Some Thoughts About Civil War Historians and Social Media

In response to my last post a reader inquired into a point I made in passing:

Also, can you clarify what you mean by your statement that “we need to think about the ways in which social media is shaping the organization of relatively small conferences like the SCWH”?

Let me respond by taking a step back. Continue reading “Some Thoughts About Civil War Historians and Social Media”

@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. Continue reading “@HistoryinPics Does It Better Than You”

“Become an Independent Scholar and Do What You Love” – Keith Harris

Earlier today my friend, Keith Harris, published his manifesto encouraging people in his position to “reject the academic job market.”

Here is my advice: become an independent scholar and do what you love.

Having known Keith for a number of years I am not surprised by what I read. It’s straight and to the point. Without forming much of an opinion one way or the other I re-tweeted the post. Keith thanked me and suggested that I share my thoughts on the blog. At first I resisted, but taking a break from student comment writing is just what the doctor ordered, so here it goes. Continue reading ““Become an Independent Scholar and Do What You Love” – Keith Harris”

The Skyping Classroom

Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.

This week I will be working with Professor Greg Pfitzer’s students at Skidmore College. The class is the Civil War in American Memory and students are reading David Blight’s article “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South” in Ailce Fahs and Joan Waugh eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture along with a recent post I wrote about commemoration activities in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Students are required to respond on the post and I am going to make every effort to respond to every comment. Please feel free to share your thoughts through the week as well. As we did a couple of years ago, once the assignment is concluded we will debrief with a Skype conversation.

Continue reading “The Skyping Classroom”

RIP Marc Ferguson

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

Over the years I’ve come to consider a small number of you as part of my online family.  I read your comments with great interest and I’ve learned a great deal as a result.  Our online communities are all too often shaped by the worst elements in our society such as ignorance, hatred, and  dishonesty.  I like to think that Civil War Memory is a place where you can exchange ideas and engage one another in a thoughtful way.

With that in mind I am sad to report that over the weekend Marc Ferguson passed away.  Marc was a frequent commenter here going back almost to the beginning. I could always count on Marc to leave a thoughtful and challenging comment in response to my posts.  During the research phase of my Crater project he emailed links to online collections and other resources he thought I should check out.  Marc was incredibly helpful when I moved to Boston.  He suggested places to visit and even offered helpful advice once I began to look for employment.

I knew Marc was sick, but we still talked about getting together.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  I am going to miss having Marc around as I know many of you will as well.  My thoughts today are with his family.