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.

JFK, John, Jacqueline
The context you don't always get on Twitter: President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and their son John Jr. on his Christening day, Dec. 8, 1960.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

If you use Twitter, you’ve probably seen retweets from an account like @HistoryInPics or @HistoricalPics pop up in your stream. You may not remember which account it was, exactly—there are a bunch of them, and they’re difficult to tell apart. I count 14 Twitter accounts currently using a variant of the @HistoryPics handle: @HistoricalPics, @HistoryInPix, @History_Pics, and so on. Four of the 14 claim to be “THE ORIGINAL,” and most of them reuse each other’s material liberally.

Rebecca Onion Rebecca Onion

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

Even discounting the repetition of particular images, there’s a sameness in tone to the tweets that come from these accounts. “History,” as these accounts define it, is a landscape peopled by JFK, the Beatles, Steve Jobs, various movie stars, pretty girls wearing miniskirts, quirky mustachioed bicyclists, and concentration-camp survivors. Even the accounts’ avatars are similar: The classic 1863 Alexander Gardner daguerrotype of Lincoln in a bow tie appears three times. Three other accounts use stylized logos featuring old-timey cameras.

The history-pics accounts are undeniably massive: The most popular, @HistoryInPics, has 1.02 million followers, and the top-five accounts each have more than 300,000. By way of comparison, @Slate currently has around 756,000 followers, and the account I run for Slate’s history blog, @SlateVault, has about 9,000.

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In recent weeks, the attribution practices and accuracy of these feeds has become a source of consternation around the Web. Gizmodo blogger Matt Novak published a series of posts pointing out that many of the most-retweeted photos (Nikola Tesla as a swimming instructor; JFK and Marilyn Monroe cuddling) are fakes. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal tracked down the proprietors of the most-followed history pic account, @HistoryInPics, and learned that they aren’t much interested in where their images come from (“around the Internet”) or in providing any kind of attribution. Sarah Werner, digital media strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library, posted a heartfelt plea to readers of her blog, asking them to leave the historical pictures accounts behind. The post has had its own share of viral success.

As the writer of Slate’s Vault blog, I post a historical document once a day, running the gamut from the serious (the Montgomery Improvement Association’s powerful advice for successful bus boycotters about to ride integrated busses) to the bizarre (a strange 19th-century millionaire’s pork map of the United States). My goal is to surface compelling, beautiful, or funny items that reward a second look, and then stay on your mind, stoking your curiosity. About eight times a day, through @SlateVault, I tweet another (hopefully) interesting image, a lead on a newly digitized archive, or a link to a good historical read.

I’ve been doing this since November 2012, while continuing to produce academic work (I have a Ph.D. in American studies). Having spent a little over a year switching between writing history for the academic world and for the Web, I’m keenly aware of how hard it is to talk about history online. It can be difficult to hit the sweet spot between click-worthy intrigue and historical interest, and it’s tempting to post only things I know have viral potential (Kurt Vonnegut tends to be a big hit, as does a good map). I also harbor some sympathy for the difficulties of ascertaining who holds copyright for digital historical documents, which can be a difficult and time-consuming process.

These caveats aside, Werner’s cry—“These accounts piss me off because they undermine an enterprise I value”—resonates deeply with me. Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.

To get a fair picture of the content and practices of these accounts, I sampled a week’s worth of tweets from the four biggest: @OldHistoryPics, @HistoryinPics, @HistoricalPics, and @History_Pics. (The week in question was Jan. 15–22. Since @OldHistoryPics appears to have suspended their tweets in recent weeks, I sampled their tweets from the week of Dec. 10–17 instead.) I counted the total numbers of tweets, then looked at the numbers of photos with dates (even vague ones, like “1960s”) and with any attributions at all. I coded for subject matter, and identified the most popular tweets of the week for each account.

Of the top three accounts by followers, @OldHistoryPics dated 33 percent of its pictures and attributed zero percent. @HistoryInPics dated 54 percent and attributed 5 percent. @HistoricalPics dated 48 percent and attributed 5 percent. (Since Madrigal’s piece about @HistoryInPics was posted on the Atlantic on Jan. 24, @HistoryInPics has begun attributing more frequently.)

Even the fourth-largest account by size, @History_Pics, which dated and attributed far more often than other accounts (84 percent dated; 24 percent attributed), never linked out to sources or contextual information. @HistoricalPics occasionally included links, but these lead to a site called TeensDigest that’s full of questionably-sourced listicles, only some of which are historical. (I reached out to all four sites for comment. Three didn’t get back to me; @History_Pics replied to one email, then dropped communication.)

This lack of outward-leading links forecloses any curiosity a reader might have. Using Google Reverse Image Search to track the photos tends to turn up a flurry of retweets or context-free links to sharing sites like Imgur, Tumblr, or Reddit. Even if the feed includes the name of the photographer, it often remains difficult to discover more information on the historical events taking place in a given photograph. And in the weeks of tweets I surveyed, the people running these accounts never replied to readers’ questions.

After the Jan. 17 death of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese officer who hid in the Philippine jungle for 30 years after V–J Day, continuing to fight a war that had ended, several of the accounts tweeted his picture with a simple, link-free explanation. Readers of @HistoricalPics curious to know more about the story asked what his name was, and were answered with a link to a CNN obituary—not by the account, but by each other. That Hiroo Onoda story is complex: Presented as a Tweet, his life story looks like a curiosity, but he and his compatriots killed around 30 Filipino villagers over the years that they lived in the jungle. A link-free, capsule treatment of his life denies this complexity.

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