Suppose you’d never heard of @HistoryinPics, and I told you that a new social media account had grown to more than a million followers by featuring a different historical image in its feed every couple of hours.
As a public historian, you might be intrigued. “Really?” you might ask. That sounds pretty cool.
In fact, how @HistoryinPics and its copycat accounts have grown has ruffled our collective feathers. From a cautionary article in The Atlantic about copyright to scathing attacks in Slate and on Sarah Werner’s Wynden de Worde blog about improper citation, inaccuracy (or downright untruth, in some cases), lack of context, and no links to actual historical research, the prevailing reaction has been negative.
Which led me to wonder: what’s at stake here? And can we have a conversation around this phenomenon that results in useful takeaways for public historians?
First, the background, for the uninitiated. @HistoryInPics is a social media account that posts old photographs in its Twitter feed. Created by two teenagers, it now has twice as many followers as the Library of Congress. As Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic uncovered, the virality of the account is no fluke: the duo have created several other social media accounts, each with hundreds of thousands of followers. The pair have generated revenue based on their social media success to the tune, in one case, of nearly $50,000 per month. They are natural digital marketers, as so many of their generation seem to be (at least to this old-timer). They spot trends on social media, exploit them to gain massive followings, then monetize the traffic. It’s a business model, not an attempt at serious research.
And therein lies the discomfort: while museums, archives, and libraries worldwide are starved for funding, fighting for relevancy, and arguing daily for the value of serious historical research, two teenagers come along, grab a bunch of old images without permission, throw them up online without context, and suddenly they are social media superstars. Is that “right”? Does that contribute to the public good? Are we jealous?
The last question may be a bit jarring, but I believe we may feel a tinge of jealousy—and I write that knowing it causes me discomfort to think so. When any of us—academic and public historians alike—posts to social media, we want followers to click, or “engage.” We want people to interact with our collections and ideas, to learn, and to be excited. Why else would we post? Public history organizations have invested resources and commissioned studies in order to attain the level of engagement these teenagers reached in two months. The duo have cracked the code—but cheated in the process, by relying on other people’s work and embellishing it for effect. While we detest their methods, it’s permissible to admit we would accept their results if they were achieved differently.
Playing for the click on social media is not a sin. But is it just, or fair, that two teenagers so obviously playing for the click and nothing more can achieve popular success so quickly? Some commenters on Sarah Werner’s blog post suggest that the high number of followers is evidence of the decline of societal intellectualism, accelerated by the Internet. I applaud Werner for steering clear of this argument. However, the @HistoryInPics success does remind us that we have to recognize the Internet for how it’s evolved (and may continue to evolve). For many users, the Web is a place of fun, of curiosity, of whimsy, and of communication. This is not to say that nothing of depth, seriousness, or artistry exists online. But according to (where else) the Internet, the majority of American adults who use the Web do so for browsing; communicating with family, friends or strangers; file transfers; news updates; entertainment (videos, games, celebrity gossip); marketing; and making money. Deep research and formulating a critical understanding of the past are not atop the list of what people do online.
@HistoryinPics successfully combines many elements the medium favors: celebrities (e.g. Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Muhammad Ali), photography (some of their images are quite captivating), and whimsy. I couldn’t help but feel whimsy as I scrolled the feed, reluctantly enjoying the pictures. Is it immoral for the feed to use historical imagery to pull at our heartstrings and ignite our curiosity? As digital entrepreneurs, the two teenagers believed not. They set out to make a product that would be a success in a particular medium, and using what’s known to work best in that medium, they succeeded and will now monetize that product. If we accept this rationalization, we could see the feed as not so different from corporate marketing: corporations present us with feel-good commercials and beautiful visuals that distract us from serious investigation of their products, with the end goal of making us their customers. @HistoryinPics would be different mainly in that it presents its images as undeniably real, whereas with brands the images are understood to be manufactured.
(Part 2 follows)