Digital History vs. History-Themed Entertainment on the Web?

Movie Still of Forrest Gump

Movie Still of Forrest Gump “at” an Anti-Vietnam Rally in Washington, D.C. ‘Forrest Gump,’ 1994.

The questions that any good public historian asks on repeat are, “Who are my audiences?” “What do they want?” “How do I help them engage with history?” Digital historians ask these too. As Stephen Robertson, the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media wrote in a blog post about distinguishing digital history from digital humanities, digital history is,”the collection, presentation, and dissemination of material online.” It seems to go without saying that digital historians are not just collecting, presenting and disseminating material for themselves. There is no public history without a public audience, and there is also no digital history without a public audience online. Thus, historians are not turning to the web just for hoots and hollers, but because the field is growing dependent on new media as a form of communication with their audiences.

As Roy Rosenzweig and David Cohen write in their book Digital History,

“Even the ancient discipline of history has begun to metamorphose. In the past two decades, new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past.”

Rosenzweig and Cohen explain that as recently as 1990, all this attention to to the world wide web would have seemed unwarranted. Digital History is a new field, rapidly growing, testing boundaries and assuming (or rejecting) different identities with a variety of disciplines. As Spiro explains in his blog post, Getting Started in the Digital Humanities, “Many in the DH community are to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects rather than through formal training.” Just like Public History programs were scarce in the 1970s and are widely available now, I would predict that Digital History programs will be quite popular in the next twenty years. Thus, I think this is a very interesting time to be studying digital history, during the process of discovering that there is an up and coming discipline, and how to articulate what exactly it is.

Movie Still Meme of Forrest Gump meeting members of the Black Panther Party, 1960s. 'Forrest Gump,' 1994.

Movie Still Meme of Forrest Gump meeting members of the Black Panther Party, 1960s. ‘Forrest Gump,’ 1994.

Part of the process of seeking out an articulated identity for digital history is discovering what does or does not count. How exactly do we weed through all the history related material online to define digital history as opposed to history-themed entertainment on the web? Does Ancestry.com count? Do Drunk History youtube videos count? Does History.com count? Rebecca Onion seems to touch on this question of identity in her article Snapshots of History in which she points out the “bad history” presented in twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics that post historical pictures with often vague captions and erased contexts. These twitter accounts have a great deal of followers, despite being riddled with inaccuracies. She writes,

“By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.”

Rebecca Onion makes very valid points here. These Twitter accounts are not good history. Yet, I would add that these twitter accounts are not doing bad history either, because they are not doing history at all. Rather, it seems to me that these Twitter accounts are like many other history-themed entertainments, which have existed as long as the discipline of history itself, maybe even longer. Folklore, historical fiction, even the doctored photographs, motion pictures and reenactments like in the 1994 film Forrest Gump all demonstrate cultural fascinations with the past that are not, (and do not attempt to be) rooted in fact. I don’t think this is bad, it is just not history at all. Unless you want to write a history of historical inaccuracies! But lets not get too meta here…

Doctored Movie Still of Forrest Gump with President JFK, 'Forrest Gump,' 1994.

Doctored Movie Still of Forrest Gump “with” President JFK, ‘Forrest Gump,’ 1994.

Rather, I would argue that the Twitter followers for these accounts are not looking for history, or even accuracy. They want to see an interesting picture for a few seconds and move on with their day. Maybe a photograph of one of the usual suspects on these accounts will spark an interest, and the user will go to google and search for more (now historical) information. Or, maybe not. The point I am trying to make here is that Twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics are not necessarily bad for history, bad for twitter and bad for you.

In fact, in some ways these Twitter accounts could be good for history, good for twitter, and good for you. As a public historian, I am more than happy to see that so many followers have explicitly demonstrated an interest in the past, even if it is just to look at interesting pictures. For me, that means there are many non-historians out there that are interested in connecting themselves to the past everyday, even if it is not with the attention to context and accuracy of a trained historian. I don’t expect them to share that drive and expertise, because otherwise what am I doing all this graduate level training for? Besides, I am confident that if and when these Twitter followers want digital history or public history, they will either know (or will ask) where to find it. And that is when historians like me swoop in with our carefully checked facts and historicized contexts.

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