Credit Where Credit is Due- Digital History and Citations

We had three pretty short readings for Tuesday- Sarah Werner’s “It’s History, Not a Viral Feed,” Melissa Terras’ “Digitisation’s Most Wanted,” and W. Caleb McDaniel’s “Slave Sales on Twitter.” (In addition, of course, we were linked to the bot Twitter account that McDaniel created.)

Werner uses her blog post to discuss the many (many, many) ways in which history-based social media accounts often (sometimes purposely) fall short of meeting the minimums set forth by their more formal counterparts. Particularly, she focuses on Twitter accounts that post historically vague photos, along with captions that have the potential of being true, but often aren’t (and even if they were, the teenagers who run the account never cite their sources). Of course, this speaks not to just social media cites (ha ha, get it?), but to our work as undergraduates. During syllabus week, for every semester of the rest of your educational lives, each one of your professors will take the time to read to you the university’s plagiarism policy. They don’t do it because they like it, nor because they expect any of you to actually be listening to it after the first one or two times. They do it because they have, otherwise they run the risk of also being held accountable when, inevitably, some undergrad student thinks that they can get away with submitting a thesis statement that is plagiarized.

Terras has a more lighthearted and oddly interesting post. She explores which digitalized items are the most accessed at several libraries throughout the U.K., and offers explanations and guesses as to what makes these items so appealing to the general public- and how accessibility is an important aspect for any library that wishes to appeal to the public. Terras suggests that these items are most popular because they are the most hyped about in their respective communities (i.e., 17th century digitized lute sheet music is accessed the most by musical students), and because they are properly cited and attributed- allowing these communities ti easily find and access them. She also discusses the importance of setting good examples, as it were- historically-based Twitter accounts have the ability and the responsibility to properly cite and source their tweets. By doing so, they not only allow their followers to follow-up on their own research, but they show these followers the importance of a good citation.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was most interested in our last reading. I think McDaniel’s bot account is the most important thing that we’ve looked at thus far in the semester (of course, we’re not even two weeks in yet, so there’s plenty of room for changing that answer). Of course, the content of the account itself is beyond comprehension. But the way that McDaniel has taken this little piece of historical fact and turned it into something that can be witnessed in real time in 2016 is amazing. It’s easy enough for any scholar to say that a slave was sold in the United States between 1820 and 1860 in the United States alone. But to take this information and present it so that it’s seen as an on-going issue instead of a fact of the past is another matter. Roy Rosenzweig is cited in the post as saying that historians and professors are starting to care about social media ““because our students do… if historians believe that what is available free on the Web is low quality, then we have a responsibility to make better information sources available online.” This is a huge shift forward, and shows that we, as current students, are fortunate (or unfortunate, as it were) to be studying at a time when professors are not only telling us that Wikipedia is an unacceptable source, but giving us the resources to find acceptable and scholarly sources as substitutions.
Of course, we also ought to look at the content itself of McDaniel’s post. As McDaniel himself writes, the sheer volume of tweets automated a day by this account “shifts attention from those metrics to the raw number of tweets it emits, a number that will increase rapidly and serve, I hope, as an arresting reminder of slavery’s magnitude.” The metrics he speaks of are the usual indicators of a successful Twitter account- favourites, followers, and numbers of retweets. Instead, the bot’s focus is the unbelievable number of tweets that it puts out a day. One tweet is automated every 3.6 minutes, which is roughly 16 tweets per hour, for 24 hours a day- which is 400 tweets a day. Not even Kanye throwing shade at Wiz generated that many tweets. Which brings up McDaniel’s next set of questions- questions that he had for himself, and questions that he suspects the bot’s followers might have. “Should I follow a feed about slave sales? Am I annoyed that these reminders come so often? What would it mean not to follow or, once having followed, to unfollow or mute the tweets? Do those deliberate or implicit acts of silencing resemble, in microcosm, our nation’s larger inability to come to terms with slavery’s history despite evidence of its continued relevance all around us?” I’m not going to lie, these exact questions went through my mind after I opened the twitter page. How terrible of a person am I exactly if I don’t follow the account because I don’t want my feed cluttered with these tweets every 3 minutes? Am I even more terrible if I follow this account just so that my followers can see how good of a person I am- and then mute it so I don’t actually have to see all these posts? The fact that we even have these options is a whole other discussion.



Discussion questions to consider:

1. Of course, please consider the questions which McDaniel poses.

2. Is it good or bad that we are able to have accounts such as On This Day in History? Does this dilute the seriousness of history or make it more accessible and comprehensible?

3. I encourage you all to click through (however briefly) the many wonderful collections that the New York State Museum has available to its patrons. Which collections do you think is the most accessed, or better yet, which item? I hope to have an actual answer to this by class on Tuesday.

One thought on “Credit Where Credit is Due- Digital History and Citations

  • February 2, 2016 at 3:10 AM

    Very thoughtful points and questions–keep the wikipedia point especially in mind for Thursday, when I’ll rant about my love/hate relationship with it. And good question re: the NYSM’s collections, we have several alums of this class working on that project and they were super excited when it went live last spring. I’ll be interested if you do find an answer for most-accessed.

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