National Park Service Units Need to Have a Social Media Presence

Over at the NPS Employees Facebook page there was a recent, fascinating conversation about the need for National Park Service units to have a social media presence. The conversation was prompted by this comment:

The NPS should not be building a social media presence. Do [sic] to resource issues related to visitor impacts, it is not in the best interest of the parks to promote and advertise themselves. A social media presence is also counter to the ideological foundations of the park system as a whole. Parks are the safe haven and the escape from “modern life”, why then are we building straight into that?

strongly disagree with this point of view. For one, the NPS Mission statement says nothing about creating safe havens and escapes from “modern life.” The historic and natural sites the NPS runs are in actuality a part of “modern life”: they are living, breathing entities that are preserved, interpreted, and patronized by and for humans living in a modern world. Moreover, the NPS exists for the benefit and enjoyment of everyone. Contrary to the above statement, it is imperative that the agency “promote and advertise themselves” to the very people whose tax dollars help subsidize the agency’s operations. The sites exist for their enjoyment.

There is ample justification in the agency’s mission statement for the NPS to have a social media presence. The statement calls for the NPS to promote “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” of the agency’s natural and cultural resources. NPS social media promotes these goals. Off the top of my head I can think of five ways NPS social media advances the agency’s mission:

  1. Provide updates on park conditions & news (particularly important when non-NPS related social media can often share incorrect information across social media and NPS websites take more time to update than social media).
  2. Make announcements for upcoming programs and events at NPS units.
  3. Share relevant scholarship through books, journal articles, online articles and research conducted by NPS staff.
  4. Promote safety and conservation of history and nature.
  5. Expose the agency’s holdings to an online audience that may not have the opportunity to visit a site in person (one commenter pointed out that his friend enjoyed looking at pictures on his phone of NPS sites shared on social media during his lunch break, which is a fantastic example of promoting the NPS Mission to an online audience).

At the end of the day, if you’re interested in getting away from “modern life,” you have the freedom to log off social media and enjoy NPS sites without technology.

Cheers

Brooks Simpson on President U.S. Grant and His Alleged “Corruption”

Who says Twitter is only good for selfies, LOLcats, and tweeting about coffee?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for The Atlantic, took to Twitter the other day to ask his followers a question about the extent to which President Ulysses S. Grant was “corrupt” compared to his contemporaries. He specifically requested the help of Brooks Simpson, Arizona State University history professor and noted Grant scholar. Simpson fired off a series of tweets in response that conveyed a nuanced, thought-provoking interpretation that I find extremely helpful for my own purposes. I get more questions from visitors at my job about Grant’s presidency than about his generalship during the Civil War, and these corruption questions pop up frequently. Simpson’s response will definitely be a part of my arsenal next time I’m asked about Grant’s alleged corruption.

Here’s what Simpson had to say:

There you go.

Cheers

Trial By Fire With the National Park Service

 

The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The White Haven estate at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Starting My Career as a Public Historian

My first week of work with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is in the books and I think everything went pretty well. Staffing at ULSG is pretty limited right now, so I was quite surprised when I arrived on Sunday, June 1 to find out that I was already scheduled to be on the tour rotation for that day and that I would be working the cash register at various points as well. Since I worked for ULSG as an intern four years ago and again as a seasonal two years ago I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, but I definitely need a little more time to get adjusted to life as a full-time Park Guide.

The most important task I perform on a daily basis is giving interpretive tours of the historic home White Haven, a large plantation-style home that was completed in 1816 and owned before and during the American Civil War by “Colonel” Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law. Dent’s son–also named Frederick Dent–was a roommate of Grant’s during his time at West Point, and it was Fred Jr. who invited Grant to White Haven after Grant was deployed to nearby Jefferson Barracks upon graduation in 1843. Grant met his future wife Julia Dent at White Haven and would later live in St. Louis (most of the time at White Haven, but not always) with his growing family from 1854 to 1859. Depending on how busy we are and how many guides are on staff I give between two and five tours of White Haven a day.

Public history excites me because I am challenged to work within small spaces and limited time frames. A historian who writes a book has ample space to add fine details, nuance, and context to their historical study, often needing 200 to 400 pages to get out everything they want to say (and sometimes they need even more space). University history professors and middle/high school social studies teachers have sixteen weeks of class periods that last between 50 minutes and three hours to make their points and impart historical knowledge upon their students. Public historians are not afforded these kinds of luxurious time frames and are often forced to work within word limits, character counts, and timed presentations. They’ve got to get to the point and spark the minds of their audiences quickly.

At White Haven I get ten minutes at the beginning of each tour to make my interpretive argument and explain to my audiences why it’s important to think about the history of this site and why it’s important for the National Park Service to be here preserving this area. I need to discuss the Grants’ and Dents’ family life at White Haven before the Civil War, but I’ve also got to talk about the conversations, tensions, and uncertainties that were expressed at the dinner table between Colonel Dent, Julia, and Ulysses about the status of the United States and the possibility of war in the future. And I’ve got to remind my audiences that there were upwards of thirty slaves owned by Colonel Dent whose perspectives were never acknowledged by the Dents but who nevertheless played an integral role in the shaping of the Grants’ and Dents’ family culture at White Haven. I get ten minutes to talk about all of these intricacies!

I have the knowledge and the facts in my head to report the history at White Haven to my audiences during their tours, but I’m still working my way through the creation of a cohesive interpretation that captures the big ideas and themes I want to convey to my audiences. I gradually got more and more comfortable as my first week moved along, and I have no doubt my tours will be even better as I get more experience working with my audiences.

Personal and Professional Adjustments

As I settled into my new job it dawned on me that there two major adjustments to my personal and professional life that I need to work through.

One of the downsides of working outside the academy is that I lose my access to paywalled scholarly journals in repositories such as JSTOR and EBSCOhost. Although my membership with the National Council on Public History allows me access to The Public Historian and a host of other history journal collections up to roughly 2009, there is undoubtedly a lot of scholarly resources that are now gone because I am no longer a student. Several professors told me while I was at IUPUI that too many public history and museum professionals stop reading the newest scholarship when they get full-time positions in the field; I will not be one of these people, but it’s going to be difficult given the problems of access that accompany life as a professional. The problem of time for reading scholarship is also particularly acute to me right now because my current (but temporary) living arrangement in Missouri has me traveling eighty miles round trip to and from work, taking away two hours of time each day that could be spent in other ways. When I get home from work, I’m tired.

Another challenge relates to Twitter. There’s a popular perception in the minds of many users and non-users that Twitter is merely a place for sharing trivial pictures and tweeting about the coffee you had in the morning. For me, however, Twitter is about building connections with other historians and humanists and sharing thought-provoking ideas, articles, and scholarship. As a graduate student I often spent 30 to 60 minutes each morning browsing Twitter as a way to keep up with the news and latest discussions, but now I’m away from the computer for most of my working day. I think that’s a great thing and I love being outside with visitors talking about history, but I hope to maintain a strong presence on social media and a solid connection with fellow scholars and practitioners on Twitter going forward.

Cheers

IUPUI Digital Sandbox on History@Work

Digital SandboxA brief note: back in August three of my cohorts–Callie McCune (@CallieMcCune), Christine Crosby (@XtineXby), and Abby Curtin (@Abby_Curtin)–and I hosted Digital Sandbox, a one-day digital humanities workshop on the campus of IUPUI. More recently the four of us collaborated to write up a follow-up analysis of what worked, what didn’t, and questions we have about the digital humanities going forward. That essay was published today by the National Council on Public History’s preeminent public history blog, History@Work. You can read it here.

As a part of the workshop I created and ran a panel on using social media in conjunction with humanities scholarship. Here’s the introductory speech I made for the panel, and here are some discussion highlights that may help interested parties get started with “putting yourself out there.”

Cheers

The Internet as an Archive of 21st Century History

The Stream
“The Stream”

Several days ago I read a fine piece in The Atlantic from anthropologist Alexis C. Madrigal on real-time internet content/information delivery, what Madrigal refers to as “The Stream.” Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader (R.I.P.), or the New York Times, many websites have turned to the stream as a means for instantly delivering information that is ostensibly meaningful to readers. The screenshot above is from the “Times Wire”–which is run by the New York Times–and it exemplifies the machinations of the stream: instant updates, individualized content, and and a sense of inclusion, by which I mean a feeling that you are keeping up with and understanding (at least somewhat) what’s going on in the world.

Madrigal explains the stream as such:

The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness. There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more.  Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night.

Given my recent embrace of Twitter and my belief in its enormous potential to deliver information to me that I find important, I am now more than ever a product of the stream. Rather than reading a newspaper, I now check my Twitter stream in the morning to see what’s happening, to find information that “newsworthy” to me. When I find content personally interesting, I contribute my own small part to the stream through tweets, Facebook posts, and essays on Exploring the Past. Since I started this regiment of blogging and tweeting one year ago, I’ve been blown away by the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the number of visits I’ve had to this blog (more than 10,000 so far).

Yet there are times when I feel as if the stream overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away. I try to work on projects, school assignments, etc., but the pull of nowness sucks me in, challenging me to stop work to check and see if I’m missing something important in the stream. Equally frustrating, these streams make little distinction between what Robin Sloan refers to as “flow” and “stock.” “Flow” refers to information designed for the here and now: updates and tweets about weather, daily activities, your pumpkin spice latte, etc. “Stock” refers to content that I’d argue is more than information in that it actually contributes to knowledge construction; material that you’d still refer to long after its incorporation into the stream.

Madrigal’s article raised larger questions within me about how we view the internet from a holistic viewpoint. If we rely on the stream for obtaining information, how do we promote and preserve meaningful flow and stock content for the long term? Can we break away from the pull of the now to make room for reflection on what has already occurred in recent memory?

Part of the solution, I think, is understanding that while the internet provides us meaningful information for the here and now, the internet should also be viewed as a historical, archived space. Sure, there are sites like the Internet Archive, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Chroncling America that provide public access to historical events, documents, and artifacts from the twentieth century and earlier, but how do we go about archiving the history we make every day through our interactions on the stream? Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other related sites are not just sources for nowness: they’re also tools and resources for future historians looking to interpret the history of the early twenty-first century.

Viewing the internet as a historical archive will require more discussion and questioning, as far too many website proprietors view the content and interactions on their websites as disposable rather than historical. Ian Milligan points out that major websites such as Yahoo! and MySpace have recently destroyed millions upon millions of historical digital records, embracing the notion of “who needs old stuff when the future is here?” In the case of MySpace, bloggers who used the world’s largest social media website from 2005-2008 to share their thoughts had their information wiped out instantly in June of this year. As Milligan argues, MySpace “meant something to multiple millions of people,” and future historians are now more impoverished thanks to this focus on the now.

How do you go about preserving your digital records? What would you do if Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress suddenly deleted all of your content, all of your flow and stock?

Cheers

Ideas for Keeping the Tent Big

A brief addendum to my post yesterday on crowdsourcing and DHThis:

  • Ernesto Priego of City University London left a thoughtful comment on this blog that provoked new questions about DHThis and the nature of inclusiveness in dh. He correctly clarified that the “yes/no” binary that I described is actually an “up/down” vote and that the content of an essay, article, video, etc. is not submitted to DHThis. Rather, it is the link to that content that is submitted by users. He also suggested that this formula complicates the voting system because “it’s not only the content being judged, but the participation via submission.” What motivates these people to submit links for voting to the site? Is it to endorse that content, or is like a Retweet on Twitter that doesn’t necessarily function as an endorsement? What if someone votes down a fellow colleague’s work?
  • Ernesto also pointed out that I had made no mention of DHNow, another website that functions as a repository for showcasing notable work in the dh community. I was vaguely aware of DHNow’s existence prior to writing my post, and I knew little about the site. Furthermore, much of the discussion I had observed on Twitter and blogs had revolved around concerns brought up by the Journal of Digital Humanities, so it never occurred to me that making no mention of the site or its similarities to DHThis was a mistake on my part.
  • Jesse Stommel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I exchanged a few tweets about ideas for DHThis to consider for their voting system. We agreed that the yes/no/up/down voting system put less emphasis on discussion of content. Jesse suggested that a system for tagging similar posts be implemented, to which I responded that such a system could open the possibility for a “similar” or “recommended” reading section to be added under each post on the site. If a popular post is featured on the front page, clicking on it would lead to similar content that has less votes, but may be worthy of reading. Such a system wouldn’t completely remove the “popularity contest” aspect, but I think it would allow for less popular scholarship to be considered for featured status on the site. Adeline Koh of Stockton College (and one of the creators of DHThis) agreed that such a system may enhance the “discoverability” of content on the site.
  • Jesse and I agreed that keeping the yes/up vote option and removing the no/down vote option should be considered by the organizers of DHThis.

I enjoyed the exchanges that took place yesterday and I thank Ernesto, Jesse, and Adeline for engaging in discussion with me when they really didn’t have to. I hope that readers didn’t perceive my last post as full of negativity. It is an exciting time to be involved with the Digital Humanities, as many traditional notions for creating, reviewing, and disseminating humanities scholarship are being challenged by the promises and perils of digital technology. The fact that three remarkably talented scholars and a Hoosier graduate student spread over two continents can exchange so many questions and arguments in a day’s time reinforces the sheer astonishment I have about the changing nature of communication in the digital age. Such an exchange would have never happened five or ten years ago, and I think that’s a cause for celebration, even if many of us still have a limited understanding as to what the “digital humanities” we so frequently talk about actually is.

Cheers

On Crowdsourcing

I need to temporarily interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to address some remarkable changes and vigorous debates within the field of digital humanities. The following thoughts must be taken with a grain of salt, as I do not profess to be an expert on dh or computing as a whole. However, as a graduate student who is learning more about dh and anxious to see the field progress in a positive manner, I feel it necessary to speak out. I will try my best to address the heart of the matter and cogently summarize my concerns.

Not too long ago, an open access digital publication called The Journal of Digital Humanities was created in an effort to promote “a comprehensive, peer-reviewed, open access journal that features the best scholarship, tools, and conversations produced by the digital humanities community in the previous semester.” However, concerns were raised about inconsistent publishing standards for peer reviewed work and a lack of transparency about the review process. In response to these concerns, a group of scholars has established a new website called DHThis, which aims to cultivate and promote dh content based on the opinions of its membership. More specifically, users will have the power to vote “yes” or “no” as to what content they want to have published on the website’s front page. As Michael Widner explains, DHThis has embraced a belief that “openness and the wisdom of the crowd [within boundaries]” trumps the traditional peer review process for selecting good scholarship. While acknowledging that the peer review process has its problems (especially when the process is ostensibly “blind,” yet the content under review is “post-publication,” aka freely available online), I strongly disagree with the notion of crowdsourcing online content in the form of a yes/no binary.

Jeff Howe, a writer for Wired magazine and one of the first people to coin the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, defines it as such:

Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

Wikipedia may constitute the most popular and successful crowdsourcing operation in human history, but there are many other online projects that also exemplify what I think is the true essence of crowdsourcing. In 2011, the New York Public Library created a project called “What’s On the Menu?” Through this initiative, NYPL made a call for help in transcribing upwards of 45,000 historic restaurant menus, some dating as far back as the 1840s. 45,000 menus is obviously a lot of transcribing to do for a small staff, but not impossible for a group composed of thousands of internet users who want to help out with an ambitious project that could help historians, chefs, and food lovers ask new questions about the history of food. Around the same time, Nicole Saylor of the University of Iowa Libraries embarked on a crowdsourcing project to transcribe Civil War diaries which led to upwards of 70,000 hits a day from interested visitors anxious to help transcribe these important documents.

With each of these projects, crowdsourcing led to several important achievements. For one, previously inaccessible historic documents are now accessible and readable to anyone looking to conduct research or learn more about a given topic. Equally important–if not more important–these projects allow users to take a sense of ownership in these cultural heritage institutions by giving them an opportunity to engage in meaningful work that advances the goals of the institution while also instilling a sense of satisfaction within the user. “At its best,” argues Trevor Owens, “crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.”

However, it seems to me that the yes/no voting system DHThis has embraced for selecting good dh content represents the kind of crowdsourcing that has the potential to be quite loathsome. I generally avoid Reddit and dislike its yes/no voting system for selecting content, largely because it has perpetuated what Natalia Cecire describes as a “terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery.” I do not believe that DHThis will promote or encourage any sort of behavior like that, nor do I think “the people” are incapable of choosing good content, but there are other problems that a yes/no voting system brings to the table, in my opinion:

Yes/No Crowdsourcing is essentially a popularity contest: It seems to me that those already closely involved with dh (those deep inside the “big tent”) and have a strong digital presence are going to be the ones shaping the content of DHThis (and perhaps even dh as a whole) for the foreseeable future. They are the ones with thousands of Twitter followers, personal blogs that get lots of views, and posts that will get selected for voting in DHThis. Maybe this is the way things should be, but it seems like we should be asking if there are better ways for incorporating new and younger voices into the dh discussion. Who might be left out by leaving curatorial duties soely to the DHThis membership?

Not everything can be whittled down to a yes/no binary: News sites all around the world have gone to the yes/no binary to help determine the most popular comments on a news article, often through programs like Discqus. Thus, a September 11 Washington Times article on the “Million Muslim March/Two Million Bikers to DC” controversy that yielded 5,800 comments had the following as its most popular comment, with more than 2,700 thumbs up votes: “Someone should have set up catering trucks serving pulled pork and BLT sandwiches.” And as mentioned, other sites like Reddit rely on yes/no votes with commentary that is also lacking. As a scholar, historian, and writer, I think I deserve more for my efforts at public writing than crowdsourced yes or not votes. Facebook is actually quite genius if you think about it. There is no ‘dislike’ button on the site, and there will never be such a button. If I post a picture of myself on Facebook having fun or comment on the passing of a loved one, the last thing I want is to have people ‘dislike’ my actions. Similarly, I would hope that if someone doesn’t like my writing, they make an effort to provide transparent and constructive criticism, not an anonymous “no” vote.

Serious thoughts and arguments deserve better than a yes/no choice. If I were to submit an article for DHThis or if it were scooped up for voting, I would feel quite uncomfortable by the idea of someone dismissing my entire argument by simply voting “no,” especially considering the fact that it takes a great deal of courage to even write for a public audience in the first place. A yes/no environment makes me feel unwelcome, plain and simple. I realize that DHThis is an experiement, and I want it and others doing dh projects to succeed. For now, however, I’ll think continue to observe these discussions from afar and attempt to learn more about digital technology in my free time.

Cheers

Putting Yourself Out There: Tips and Tricks

At the Digital Sandbox this past Thursday, I moderated a panel on how students could use social media and blogging to promote their humanities scholarship online. I did a personal experiment with the workshop and went completely paperless, taking all of my notes via live tweeting. The following is a collection of points that were made by panelists and a list of resources I utilized as I put together this panel.

Social Media and Blogging

Besides my own presentation, I was fortunate to have two panelists who contributed much to the panel. Kalani Craig is a recent graduate of Indiana University who specializes in Medieval history and pedagogy and is now teaching at IU. Her website is here. Andrew McGregor is a PhD candidate at Purdue University who specializes in sports history. His website is here.

  • Kalani focused much of her discussion on establishing a social media presence that focuses on promoting clear professional goals. One important prerequisite for establishing this presence is finding where your audience is located. Writing up a nice essay and then posting it to MySpace makes no sense, since it is highly unlikely that any sort of audience will be found there. At this point, Twitter is an ideal space in which to create a social media presence because many students, academics, and professional have embraced it as a platform for sharing information.
  • Kalani equated social media usage to picking out clothes in the morning or finding a group of people to sit with at a table. What “twitter clothes” are you going to wear? Who do you want to sit at your social media table? Twitter is great because scholarly discussions are taking place through the use of hashtags in tweets. When announcements are made in the field of history, they are often tweeted to #twitterstorians, where historians from all over the world go to keep up on the latest happenings and engage in discussion. By using hashtags in tweets, students can share content to a wide audience. Students should also retweet good tweets from other Twitter users.
  • If a student wants to build a network of scholarly connections on Twitter, they should actively look for and follow other people who share scholarly content. Sometimes these people will follow you back. Furthermore, students should use Twitter for (mostly) professional tweets if they seek to connect with others in their field. “Professional tweets” can include links to interesting articles and blog posts, occasional commentary on those links, and tweets that outline your long term professional goals, including upcoming conferences, talks, and events that you want to attend. If most of your tweets are highly personal, the people who sit at your social media table may not include professionals in your field (or anyone at all). That said, occasional light banter between friends and professionals and personal tweets are okay. In fact, tweets of this nature are actually encouraged because they show that you are not a robot. The digital humanities community in particular is a welcoming place in which to work AND play. I (Nick, not Kalani) would recommend that students split their professional and personal tweets around the 70-30 or 80-20 range.
  • Andrew showed us the potential of Academia.edu as a way to promote scholarly work. Many people do Google searches, for example, of fellow professionals they may be meeting for the first time. The Google algorithms machine frequently lists the Academia.edu profiles of its users on the first page of a search. Academia.edu allows for its users to post their scholarly work online and make it downloadable in PDF format. The keynote speaker for the Digital Sandbox–Dr. Ray Haberski–has an academia.edu profile that serves as an excellent model for what this sort of profile can look like.
  • Andrew also pointed out that Facebook can be a means for sharing academic content as well. Many National Park Service sites, historic homes, and museums have Facebook profiles that are used to make announcements, provide information on their sites, and hold discussions about recent and upcoming events. Andrew also talked about a discussion group about sports history called “Sports Studies Reading Team” that frequently holds “book club” type discussions about recent scholarship in sports history. People from all over the world participate in these discussions and share information with each other through this forum. I had never thought of using Facebook this way and think it’s a great idea.
  • I focused on blogging as a way to promote one’s scholarship online and mentioned several reasons for blogging humanities content. One reason that students should consider blogging is that blogging is becoming more common in the classroom. I referenced American University history professor Trevor Owens’ essay on his experiences with his students blogging and mentioned that blogging involves writing for a public audience, which is different than writing an essay that only your teacher will see.
  • While writing my master’s thesis and getting that bound and published next year is my central academic goal at this point, I have had a desire to share my research with the broader public, especially research that will most likely not get into the final published product. Blogging provides me a platform in which to share some of that information and provide insights into how my research is going. In my opinion, blogging allows me to ask open-ended questions and write out some of my ideas about the ways in which I think about history and my thesis topic. In this regard, I believe that blogging has allowed me to advance the writing process of my thesis in an extremely positive manner. I occasionally get comments as well, which is awesome. Readers that want to see what I’ve been blogging in regards to my research can click on the “Grand Army of the Republic” link in the Categories section to the right.
  • I also attempted to complicate or “problematize” blogging. Time was running short, so I didn’t have much time to address this. I did, however, reference a point made by historian Keith Harris, previously of the blog Cosmic America. A few years ago, Keith wrote a post on Grover Cleveland and Confederate Battle Flags that gained a lot of traction. For a while, if a person typed ‘Grover Cleveland’ into Google, Keith’s post would have popped up on the first page. Keith readily admitted, however, that he is no Cleveland scholar, and his knowledge of Cleveland’s life and time as President is limited. However, Google made Keith an “authority” by putting his post on the first page. Is this good? How much “authority” do bloggers wield in humanities scholarship? Ultimately, I think this anecdote reminds us that we need to be careful with online sources when doing research. Furthermore, teachers need to educate their students on how to analyze online sources responsibly.

Recommended Reading

Social Media and Blogging Platforms

Social Networking and Talking Past One Another

Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond
Picture courtesy of Anne Helmond

I’ve been blogging for two months now and have been quite surprised by how much I’m enjoying it. Blogging can certainly be a time-consuming endeavor, but one’s priorities change over time. I find myself keeping the television off about 99% of the day now. I also used to be a pretty passionate gamer, especially when I had roommates who helped fuel that passion during my undergraduate days. One roommate in particular, a very good friend of mine, had an Xbox with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a Nintendo Entertainment System with Dr. Mario, and a Super Nintendo with NBA Jam. Good Lord. All of these activities are fun, but I definitely take them in small dosages nowadays.

The WordPress statistics are telling me that in these short two months I’ve had almost 1,000 views from people in more than 15 countries. I’m skeptical as to whether or not these numbers are accurate one way or the other, but I’m pleased with these modest accomplishments. With the way history is treated (or ignored) in the United States by many, many people, I view my little site as providing 1,000 opportunities to perhaps start a conversation or at least plant some ideas into one’s mind about the state of history today and ways we can understand and improve it looking forward.

One of the challenges I have come across since starting my own blog is making time to read other blogs. I have been reading history blogs for almost three years now, and I got into a routine of reading my favorites on a daily basis. When I was a teaching assistant last year I frequently read other sites during my down time to learn more about 19th Century history from some of the top historians in the business. It would be safe to say that I have probably learned just as much about all facets of history from blogs as I have from books.

Now that I am embarking on my own project, finding the time to read blogs for fun is getting tougher. At the same time, since joining Twitter I have had the chance to learn about and share articles with others that I find interesting, but I find myself sometimes glancing over these articles rather than reading them all the way through.

In the rush of trying to share articles with my cohorts and write content for Exploring the Past, I feel that my reading has gone down quite a bit, and I can’t help but wonder if others have had the same experience. My fear is that the digital age has led to many of us talking past each other rather than talking to each other. We are sharing information without reading it, communicating about it, or fully understanding it. Furthermore, there is now so much information to digest that many of us end up taking little bites of various articles that could be really helpful rather than eating the whole entree. Does that sort of reading really help us grow stronger mentally, or could it make us stupider, as Nicholas Carr has suggested? A sizable group of people are now “following” my blog (which I greatly appreciate), but I wonder how many did so because they actually liked my content, and how many did so without reading, just to get my attention and get me to read their blogs.

To be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. People blog and use social networking sites for many, many individual reasons, and I have no room to judge the intentions of others. Some work very hard to build up a following, some do it purely for their own personal gratification. To each their own. For me, I view the use of social networking sites (including blogs) as a way to quite literally create a web of meanings that help to at least partially define one’s personal identity, digitally and in real life. For me, I intend Exploring the Past and my other social networking endeavors to represent a part of who I am as a person, but I also hope to use it to meet other people whose perspectives are worth hearing. The digital landscape has given us unprecedented amounts of information and opportunities for connecting with others, but it challenges us to modify our reading habits to process as much information as possible. In modifying my reading habits, I hope that I am still able to read content in a way that allows me to understand it to the best of my mental capabilities and puts me in contact with others who want to engage in a reciprocal relationship of information sharing.

Cheers