I 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.