Fifty years ago Americans emerged from the Civil War Centennial with a collective narrative that fit neatly into a pervasive Cold War culture. Though slightly bloodied and bruised this narrative retained strong Lost Cause and reconciliationist themes even as the civil rights movement reminded the nation on a daily basis of the war’s “unfinished business”. Much of this can be explained by the limited numbers of voices that were heard during the centennial years as well as the influence of relatively few historical and cultural institutions. This lent itself to a narrative that emphasized consensus surrounding the fundamental questions of Civil War remembrance.
Now, fifty years later as we make our way through the Civil War’s 150th anniversary we are confronted by a very different reality. The Internet and the introduction of Web 2.0 tools have shattered the ability of any one institution or even a select few to speak for the nation. The democratization of the web allows all of us to engage in individual acts of remembrance through participation in wikis, listservs, blogs and the creation of ever more creative digital projects. We have yet to fully grasp the implications of how this technology is now shaping how Americans remember and commemorate the past as well as what it means for our understanding of the concept of ‘collective memory’ itself. We have always had the ability as individuals to create cultural or material forms of historical memory, but what has changed is the potential visibility of such artifacts through their publication and sharing on the Web.
What is clear is that artificial consensus building through the control of a limited supply of resources is dead. What we need to come to terms with is how to sort through the overwhelming number of voices both in the United States and beyond that have contributed to our ongoing discussion/debate surrounding the Civil War’s meaning 150 years later. Archivists will have to figure out what it means to catalog the 2.0 world. Educators now have the ability to engage their students not simply in reflecting on the Civil War 150th, but in actively contributing to it. Public historians have the ability to utilize this technology to more effectively engage a general public that continues to become more and more diverse. Finally, fifty years from now historians will have to think carefully about how to sift through the noise to find some level of coherence and meaning.
Does Web 2.0 move us beyond a national to an international remembrance of the Civil War? How do we set the boundaries and does it make any sense at all to talk of boundaries?
How do we judge the relative importance of individual voices?
What is the boundary between individual and collective memory when we are so easily hyperlinked to one another?
Fifty years from now, what will historians see when they try to understand how Americans remembered the Civil War?