Whenever I hear a person speak about their dislike of history, the criticism often lies in that it was boring, or just a bunch of facts and dates. This kind of statement makes it somewhat apparent that often times how we are “doing” or presenting history is not that relevant to much of the general public. In these cases, is it that the historian/curator is generalizing or “dumbing down” information into what he thinks his audience needs to know– the very basics, the facts and figures—or not considering what the consumer/patron would like to know?
As Roy Rosenzweig clarifies in his articles, “Wikipedia‘s view of history is not only more anecdotal and colorful than professional history, it is also—again like much popular history—more factualist. From the perspective of professional historians, the problem of Wikipedian history is not that it disregards the facts but that it elevates them above everything else and spends too much time and energy (in the manner of many collectors) on organizing those facts into categories and lists.” Also unlike professional academic history, it is hard “to discern any overall interpretive stance in Wikipedia.”
This disconnect between “boring” history and “anecdotal” history on the web lies at the center of the many issues facing the contemporary historian. How can professional academics reconcile the “deeply individualistic craft” and “possessive individualism” of history with the open and collaborative nature of the web?
“Wikipedia has created a working community, but has it created a good historical resource? Are Wikipedians good historians?”
I agree with several aspects of Rosenzweig’s analysis. First, that those who write history for a living should join popular history makers in contributing a better type of history to Wikipedia. Moreover, “historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible. And if every member of the Organization of American Historians devoted just one day to improving the entries in her or his areas of expertise, it would not only significantly raise the quality of Wikipedia, it would also enhance popular historical literacy.” This could allow teachers to spend “more time teaching about the limitations of all information sources…and emphasizing the skills of critical analysis of primary and secondary sources.”
I think the real problem is what Edson talks about when he says everyone on the Internet “would automatically be granted the right to both consume and produce—to read, and write—on equal footing with everyone else.” Herein lies the ultimate Catch 22 of the Internet. It has supplied an unrivaled platform for people to express often anonymous opinions, pursue any interest, and become lost amongst the crowd.
Yet, while the Internet is full of moderators, it has no filter, or rather only those we apply. It is up to us as individuals to learn—much as historians—to moderate the types of information we receive and know the difference between real, usable information and the abundance of repeated garbage that often comes through the form of either ill-informed opinions (YouTube comments or Amazon reviews, anyone?) or worse, outright Internet trolls.
I think of the young child repeatedly asking the question “why?” in a juvenile effort to test a parent’s patience and discover unending questions of life.
Now the “why” is at our fingertips
Historians should probably be thankful that Wikipedia has done as good job as it has at managing the masses of voices while gathering crowdsourced information. Even though these Wikipedians have not been asked to provide this information, they are fulfilling what Ford describes as “a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.” —Why wasn’t I consulted?? (WWIC)
This aspect perhaps allows Wikipedia to maintain its encyclopedic integrity without becoming just a comment section for history or giving n to the complainers and trolls.
“The web was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. But the web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It’s its own thing. The days of the web as all-purpose media emulator are numbered. Apps provide niche experiences. People apparently like niche experiences enough to pay for them.”
If anything, as Rosenzweig suggests, historians need to “emulate the great democratic triumph of Wikipedia—its demonstration that people are eager for free and accessible information resources,” and “have a responsibility to make better information sources available online.”