On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:

Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do “star historians” really dominate the popular view of history? what does “historian” mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is “no original research“?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn’t yet been much affected by the “pro-am revolution“, but it’s increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing).  Some academic fields–astronomy is the most dramatic example–have already started benefiting  greatly from the contributions of amateurs.  But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects  and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason’s  Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically?  Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession?  The case of history of science may be instructive here.  History of science has actually had a vibrant “pro-am” community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians.  Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades–just the opposite, they’ve withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested.  If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of “pro-am” history as more of a threat than an opportunity.

[cross-posted at Cliopatria]

The history of the future of journalism?

In the wake of the Iranian election, lots of the people who focus on the changing journalism landscape have been talking about the significant role Twitter and other social media are playing in organizing and spreading news about the protests. Two of the leaders of the broad journalism discussion are Dave Winer and Jay Rosen, who have a weekly podcast called Rebooting the News. In the latest edition, Winer looks back to September 11, 2001 as the first time when the online social web foreshadowed the kinds of citizen journalism that Winer and Rosen see as a major part of the future of news. As he explains, he had no TV at the time but strictly through the Internet he was just as informed and up-to-date as he would hae been following the events of the day through traditional media.

Around 2001 is also the horizon for historians; for events after that, the archival richness of the internet accellerates from then until now in terms of the experience of ordinary people in major historical events and trends.

In that vein, here’s a paper I wrote in 2005 for a course on narrative history with John Demos, about the usenet traces of the kinds of the thing Dave Winer reflects on from 9/11. (I tried to weave in the pop psychology framework of the five stages of grief, to mixed results.)


We historians like to think that things develop gradually. Yet, in the microcosm, the events of the following months and years were foreshadowed there in the cyberspace of New York City on September 11. All the questions of “why?” and “what now?” were hashed out in the hours following the attacks by net denizens as they struggled to come to grips with the grief of the nation.

After one hour thirty-six minutes of denial, the messages on the NYC General internet discussion group started with a comment calculated to jump-start conversation, going straight to bargaining:

Tues, Sep 11 2001 10:20 am

WTC: Bound to happen

I wonder if this will change our assistance plans to Israel?[1]

Circumspection was the word for the first few replies; questions not answers. Who is sending us this message? Was it “internal” like the Oklahoma City bombing, or was it the Palestinians or someone else? Is it just a coincidence that this is the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords?[2] Whoever it was, they were clearly well-organized; they knew they had to use large planes with full fuel tanks to take out the World Trade Center Towers.

Just after noon, they were on to bin Laden as the likely culprit; it seemed like “his style.” Rumors that he had foretold an “unprecedented attack” two weeks earlier, including information from one woman’s unnamed friend from the intelligence community, provided one focus for the rising anger of the discussants. Israel and the celebrating Palestinians on TV were also popular targets of ire. Anger got the better of more than one:

Tues, Sep 11 2001 2:05 pm

Anyone cheering at thousands of Americans being murdered is a declaration of war as far as I’m concerned.

Tues, Sep 11 2001 6:02 pm

Did you all see the Palestinians dancing for joy today?

SCUM. Burn them all.

Calmer voices prevailed quickly, defusing talk of an indiscriminate crusade. But few seemed to doubt that war was on the horizon, even if not everyone had a clear idea of whom (or who) to fight:

Tues, Sep 11 2001 1:51 pm

>>>This must mean war.

>>With who?


Any particular reason, or are you just starting [with] the A’s?

The possible complicity of Iraq was mentioned as well, and the failure to capture Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War illustrated how hard it might be to get bin Laden (if he was even the right target) in an Afghanistan war. But waging war on the Taliban, at least, might yield some human rights dividends, considering the way they treated their women.

The depressing, fatalistic seeds of the prolific conspiracy theories that developed in the months and years after the attack were there in the first hours too:

Tues, Sep 11 2001 11:39 am

I would not think (but I’m NOT an expert) that such impact would so weaken the structure as to cause both to collapse, without further destruction at a lower level.


Tues, Sep 11 2001 1:22 pm

I am just pointing out that I don’t think we can take out Bin Laden because if we could we would have done it long ago.

It would be months before online groups like the 9/11 Truth Movement would spin such speculation into elaborate tapestries of lies and manipulation, in which the strings are pulled by the man by behind the man behind the man (with three U.S. Presidents, at least, in on it), with bin Laden as the fall guy who was working for the CIA all along. But common sense prevailed quickly in this particular cyber niche; the combination of fire and impact would be able to take down the towers, with all that weight above the impact points, they reasoned.

Ultimately, the tension on the internet that day was between anger and acceptance, and with the bombers apparently dead and the looming possibility that there might not be anyone left to blame, the discussants turned on each other:

Tues, Sep 11 2001 8:10 pm

[On the subject of celebrating Palestinians and possible PLO involvement in the attacks]

>>Gosh, you don’t suppose the Isreali blockade has anything to do with it, do you?

>And what does this have to do with just buying food???

Don’t know how the blockade works, do you?

>>>They aren’t feeding their people, giving them housing or water – no

>>As a matter of fact they are, as much as they can. But when Isreal takes their land

> Of, forget it. You’re brainwashed.

This is coming from someone who can’t tell the difference between the PLO and other arab organizations.


Tues, Sep 11 2001 8:31 pm

> I’m not the one advocating bombing anyone.

Ha. So you just want to let them do this and get away with it, eh?

This was the worst of that first 111 message-long thread—tame compared with many of the other virtual shouting matches that developed that afternoon. And ultimately, the feelings of anger won out on NYC General, coming into line with zeitgeist of the rest of the nation as President Bush announced plans to hunt down the terrorists and those who harbor them. But elsewhere on the internet, then and now, every possible response from denial to acceptance has a place. And the stories will still be there waiting for us, for when we are ready to move on.


[1] This and all following quotes come from the USENET archive of nyc.general, as archived by Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/group/nyc.general). This discussion thread was started simultaneously on nyc.general, nyc.announce, alt.conspiracy (where it superseded such hot topics as “Moon Landings: Fact of Fiction?,” but did not change that group’s absurdist conspiratorial tone), talk.politics.misc (which was rapidly inundated with separate posts, preventing any sustained discussion), and soc.culture.jewish (where the endemic Zionist/anit-Zionist rhetoric drowned out this relatively moderate thread), and soon spread to other groups, fragmenting and spawning new discussions. There are probably hundreds of preserved usenet discussions documenting the immediate response of thousands of people on September 11.

[2] Actually the Camp David Accords were reached on September 17, 1978, making 9/11 just shy of the 23rd anniversary.

Prospectus writing in a post-Wikipedia world

For a few weeks now (or is it months?) I’ve been struggling to get a hold of a coherent dissertation topic. I actually have a pretty good idea of the general subject I’m going to do my research on: the disciplinary splits and diversification in biology since the 1950s, especially the “Molecular Wars” between organismal and molecular biology and the history of molecular evolution, which straddled the divide. I’ve been getting to know the existing secondary material (which is very thin) and the individuals and archives that might be at the center of an extended history of molecular evolution (which are numerous).

As I collect and organize all this information, searching for a sufficiently limited yet compelling research approach, I’m increasingly drawn to the potential of prosopography (the historical study of groups of people and the connections among them). My advisor, Dan Kevles, was one of the pioneers of prosopography in the history of science with his dissertation-project-turned-first-book The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. But wikis offer the potential for a new kind of prosopography, which surprisingly has seen very little development outside Wikipedia itself. (One major online non-wiki prosopography effort is Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which has an amazing amount of information but has an all-but-useless interface.) As an experiment, I took my recent acquisition of the Evolving Genes and Proteins book (the proceedings from a 1964 conference on molecular evolution that produced a number of very influential papers) and created List of participants in the Evolving Genes and Proteins symposium. About 40 of the ca. 250 participants already have Wikipedia entries, including 22 of the 56 who contributed to the proceedings (and probably the majority of the rest will have entries as some point). If similar wiki-databases were created for other important conferences, contributors to important journals, scientists in specific fields who had been associated with specific instititution, etc. (either on Wikipedia, or elsewhere to facilitate original research), it could be the groundwork for the kind of quantitative history that social historians have been pining for but have never really pulled off. It could make prosopography (and maybe even collaborative history) worth doing.

Josh Greenberg, Zotero, and Scholarship 2.0 (!! Beta! Zap! Pow!)

Today, my department’s Holmes Workshop speaker was Josh Greenberg (aka, Epistemographer): an historian/STSer/hacker, formerly of the Center for History and New Media, now the “Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship” (how rad a title is that?) at the New York Public Library.

I’ve been following the CHnM for a while now, and I had read about their flagship project Zotero, but I never realized what a revolutionary vision they have for this thing. Zotero is a Firefox plugin that does citations. It was initially conceived as an open source replacement EndNote (the only selling point for which, from what I hear, is that it’s not quite as bad as Word for footnotes).

In his introduction, Josh had an insightful comparison of “Finding vs. Searching”, basically the difference between an organized hierarchy of information (e.g., early Yahoo!, library stacks, and bibliographies), in which serendipitously finding things is the great benefit, and using the ubiquitous search boxes of the modern internet (e.g., Google, online library catalogs), with which you are searching for finite results in an undifferentiated database where anything outside the search parameters is simply invisible. (By random coincidence, he had randomly included this picture by me as an icon of the finding mode; hooray for unattributed syndication!).

Part of the goal of Zotero is to harness the best of both the searching and finding modes by adding a Web 2.0 social element to the citation program. This summer, the developers will be launching a Zotero server that will archive a user’s citation database so that it can be accessed from anywhere and retained in case of hardware failure. The upshot is that, unless the user opts out, the citation database will be used (sans private information, if desired) to create a sort of del.icio.us for scholarly material. Zotero will be useful enough to be used on its own, with the aggregate social aspect as icing that brings the potential for scholarly collaboration and recommendation to a new level. You can find other bibliographies similar to yours to see what like-minded scholars are reading that you aren’t, and you might be able to find other scholars you didn’t know about with similar research interests. In future versions, you’ll be able to share your marginalia, your original sources (interviews, photographs from archives, etc.), etc.

What makes Zotero cool today is the ability to automatically pull citation data from a large and ever-growing list of online sources. So you do a search on your local library catalog, and with one click you import the metadata for that source to your library. Then, when you want to cite that source, you have a wide range of output options (MLA, Chicago Style, EndNote, etc.). What sold me is that it even does export in Wikipedia citation template syntax. I never use the cite templates, because it’s usually easier to just type in the references how I want them. But with Zotero, I’m going to start using them. For the Wikipedians reading this, I recommend trying it out (make sure you get Beta 4, from the Zotero website; the one straight from Firefox is out of date and doesn’t have the Wikipedia support). It’s under heavy development and improving rapidly, but it’s already a very helpful thing.