Public History in the Digital Sphere: /r/AskHistorians
By Joe Rachman
What sparked the craze for martial arts, particularly kung fu, in 1970s America? Why did some Serbs commit acts of genocide in the late twentieth century despite Serbs themselves having been victims of genocide during World War Two? What started the Opium Wars? Did Zarathustra, the supposed founder of Zoroastrianism, actually exist? Why are contemporary African states so poor when compared to the legendary wealth of some pre-colonial African empires? All these questions, and more, posed by curious members of the public have recently been answered for free by historians willing to dedicate a little bit of their time to help sate public curiosity about history. Welcome to /r/AskHistorians.
One of many forums on the vast hosting site that is Reddit, AskHistorians has carved out a niche for itself as a place where non-experts can encounter academic history in an accessible way. Anyone can post a question on any area of history, and if someone with relevant expertise spots it they will hopefully get a reply. The questioner comes away informed and hopefully curious to find out more on their own, with users encouraged to append their replies with sources, as well as the site’s substantial user-created booklist.
Behind this simple format lies a great deal of effort, and not just on the part of whoever typed up the reply. Internet comment sections, not usually known for their informative nature, are kept in shape by numerous moderators. These moderators dedicate substantial time as unpaid volunteers to removing responses that are uninformative, irrelevant, or offensive, ensuring questions on sensitive topics aren’t highjacked by those with extreme political agendas. Replies which seem dubious will face demands for sourcing to back up their claims. Helping simplify matters, ‘flairs’ identify trusted posters who regularly answer questions, as well as their areas of expertise. This system, while still developing, has created an almost unique phenomenon: an online forum that encourages spontaneous public contribution while remaining a place of civility and expertise.
Of course, the system is not perfect. Being located on a popular website such as Reddit allows AskHistorians to pick up new readers who come across the forum while using the site for other purposes. However, Reddit’s structuring around a user voting system means questions gain visibility based on votes by other users which indicate their interest. As such, certain topics popular with the average browser (who, in keeping with Reddit’s wider demographics, is usually a white, North American man), such as the Second World War and the American Civil War, often recur. Still, looking at the most highly voted questions of all time reveals a surprising diversity.
The top three questions (barring a joke question from a past April Fools) are why dandelions are considered weeds despite their utility; relationships between the ancient and modern Olympic games; and the teaching of history in American public schools. Indeed, as many who make a habit of answering questions can attest, public curiosity can even force experts to look in greater depth at facets of their work on which they had not previously focused. Daily life in a particular historical period is often asked about and poses a particular challenge. Equally, the moderators try to promote interest in areas the average user might not have considered. Some weeks are themed to encourage questions on new areas. Official Twitter accounts and Facebook groups help showcase replies to unusual questions, excellently answered. Finally, a biweekly podcast in which historians are interviewed on their area of expertise helps bring new areas to the eyes of users.
If there is a real issue, it is simply one of manpower. Currently, there are some one million subscribers to the forum and only 361 flaired users providing at least semi-regular expert contributions. Some historical areas have almost none, with Oceanic History having only four registered experts. Still, there is no denying the scale of the achievement, and happily a solution seems to present itself: if you want to help inform the public about your area of expertise, why not get online, talk to the moderators, and start posting answers.
Image: Snoostinian, the Askhistorians logo (a portmanteau of Snoo, the Reddit logo figure, and the Emperor Justinian). Reproduced by permission of the Askhistorians moderators, via imgur