Erica Fagen, Ph.D. Candidate, UMass History
About a year and a half ago, I showed students in my History 101 discussion sections a “Hipster Darwin” meme. (The thick, horn-rimmed glasses are a feature characteristic of the hipster wardrobe). This photograph of Darwin, with the added glasses, includes the text “I talked about the survival of the fittest…Before the Hunger Games.” This mashup of history and twenty-first century popular culture was met with (mostly) laughs and (some) groans by students, and I explained to them that this meme combined two of my favorite interests, and using humorous images is an engaging way to talk about history. These sorts of images, however, are not without their problems. Memes, tweets, photographs, and Tumblr posts were the subject of Dr. Rebecca Onion’s public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” on March 2nd. Onion, history writer and editor at Slate’s blog The Vault, was this year’s Writer-in-Residence. Before her visit to UMass, I read many of her articles on Slate, so needless to say I was excited to hear that she was coming to UMass. As someone who studies historical memory on social media, I was very interested in her lecture, in which she discussed how social media is transforming the way we experience history on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. Her insight was not only useful to me as someone who asks this very question, but to my fellow historians as well, who got to see a whole other side of history, or as she called it, “what happens with history in the wild of the web.” Using the hashtag #WIR2016, many of us tweeted her lecture, quite the #meta experience I might add.
Out of the many problems on “the wild web,” one of the most noticeable ones for historians is the issue of wrongness. Onion began her talk by discussing “The Parable of the Pizza Woman,” which features an image of women wearing bathing suits eating pizza in the 1920s. This image is fake for a number of reasons, including the fact pizza had not yet reached such mainstream popularity in the United States. This problem of wrongness is shown on historical Twitter accounts such as @HistoryInPics, which posted that photo, and another of their issues is that they do not cite the images they post, nor do they add links for further information. While striving to make history “cool,” they ignore the fact that contextualization is key when discussing historical topics.
This lack of contextualization, wrongness, and yes, humor, is also seen on the @MedievalReacts Twitter account. This account, which unfortunately deletes a lot of their tweets so others do not steal their jokes, features medieval images with twenty-first century captions. Two of these images include one man joking about buildings on fire and the other about the pitfalls of a one-night stand. These images are admittedly quite funny but they do not tell us where these images are from and what stories they really tell. Although humor can be used in subversive ways to interpret and analyze historical events, there is the risk of exploitation on the web, another theme Onion brought up.
This question of exploitation is something I struggle with in my own research, and Onion described exploitation as “perhaps the darkest corner of what happens on the Web.” She cited articles such as “See 50 Rare Haunting Photos from Mental Asylums” and “Awesomely Gross Medical Illustrations in the 19th Century,” as part of a problematic trend of using historical medical images online. The use of the word “haunting” is a rather popular Internet word, Onion explained, and it something that I agree with. The use of this word as well as posting violent, disturbing images is something I see on a regular basis with my research on photography and memory of mass violence and the Holocaust. What should we as historians do about these exploitative images? Should we correct Internet users? Should we be a “history police?” The answer, perhaps, is be “history ethicists,” an idea brought forth by Dr. Vincent Brown at the History Communications (#histcomm on Twitter!) meeting last week. This method of explaining historical developments rather than just blatantly correcting members of the public may be the more constructive route.
Following this serious discussion on exploitation, Onion briefly brought one of her favourite things on the Internet: the publius-esquire blog on Tumblr, which describes itself as “dedicated to the cattiness surrounding the New Republic…” In one of their posts from October 2015, they ‘shipped characters from the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton with a diverse cast and a hip-hop and R&B score. For those unfamiliar with ‘shipping, it is a term Internet fandom uses to put two or more people, historical or fictional, in a romantic relationship. This aspect of Internet fandom was a surprise to some people in the audience, however it was an engaging way to end the lecture. History on the web, with its wrongness, lack of contextualization, exploitation, and yes, humor, is a fascinating area of study for historians in the twenty-first century.