Wildly Popular Accounts Like @HistoryInPics Are Bad for History and Bad For Twitter

Then, again.
Feb. 5 2014 11:52 PM

Snapshots of History

Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.

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Attribution, meanwhile, isn’t just about giving credit to a creator. A historical document was produced by somebody, at some time, under certain conditions. To historians these details, and the questions they provoke, are what give historical documents dimension. As John Overholt, the curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library (and an avid Twitterer and Tumblrer), said to me via email:

Every image is also an artifact—it has a creator, a context, and, in the era of film photography at least, a physical original that sits in a repository somewhere. Divorced from all that metadata, a stream of historical images is always going to be a shallow experience.

By not linking to sources or context, history pic accounts create an impression of history as a glossy, impervious façade.

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The accounts’ choice of content, which is repetitive and predictable, seems designed to provoke a feeling of familiarity: an “I know what this is!” rather than an “I wonder what this is about?” There’s an overreliance on old pictures of celebrities (@OldHistoryPics, 50 percent; @HistoryInPics, 33 percent; @HistoricalPics, 27 percent) and by and large, the accounts all focus on the same small group of stars: Monroe, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Muhammad Ali. As Ben Breen, history Ph.D. student and editor of the online Appendix Journal, recently put it to me, this is a Forrest Gump approach to history.

Of course, the accounts are giving their followers what they want: The most retweeted posts for all four accounts were photos of celebrities. A photo showing Tupac Shakur flipping the bird after being shot in 1994 got 1,776 retweets (the tweet in question wasn’t dated, which was confusing, as some might have thought the picture was from Shakur’s fatal shooting in 1996). Two images of Heath Ledger, with “RIP” messages attached, got 22,570 and 10,562 retweets. Audrey Hepburn with a cigarette holder garnered 4,427 (@History_Pics has since removed this tweet).

The more traditionally “historical” content is hardly more varied or surprising: JFK, the Internet darling Nikola Tesla, Einstein, Hitler. Historical periods and events covered are similarly monotonous. The Titanic sinks over and over; WWII rages on. Old pictures of cities are always of New York, London, San Francisco, or Paris. (I should add that @History_Pics seemed to offer a broader variety of material, but the photos of theirs that stepped off this well-trodden circuit appeared to be the ones with smaller retweet counts.)

Occasionally, the accounts will feature photos of everyday people. They’re typically intended to provoke an emotional response, either tugging at the heart-strings or hammering at the funny bone by mocking some bizarre old bygoner. Photos of pretty women walking down the street provoke prurient appreciation, justified in the dignified name of “history.” Tweets of a liberated concentration-camp survivor holding a German at gunpoint are easily shareable: Everyone knows what side to be on. And oddities, like a photo of a policeman judging an ankle competition or a carte-de-visite of a sad old maid with a reverse Mohawk, offer an easy chuckle.

This diptych of two soldiers in 1945 and 2009 was the week’s most egregious abuse of history in the name of virality—but, in its egregiousness, it proves a point.

The tweet is engineered to trigger a retweet from readers whose views on gender and violence are pre-confirmed. By omitting context and claiming “historical” status for the argument, the tweet appears to be proving a simple fact, while it’s actually scoring an ideological point about human nature. Boys will be boys! It’s “history.”

When she posted her rant on the history-pics phenomenon, the Folger’s Sarah Werner received pushback on Twitter, and was accused of being “against fun.” But a critique of this mode of history-on-Twitter is actually the opposite of elitist schoolmarmery. By posting the same types of photographs over and over and omitting context and links, these accounts are robbing readers of the joy of the historical rabbit hole—and they’re taking a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.

In my capacity as blogger for the Vault, I spend a lot of time in (free!) digital archives, on the blogs of libraries and museums, and on sites produced by historians working inside and outside of the academy. A delirious pleasure of historical inquiry, on- and offline, lies in the twists and turns: You think you’re writing about children’s encyclopedias from the 1920s, and at the end of the day you’re researching the primatologist Robert Yerkes. This joy is easier than ever for anyone to experience, given the ever-growing body of linked information and original documents available on the Web.

I’m under no illusion that every blog reader follows the links I include to the archives where I find documents, or that every Twitter follower clicks on the links I put in @SlateVault tweets. But if they do, and they land in a digital archive or on a blog, they might see a slider pointing to related documents, a right rail with links to intriguing past posts, or an appealing subject heading. Or, they might decide to plug some of the information they find into Google Books, and see whether anything fun surfaces.

My hope is that I’m providing a starting point, not an end point, with each post. I never know for sure if what sparks my own curiosity will kindle a similar fire with readers, but if it does, I want readers to be able to pursue the subject beyond the confines of my short posts and tweets. The history-pics accounts give no impression of even knowing this web of legitimate, varied historical content exists. Given their huge follower counts, this is a missed opportunity—for their readers, and for the historians and archivists who would thrill to larger audiences for their work.

I’m not so naive as to think the history pic accounts are likely to change their ways; they’ve clearly defined their terms of success differently than I have. But for readers who would like to have a richer experience of history on Twitter, such a thing is very much possible. I’ve put together a list of history accounts on Twitter that do a great job in sourcing, linking, contextualizing, responding to readers, and representing a wider array of historical topics. They range from @BibliOdyssey, run by an Australian blogger who finds amazing illustrations in old books, to @TodaysDocument, an account that plucks great things from the National Archives.

And if I’ve succeeded in raising your ire at the history-pics approach, there’s some catharsis to be found in @PicPedant, run by Paulo Ordoveza, a Washington, D.C., Web developer who tirelessly researches unattributed photos and broadcasts their true origins. Or, try the anonymously-run, pitch-perfect parody account @AHistoricalPics, which tweets photos with wildly mismatched captions.

Or @WowHistoryPics, an absurd account that writes (a)historical captions for the same photo of a piece of toast:

At its best, Twitter acts as a portal, a place where knowledgeable guides point you to ever-more-interesting corners of the Web. The history-pics accounts treat Twitter as a static medium, where each photograph is a dead end. We might as well be looking at a piece of toast. That’s no good for history, and it’s no fun, either.

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