history.
Now, I can hear the two challenges to that last statement. 'any sort of user can ask any question?! On any topic?!' and the second is, of course 'well, how do you define 'expert?''
So, let's break that statement down a little further. Every community - online or off - has rules to regulate behavior, either implicitly or explicitly. Good rules are foundational to good online communities, and therefore good outreach. This includes AskHistorians. We have a (very detailed) set of rules for both questions and answers, and these rules are strictly enforced by a moderation team, which includes four of the people you see up here, as well as 30 others.
AskHistorians is famous for its strong moderating style because we want to ensure both quality and civility of discourse in our neighborhood. This strict moderation policy came out of a struggle to create a diverse and inclusive space, which, if you've ever seen the comments on a news article or youtube, you know can be quite the struggle.
When it comes to asking questions, we have a series of straightforward rules - the first of which is that no questions that concern current events (defined as 20 years ago) are allowed. This rule is to prevent the soapboxing and arguments that come with current politicsÖ.which is a little, uh, contentious right now. As an extension of that, we don't allow loaded questions like 'Why is Nixon considered the worst American president? Why not Obama?' We also prohibit poll-type questions, these are the sorts of questions that use phrases like 'best, worst, least' or 'most.' As I'm sure you all know, it is just about impossible to answer a question like 'Who was the best general in history? or What was the worst thing humanity has ever done?,' despite the fact that many historians have spent their careers proving just how futile it is.
Obviously, a normal outreach project would be more focused. The boundaries of how the community will interact with itself and with the organizers will be shaped by what you are trying to achieve and the content you provide.
To give you a few examples of some of our most popular questions:
What did a medieval town smell like?
Did early modern Africans have any mythology about the slave trade?
Why didn't elves cross the Atlantic with Irish Immigrants?
Was there anything like the hunger games on easter island?
To find out the answer to those questions - well, I guess you'll just have to visit AskHistorians, huh?
Next, we come to our rules about answers, which will also answer the question of how we define experts. Any answer in AskHistorians is expected to be comprehensive and informative, in line with historiography and the historical method, and include sources and citations where possible. We tell people to ask themselves four questions before they even write a post on AskHistorians, which are:
Do I have the expertise needed to answer this question?
Have I done research on this question?
Can I cite my sources?
Can I answer follow-up questions?
Furthermore, any answer that depends on speculation is removed, as are answers that are purely anecdotal, political, or moralizing, or that are plagiarized, and the account is banned. Banning a user from further participation is the method we use to further enforce our rules on the subreddit.
Those form the core content we deliver, but there is also a secondary element to the community ñcourteous thank yous, discussions about potential ramifications of the information, and follow-up questions. This allows the discussion to be not just between the questioner and the expert, but among the whole community. Engagement of the community is the constant goal of any outreach project, and fostering respectful secondary discussions is one way to keep people coming back.
Those experts that I referenced earlier? All 400+ of them had to follow these guidelines in providing at least three quality answers on the topic of their expertise, answers that are reviewed and vetted by other experts and moderators. When their application is accepted, they are awarded a title near their name, called a 'flair.' For example, my flair marks me as being an expert in 'Pornography and Obscenity, and the History of Privacy.'
The Flair is another kind of game-layer ñ a visible reward system recognizing trusted users, encouraging their engagement with the community, and providing role-models to the base users. The result is that our experts run the gamut from self-taught hobbyists to M.A. students looking to engage with a larger audience to practicing historians and college professors to professional archaeologists and linguists, some of whom are well-known in their respective fields. And they keep coming back. To the tune of 600,000 people.
We will have more on this a later presentation, but needless to say, over the past four years our project has become tremendously more successful than even we could have hoped, and has sponsored number of events which we call AMAs. An AMA, short for Ask Me Anything, is a neat little concept that we inherited from the culture of Reddit as a whole, where an expert in the field, such any of you in the audience can come and volunteer to field questions from a large forum of people who are interested in your history and research. If you're interested in jump-starting your own outreach perhaps you could come talk to me after the panel and we could organize one for you or your institution.
Over the past few years we've hosted AMAs with published experts such as
James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom.
Alex Wellerstein, creator of the NukeMap, and the author of Restricted Data, the nuclear secrets blog.
Professor David Andres of the University of Portsmouth.
We've also been lucky to have AMA interviews with organizations such as the Getty Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.
The final way in which we have tried to make history more accessible to the public and to engage in a larger context is through our AskHistorians Podcast, which has been tremendously successful. The podcast, which is run by myself, and two other moderators, Sean Kiskel and Andres Pertierra. These podcasts are a way for individual flairs or members to really dig into a specific topic and explore it in an hour or an hour plus long episode. Some of the more notable ones have included an interview with Margaret Harris, an interview with the duo Dr. Jennifer Evans, and Sara Read on Early Modern Medicine, or the recent episode on Canadian Identity by Geoff Keelan.
I believe that AskHistorians is a key platform in what it means to be a public intellectual and a historian in the digital era, and I would be happy to invite each and every one of you to participate, either in AMA, podcasts, or by participating in the community itself. I will be available after the panel if you would like further information in how to participate.
"Yelling at Nerds about Swords on the Internet" presented by William Knight, an Independent Scholar
Hi Everyone, I'm Will. I am an independent scholar of medieval European armour and weapons. Which is to say, I'm an enthusiast and an amateur. If I want to be academic, my specialty is medieval military material culture. On r/askhistorians, I answer questions about swords, and armour, and knights, and all that cool stuff that you were into when you were nine. When I'm not on the subreddit, I'm a more conventional living history volunteer - I do presentations about English soldiers and civilians during the Wars of the Roses and also give talks on Early American mixology. Maybe next time I'll bring some rum punch and make this panel a bit more festive. As you can imagine, armour and weaponry is a niche subject that has a lot of appeal to a very specific subset of internet users - a rather nerdy subset, at that.. Hence my working title for this portion of the panel, 'Yelling at nerds about swords on the internet.' I'm going to talk a bit about my experience on the subreddit and use it to illustrate a bigger point - how we engage people 'where they are' and expand on ideas and introduce people to historical thinking and historical methodology - meeting in the middle, between pop history and academia.. I'm sure that the idea of 'meeting people where they are' isn't unusual to anyone here - it's what public historians do. But the internet gives it a bit of a twist. We can be both less formal and a bit more academic than we can in traditional, in-person public history presentations. This lets us get at answers from a different angle.
The others already mentioned a bit about the demographics of reddit and of our own little corner of it - our users are disproportionately white males in North America, Australia or Europe in their later teens or twenties. A lot of them have a fairly casual interest in history - like a lot of people they experience historical events through movies, video games and TV. Many of our subscribers are not historians or formal students of history - they're gamers, geeks, and movie buffs. And their interests reflect this - war, more war, everyday life, sex, and Hitler. So many questions about Hitler.
In my own field, our userbase means that a lot of people asking questions have never read anything academic on the subject; then again, that's not unusual. Show of hands, how many people have read Claude Blair's European Armour 1066-1700? Okay, how many people have play DnD, Baldur's Gate, Diablo, Skyrim, The Witcher, or any other game where your character wore armour? As I thought. And that goes to show - there's a lot of interest in this stuff, but the public that's interested in this is cut off from academic resources. If people do read books or articles on this or watch documentaries it's probably pop history of the worst kind - shows like 'the Deadliest Warrior', dubious internet sites, and forums full of enthusiasts with more opinions than research to back them up. I mean, there's about two Youtube channels worth a damn on weapons and armour that I'm aware of, and one of them is run by a friend of mine.
The common thread between pop culture's treatment of armour and pop history's is that these sources take armour and weapons out of their historical context - everything is about specs, killer tech, and 'who would win in a fight'. It is about swords, or armour or guns in isolation - not about what they meant to the people who made and used them, or how they were made. When people do talk about the history of technology, they talk about it in terms of a 'tech tree', where better technology replaces worse technology in a linear progression. After all, this is how technological history is taught in school, and how it appears in video games like 'Civilization'.
When people ask questions, they take these assumptions with them. These questions aren't interested in context, necessarily. They're not asking about medieval economics or metallurgy or the transformation of society in the Early Modern era. They're often thinking about swords in terms of min-maxing a soldier's combat effectiveness, to use a term from gaming, rather than all the other reasons a soldier might carry a particular sword. But that's where we come in.
When people answer questions on our subreddit, we encourage them to go in depth. To go a step further. This doesn't simply mean answering a question and every iteration of its details - this means expanding on the question, adding back in that context that it is missing, making connections between the topic the asker is interested in and History as a whole. Someone might ask a question about why people stopped wearing armour and when. I might start my answer by summarizing how long this process took - from the 16th into the 17th century and beyond. I might look at the development of bigger and better guns, sure, but also at the decreasing price and increasing quality of gunpowder, and at the decreasing quality of the metal in armour. But I would need to go beyond this - into the tactical revolutions that made firearms common on the battlefield, into the growth of lighter cavalry as a cheaper alternative to knights. I might talk about the economics of equipping armies and the growth of mass-produced 'munition' armour. A real answer to this question includes the history of technology, military history, political history, economics and more. It looks at this development not through an isolated technological lens but through multiple perspectives that look at the web of connections between historical developments.
Beyond that, sometimes a really great answer can challenge the premise of the question, even while it answers it. I mentioned before that r/askhistorians is a repository of hitlerological knowledge. There is probably nowhere else that you can learn so much about Hitler so quickly - because people love asking about Hitler. The way his story is told he's the great man of history inverted - evil rather than good, but still very powerful. So people ask about his sleeping habits and his drug use and his diet because they see him as a critical figure of the 20th century, and they see his biography as key to understanding 20th century events. We hope they find answers for all of these, we really do. But the best answers ask a question in turn - what does it matter? Can any quirk of a single man explain all the evils that Nazi Germany committed? They cannot. It took a nation (and more) to commit the holocaust and to wage a genocidal war of aggression against all of Europe, and a good answer about Hitler answers the question while putting it in that proper context - not everything in world war two is about Hitler; most things aren't, in fact.
Speaking as someone who engages in historical education with the public both online and in 'traditional' living history settings, I find that people get a very different experience from online interactions. When I am dressed in the armour of a 15th century English Archer, the context of that armour is me - how heavy it is, how easily I can wear it, how well it protects me. The physicality of a reproduction armour invites this kind of immediate experience. But online, everything is much more abstract, and much more academic. I can link to online images to illustrate a point; I can make abstract arguments that don't translate to speech. While in-person living history presentations are about manifest realities, online public history is about concepts. In this way what we do is a bit more academic, perhaps. We can afford to be wordier and to recommend lots of books because when you're reading an answer on a screen you can absorb the details better than you can on a tour. By my experience, online education thus fulfils a rather different purpose than in-person interpretation. It caters less to the general public and more to the passionate beginner, who is interested in a subject but who doesn't know where to start.
The beauty of this way of answering is that it all relates back to something that the asker is interested in - the topic they're asking about. I think of it as a kind of back door to historical thinking - starting off with the topics people are passionate about, and encouraging them to see those things in their wider context. Abstract questions of historical methodology become a lot more important when they have relevance to something that you're already excited about. I should know this - I learned much of what I know about history in just this way. I had to learn how to view sources critically if I wanted to study 15th century manuscript illuminations; I had to consider historiography to know where popular misconceptions come from, and why modern armour historians use the terms they do. I became interested in the history of late medieval industry because I wanted to know how armour was made. I hope that my answers inspire people in the same way - to dig deeper, to search more widely, to make connections and draw out implications. Isn't that what all of us, as historical educators, hope to do?
"Democratizing the Digital Humanities: A Future for AskHistorians" presented by Cait Stevenson of the University of Notre Dame
The NCPH has asked us what it means to do history 'in the middle.' One of the things that I hope has come across most strongly so far is that AskHistorians isn't just placing itself in some pre-existing middle. Whether deliberate or not, we ended up creating it.
And the most radical and liberating thing of all is that we're not the middle between 'academic historian teachers' and proletariat students. Only two of us up here are practicing academics, and neither of those is the one who's published a book or been invited to give public lectures or conducted the most thorough literature review of their research interest. 'The only qualification for writing an AskHistorians answer is the ability to write a good answer.' Thanks to our lack of concern for credentials and the culture of anonymity fostered by our reddit platform, we're the meeting place for different conceptions of history, rather than hierarchies of historians.
But at the same time, we are tethered to academia. It's built into our standards, in fact: in-depth, comprehensive, and supported by current academic research. That requires an awareness of what the current research is, and the time and insider knowledge of how to stay up to date. Most importantly, it requires some way to access the journals, books, and ephemeral insider networks that communicate current research. Academia doesn't just supply most of our material, it governs access. And academia is a democracy.
So to finish up for today, I'm going to look at the implications for AskHistorians of our necessary binding to academic history. Right now academia is very much in its own middle of a conflagration of contigent labor, grad student exploitation, seemingly infinite compartmentalization and specialization There's a sense that this all bad, coupled with an inability to do anything besides make it worse. So how can AskHistorians continue to thrive? And what strategies can we share for other public historians facing similar funding and staffing shortages in the face of a urgent moment to bring historical knowledge to public consciousness?
First I want to talk about what it means to do history outside an academic or professional hierarchy.
I consider recruiting occasional commenters to participate more often and earn flair to be my personal sacred duty as a moderator. And over and over, I hear 'but I'm just an amateur' or 'I'm not in academia' or 'I just read a lot.' I just read a lot! That's it, that's exactly it. So one of the challenges, especially to me as a well-known academic and mythical Girl on the Internet, is to mediate the academic-ness of my own language, to make us seem less ivory tower - without belittling the user or demeaning myself as a woman intellectual. But also, the other mods and I have to appeal to potential flairs on two competing grounds: first, their ability to absorb and reproduce an academic perspective; second, the confidence that an outsider perspective is something unique, valuable, and necessary in and of itself.
We're used to celebrating an inside perspective: either as academics talking to academics, or as local historians evoking pride in our towns and cities. So the benefits of celebrating an outside perspective is a very useful takeaway from AskHistorians. Ultimately, historians are teachers: we empower people to know. What AskHistorians tries to nurture is the power to pass that knowledge on - especially outside formal settings. Our conversion rate of potential recruits into certified flairs proves the viability of our strategy. We're working on new ways right now to turn even more lurkers and one-off participants into experts. The shift of public historical goals from unidirectional conveying of knowledge to the creation of communities of historians is one of the most exciting things to watch about AskHistorians.
Our challenge from the other direction is different. I'm currently one of the AH academics, although I don't expect that to last past graduation. And like I tell people: my job is writing about history. My hobby is writing about history anonymously on the Internet. I've made my decision to spend thousands of hours on this, obviously, but this type of individual choice is not long term and wide-scale sustainble if AH wants to grow. One example from the academic warzone must suffice to illustrate the problems we face.
Recent research has shown the systemic factors stacked against women succeeding in academia. Moms use maternity leave to be parents; dads use paternity leave to write a book. Women carry a vastly disproportionate amount of the "departmental service' burden. Overall, factors like these make women less likely to have viable long term academic careers; it also means the ones who do have less time outside their work lives.
This dynamic plays out on AskHistorians. We're on reddit, a website that the medieval feminist scholarship society uses as shorthand for Internet misogyny. AskHistorians has a reputation on and off reddit for strict standards of civility and zero tolerance for bigotry, including sexism. Answers on feminist historiography and women's history have been voted by users best post of the month 4 times now in less than 3 years of running monthly awards. And yet, our readership can't seem to break reddit AVERAGE score of 15% female, and our team of flairs is even worse. Average, on a website with large sections that promote "no means yes". AskHistorians is passively accepting of women. How do we go from a passive strategy thst fosters a nice environment for men, to an active strategy that encourages women's participation for an even better overall subreddit?
I argue that increasing incentives for participation, drawing on AskHistorians roots in and out of academia, can help address this imbalance to make our subreddit a better public history platform. By working towards the mutually reinforcing goals of publicity, legitimacy, and advocacy, we can incentivize participation by academic and independent historians on both a personal and professional level.
More importantly, our strategies have the potential to be adapted for other public history platforms and situations. As we go forward into a world with fewer and fewer academic research positions, more trained PhDs, and less money for public projects, our experiments, failures, and successes can help found a viable "independent historical" profession, hobby, and community.
The biggest incentive for AH panelists is the audience. Who's going to read my dissertation? My advisor. My mother, my best friend. The rest of my committee if I'm lucky. I write something on AH in three hours, and 4000 people might read it that day alone. We need to work to increase this number for our popular posts and bring our less popular ones in line with it.
On a bare material level, we will recruit new readers as well as panelists most basically if people know about us. The problem we face with social media promotion is that each new iteration of social media seems to favor shorter and shorter engagement--and our entire reason for being is longform writing and thought.
With our Facebook page, we are working to balance the lure of more sensationalizing headlines with an underlying sobriety that points to what is actually behind the link. No, teachers don't HATE US--actually, teachers, we want you to use our answers to help improve your curriculums beyond the textbook! But there is a difference between asking, How did nineteenth century theologians interpret the story of Jonah and, did people ever experiment to see whether a person could live three days inside a whale? We need to be better than our readers--using the unique enthusiasm and personal connection with history as a template for our own efforts at promotion.
But we know "exposure" or work for free is a scam. If we want to make AH viable for the overworked, we need to make it a legitimate crossover activity between hobby and profession. I'll mention two potential strategies here that don't involve one of us winning the lottery. First, using AH as a springboard for individual involvement in other public and paid activities. Second, treating reddit as an albatross in the fullest sense of the metaphor.
A lot of people in and out of academia WANT to do public history or popular history; we's teachers and lovers of the past, and we want you to love it, too. Let's make AskHistorians a platform to build that sort of presence or strand of a fuller career. When authors use AH to promote their new books, we market those events as hosted by AskHistorians, as well as the promoting the author. Meanwhile, I recently landed a paid writing job for an online history magazine with a portfolio entirely of AH answers. The quality of work being produced on AskHistorians is often astronomical. We need to get over our own anonymous user accounts and claim it. Adding AskHistorians to our online resumes in forums that professional historians see outside a job search context, can help make us more viable as a line on a cv FOR that future job search.
The other hurdle with legitimacy in the professional historical world is reddit. Reddit used to be known for cat gifs and militant atheism; now it's known for misogyny and white supremacy. We can promote reddit to professional historians--especially young academic ones--as our chance to make a real, concrete difference. We are the place to head off future recruits to Holocaust denialism. Combined with a push towards legitimacy, AskHistorians can make itself the place to fight those battles and get professional acknowledgment for it.
This bleeds into our final sphere of strategic engagement, activism. The politics of AskHistorians is the politics of doing history responsibly. We have a 20 year moratorium on discussing current events.
Until recently, that is, when the moderation team chose to take a public stand against the destruction of the NEH and NEA. I don't have to explain why this is the hill we'd die on, I think. But the interesting thing was, although we got some pushback for political involvement, we also got some publicity out of the event. I suggest we can use that kernel of a public platform beyond our subreddit going forward, and mobilize in ways that will help us and similar efforts gain an even bigger role in the kaleidescope of public history.
In particular, we should barge our way into the gruntwork of shaping what 'digital humanities' is going to look like. It's disheartening to watch online efforts replicate the academic-public-popular history divisions. Online courses and TEDtalks are one sided, reinforcing the magisterial nature of a single authoritative story. Sensationalist podcasts are fifty thousand times more accessible than responsible academic work. Even cool projects like the one that recruits people to transcribe manuscripts requires paleographical and language training that is already tied to academia.
In the middle of the kaleidescope of histories, AskHistorians is uniquely poised to see that the replication of that divide in the digital humanities is NOT inevitable. We must be a voice for a unified and unifying online historical world.