~ Annie Cullen and Rachel Boyle, graduate students in Public History at Loyola University Chicago, are the creators of Public History Ryan Gosling, a blog that pairs the popular “Hey Girl” meme with public history theory. The project has reached over 60,000 people and stimulated meaningful conversation in various corners of the Internet. In this post, Annie and Rachel discuss how the overwhelming success of Public History Ryan Gosling reveals the strengths and weaknesses of popular culture as a tool for public historians.
Annie: In the postmodern age, our lives are constantly populated by popular culture—music, media, television, you name it. I think Public History Ryan Gosling (PHRG) was so popular in part because we as public historians merged academic dialogue with popular culture. Ultimately, it allowed us to reach a wider audience.
Rachel: I agree that popular culture pervades daily life and serves as a powerful opportunity for public historians to access broader audiences. Yet I find myself questioning the degree to which the plebian nature of popular culture undermines the professional credibility of a public historian. After all, the popularity of PHRG depends on a tone of ironic seduction, pairing visual pleasure with dry intellectual references. The unexpected juxtaposition creates humor because theory and pleasure generally do not mix. This apparent incompatibility suggests that there is an unnecessary barrier between the professional and the popular. The barrier certainly feels real; I cannot seem to avoid a nagging embarrassment that my biggest graduate school success thus far revolves around pseudo-fantasies of a pretty celebrity. Does PHRG debase theory or elevate popular culture? Does it matter? Should it matter?
Annie: If theory “elevates” popular culture as you suggest, it can also risk alienating its audience. For example, many PHRG images made reference to obscure literary and historiographical texts from the likes of Roland Barthes, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Clifford Geertz. The potential to alienate the lay reader certainly exists. The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen made clear that the public enjoys history most when it relates to their own families, experiences, and/or heritage. Do these academic memes run the risk of widening the gap between the ivory tower and the history consumer?
Rachel: Yes—online intellectual communities definitely risk reifying the privileged world of academia. But even within academia, online communities can potentially encourage interdisciplinary dialogue. One of our PHRG images referenced experimental film and consequently attracted the attention of a substantial community of film students. We also had a strong, thoughtful response from anthropologists and literary students to a post about ethical issues surrounding oral history. Perhaps PHRG’s forays beyond the traditional realm of historical content provide a framework for luring non-academic audiences by interspersing heavy theory with more lighthearted references.
Annie: This is most definitely true. The biggest surge in unique visitors—upwards of 20,000 people in a matter of days—found PHRG because that experimental film image was reblogged on a film criticism website. Our most popular post, which was reblogged and liked over 700 times, referenced song lyrics from musical artist The Blow. The possibilities for a broad audience multiply exponentially when playful pop culture references are intermixed with the theoretical. Similarly, memes themselves can also be of critical use to the public historian. A meme-gone-viral creates a sense of community in which its readers are all “in on the joke.” Not only do they share in the implicit puns conveyed by each image, but the ability to reblog, tweet, or share them on Facebook makes the reader an active participant in the dissemination of the memed images. This shared authority gets to the very essence of public history practice.
Rachel: Effective utilization of memes requires an intimate knowledge of the online world. Digital citizens spend an abundance of time loitering on the Internet and becoming immersed into the world of vernacular culture. (Public) historians need to abandon the Luddite and erudite inclinations of the scholar and get lost in the rabbit holes of the interwebs.
Annie: You raise an interesting point; however, do we run the risk of alienating those not interested in popular culture? Not everyone watches Ryan Gosling films or follows online memes. Are there ways to bridge the gap or must public historians be simultaneously engaging a multitude of avenues for the dissemination of history and theory? That sounds like a lot of tired, overly-stretched public historians to me.
Rachel: That is certainly a risk, especially considering the ephemeral nature of online culture. Public History Ryan Gosling lost his cachet within months; by now he is somewhat outdated and irrelevant. (Was Ryan Gosling even in any movies this summer?) The transient nature of the Internet and popular culture more broadly severely limits the long term impact of blogs like PHRG. Yet while PHRG may no longer evolve in any meaningful way, the success of the project nevertheless emphasizes the power of the historian immersing herself into online and popular culture in order to take advantage of constantly emerging—if short-lived—opportunities to engage the public. It is definitely worth the effort for public historians to engage the online world in order to emerge as a critical and dynamic presence in the world of popular culture.