@HistoryinPics Does It Better Than You

@historyinpics followersI first came across the controversy surrounding the highly successful @HistoryinPics Twitter account after reading Alex Madrigal at the Atlantic. What’s all the fuss? Two teenagers have leveraged a Twitter account based entirely on images from history to the tune of roughly $50,000. In a matter of a few months they’ve attracted over 1 million followers. In a guest post at the National Council of Public History’s blog, Jason Steinhauer weighs in on a host of issues that he finds problematic.  Unfortunately, Steinhauer pretty much misses the mark.

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.

It’s hard not to see the academic elitism in this comment, but just below is a naivete about how social media works. There is a sense of entitlement at work here and a defensiveness surrounding who has the right to share history on the Internet. I commend Steinhauer’s emphasis on wanting to encourage learning and meaningful online interaction, but that has absolutely no value until you are able to sell it. No, “Playing for the click on social media is not a sin”; in fact, it is the only thing that matters. If you use social media to build an audience or highlight a product than you are engaged in marketing. Some institutions and individuals happen to be better at it than others, but ultimately the click is what matters.

Steinhauer also too quickly dismisses @HistoryInPics’s audience because he views it as just another example of a “place of fun” on the Web as opposed to a site where “deep research” is conducted. To the right is a quick snapshot of just a few of my Twitter followers who also happen to follow @HistoryInPics. In addition to the NCPH you will find a number of serious scholars who for one reason or another follow the account. Something quite meaningful (and dare I say, educational) is happening for the many people who follow this site.

At the end of what will be a 2-part post, Steinhauer offers the following.

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.

And the longer you hold this view about what these two teenagers accomplished as opposed to what museums and other institutions are attempting to create the longer your social media footprint will remain invisible.

9 thoughts on “@HistoryinPics Does It Better Than You

  1. Patrick Young

    When you look at the History in Pictures tweets, they seem so simple that you wonder why museum folks are wringing their hands instead of doing the same by hiring some 18 year old interns to tweet and promote their own version.

    Message to museums, academic, and public historians: the world has changed. You’ll be publishing “papers” and holding exhibits the change ten years from now when you catch up. Only the papers and exhibits will not be on paper or museum walls.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      At one point the author referenced the resources that have been spent to push museums’ online presence and all I can think is that the people being hired obviously suck. I am with you, hire a couple of teenagers. :-)

      Reply
  2. Nick Fry

    The institution where I work has just gotten a Flickr account, to date we’ve uploaded over 20,000 images from our collection and we’re seeing someone interacting with an image once ever 10 minutes on average. Before we did this, the images were in scrapbooks in our reading room available only when the room was open. Some have captions, some do not. We’ve been really impressed with the crowd-sourced information that has been showing up on these images, which we admit are in some cases very rough scans.

    Reply
      1. Nick Fry

        Indeed it does. We’re also seeing a lot of comments where people are making personal connections with the subjects of the photo. Some people even pointing out the house where they were born.

        I am kicking myself for having waited so long to post these scans even in their current state.

        Reply
  3. Rob Baker

    I’ve got to say I concur with you on this one.

    I found @Historyinpics a while back and I actually refer my students to it. It’s an interesting way to start class every so often – “Check out what I saw last night”

    It usually leads to a good general discussion.

    Reply
  4. Barbara Gannon

    That was REALLY lame, the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. These kids did nothing wrong–at all. Some days I am just embarrassed for my profession.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      These kids did nothing wrong–at all.

      You could make the case that their use of certain images violates copyright laws. Beyond that, these kids did nothing wrong. In fact, the author of the post should see about hiring them given what appears to be his own organization’s lack of success in this area.

      Reply

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