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Part 2. The Wisdom of Crowds(ourcing)
How does historical writing change when technology enables everyone to publish online? Leslie Madsen-Brooks opens up the conversation with her essay “‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers,” which investigates how false claims about U.S. Civil War history arose and have been combated on the Internet. Other contributors focus on the world’s most popular crowd-sourced encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Over 30 million registered users have collectively contributed to this open-access knowledge platform, launched in 2001. Yet Wikipedia has generated controversy for its democratization of historical expertise and authorship, the practice of a so-called neutral point of view (NPOV) as its editorial stance, and conflict among educators on whether it should be referenced in or even considered as part of academic writing. Robert Wolff’s essay “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” explores what we can learn from analyzing debates over editing Civil War history in the multiauthor Wikipedia platform. In “The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in a First-Year Undergraduate Class,” Shawn Graham recounts what he and his students learned while updating a single page on Canadian history. Martha Saxton at Amherst College describes challenges that she faced when confronting the NPOV editing standard, in “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience.” (See also the essays by Adrea Lawrence and Amanda Seligman in part 3.)
“I Nevertheless Am a Historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers
I have a good deal of interest in how members of the public who are not academically trained historians “do history.” For me, then, “public history” does not mean just projects, programs, and exhibits created by professional historians for the public but, rather, the very broad and complex intersection of “the public” with historical practice. When you provision those occupying this intersection with freely available digital tools and platforms, things become interesting quickly. Because setting up a blog, wiki, or discussion forum means only a few mouse clicks and because archival resources are increasingly digitized, we are seeing a burgeoning of sites that coalesce communities around historical topics of interest. Even those who have no interest in setting up their own websites can participate in history-specific Facebook groups, blogging communities, and genealogy sites.
Such digital spaces expand and blur considerably the spectrum of what counts as historical practice. For example, on Ancestry.com, users piece together family histories by synthesizing government records and crowdsourced resources of varying origin and credibility. Professional historians might take an active interest, then, in how digital archival and communication resources affect the spread or containment of particular historical myths. It is not clear, however, how these technologies aid academic historians in participating or impede them from intervening in these discussions. This essay uses discourses about black Confederate soldiers to explore how digital technologies are changing who researches and writes history—as well as what authorial roles scholars are playing in the fuzzy edges of historical practice where crowdsourcing and the lay public are creating new research resources and narratives. These digital tools and resources are not only democratizing historical practice but also providing professional historians with new opportunities and modes for expanding historical literacy.
The Origins of the Black Confederate Soldier
Historian Kevin Levin recently pointed out that discourse around “black Confederates” ramped up after the release of the 1989 film Glory, which showcased the sacrifices of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the American Civil War. Viewers of that movie might reasonably have wondered whether there was a similar regiment fighting for the South, so it is not surprising that an Ngram search of Google Books reveals the use of the term black Confederate rose dramatically after the movie’s release. More surprising is the term’s staying power over the ensuing two decades (see fig. 2). As we move through the four-year sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the term—its currency not yet graphable on Ngram because that tool does not search books published after 2000 or websites—seems to be enjoying a resurgence. A Google search for the exact phrase “black Confederate” (inside quotation marks) turns up 102,000 matches.
The typical discourse in support of the existence of black Confederates refers to them as “soldiers” or claims they served in vital support roles just behind the front lines; believers assert that all of these soldiers and supporters were “loyal” to the Confederate cause, even if they were enslaved. Take, for example, the following comment by Edward A. Bardill in an editorial from 2005:
Deep devotion, love of homeland and strong Christian faith joined black with white Confederate soldiers in defense of their homes and families. A conservative estimate is that between 50,000 to 60,000 served in the Confederate units. Both slave and free black soldiers served as cooks, musicians and even combatants.
Such effusive praise may confuse Civil War historians, as the historical record does not support claims that large numbers of slaves and former slaves volunteered. Quite the contrary: slaves who served the Confederate army were volunteered by their masters, and slaves on plantations collaborated actively with agents of the Union army to secure their freedom. Some historians have asserted that some African Americans “passed” as white to enlist. Others have acknowledged free and enslaved blacks’ noncombatant contributions—as body servants, cooks, foundry workers, and nurses—to the Confederate war effort, but it appears that no academic historians have subscribed to the narrative that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers.
The rapid spread of black Confederate soldier narratives is a function not only of proponents’ apparent desire to openly admire the Confederacy without appearing to favor a white supremacist society and government but also of the rise of inexpensive and easy-to-use digital tools. Prior to the widespread adoption of the Internet, published discussion of the black Confederate soldier was contained to books like James Brewer’s The Confederate Negro, which is careful to emphasize that blacks—free or enslaved—working on behalf of the Confederacy were “labor troops” and not soldiers; Ervin Jordan’s Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, which does not always distinguish as carefully between volunteer soldiers and impressed or hired laborers; and Charles Barrow, Joe Segars, and Randall Rosenburg’s Black Confederates, which relied on the Sons of Confederate Veterans to “submit information about blacks loyal to the South” and emphasizes “many instances” of “deep devotion and affection” that “transcended the master-slave relationship” and inspired blacks to “[take] up arms to defend Dixie.” Today, however, the digital footprint of people who maintain that there were significant numbers of black Confederate soldiers appears far larger than that of historians and others who attempt to refute the myth. (Alas, the 21st-century footprint is no longer merely digital; a textbook distributed to Virginia students in September 2010 stated that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”)
Proponents’ Use of Digital Platforms and Sources
Sites focused on black Confederate soldiers and related “Southern heritage” sites seem to arise from both a desire to tell a history suppressed by Northern partisans—including the assertion that the war was fought over states’ rights, not slavery—and an explicit goal of recognizing the service of African Americans in the military. Blogger Connie Ward writes, for example, “So they weren’t on some official muster roll and they weren’t handed a uniform and soldierly accouterments. So? What interests me is . . . did they pick up a gun and shoot at yankees? Then they need to be commemorated.”
These claims are grounded in shallow, often uninformed, and frequently decontextualized readings of primary source documents that have been digitized and made available online. Take “Royal Diadem’s” (Ann Dewitt’s) reading of a ledger digitized on Footnote.com:
Captain P.P. Brotherson’s Confederate Officers record states eleven (11) blacks served with the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery in the “Negro Cooks Regiment.” This annotation can be viewed on footnote.com. See the third line on the left.
Andy Hall of the Dead Confederates blog stepped up with an additional analysis of the document, noting first that the phrase “Negro Cooks Regiment” does not actually appear on the document. Hall provided and transcribed the digitized document: “Provision for Eleven Negroes Employed in the Quarter Masters department Cooks Regt Heavy Artillery at Galveston Texas for ten days commencing on the 11th day of May 1864 & Ending on the 20th of May 1864.” (In this case, “Cook” refers to the commanding officer, Col. Joseph Jarvis Cook.) In a comment on his post, Hall expands on his research methods.
There are a number of cases of African American men being formally enrolled as cooks in the Confederate army and, so far as CSRs seem to indicate, formally enlisted as such. The researcher has been highlighting a number of these individual cases lately, always leaping straight from them to a universal assertion, this proves all Confederate cooks were considered soldiers.. . .
I took 20 Confederate regiments more or less at random, and went through their rosters as listed in the CWSSS, and in those 20 regiments . . . found a total of FIVE men with records of formal enlistment as cooks. . . . [C]learly the takeaway is that formal enlistment of cooks in the Confederate army was not only not common, it was exceedingly rare.
Here, Hall demonstrates an alternative and ultimately more persuasive reading of the document. He also illustrates how to place a source in a broader archival context.
This demonstration of contextualization and interpretation might be a sound response to another common sticking point on the black Confederate websites: the pensions awarded to African Americans following the war. Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and North Carolina all eventually provided pensions to African Americans who served as noncombatants in the Confederate war effort, including soldiers’ personal servants, many of whom had been slaves. They were not enlisted soldiers, as it was only in March 1865 that the Confederate Congress passed and Jefferson Davis signed into law a bill that allowed the recruitment of blacks.
Black Confederate websites, however, frequently cite these pension records as evidence that African Americans served as soldiers in the Confederate armed forces. Sometimes the writers imply this elision of noncombatant and soldier; Ann DeWitt makes it explicit.
Over the course of history, these men have become known as Black Confederates. Because their names appear on Confederate Soldier Service Records, we now call them Black Confederate Soldiers.
At the blog Atrueconfederate, David Tatum blurs the line between cook and soldier, writing that a cook named William Dove appears on a muster roll that includes the term enlisted followed by a date. The digitization of documents opens opportunities for more people to delve into the arcana of the past, but Tatum’s and DeWitt’s misinterpretations suggest one important role for historians at this cultural and digital moment is helping people gain the skills to interpret an era’s documents, photographs, and material culture.
Kevin Levin has provided the most extensive and substantive critiques of the black Confederate myth, including analyses of the major websites dedicated to the topic. On his blog Civil War Memory, Levin carefully dissects the failures of Ann DeWitt’s Black Confederate Soldiers site to distinguish between soldiers and slaves on the front line. Levin highlights the site’s utter lack of realistic context for the experience of African Americans laboring on behalf of the Confederates. For example, DeWitt’s site assumes that parallels can be drawn between “body servants”—a term she uses to denote slaves who accompanied their owners into the field—and pink- or white-collar administrative employment today: “In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors [sic] Degree or equivalent level experience.” Public audiences may find history more lively if they can draw parallels with their own era, but this particular comparison effaces the deprivations faced by slaves and wartime laborers.
Another case of black Confederate proponents misinterpreting a primary source—or, rather, trusting a manipulated photographic scene—involves a photograph of a “black Confederate corpse.” The website Black Confederate Soldiers of Petersburg published a photo of one white and one black corpse lying on the ground, stating that the “original caption” referred to them as “rebel artillery soldiers.” However, the version of the image at the Library of Congress website, as well as those I located elsewhere, is titled “Confederate and Union dead side by side in the trenches at Fort Mahone.” Further complicating website author Ashleigh Moody’s presentation of the image, the Library of Congress summarizes photographic detective work by David Lowe and Philip Shiman: “Photo shows a body lying in the background that is actually the photographer’s teamster posing for the scene. The live model appears in the same clothes in negative LC-B811-3231.” While Moody likely posted her photo prior to the discovery of photographer Thomas Roche’s duplicity, she has not removed the photo from her website since its fraudulence was brought to the black Confederate proponents’ attention by Andy Hall and Kevin Levin. This is not the only case of this kind; the proponents’ credulity is echoed in their acceptance of a photo that is purported to be of a gray-coated “Louisiana Native Guard” in 1861 but is actually an 1864 photo of a company of the 25th United States Colored Troops unit wearing pale blue winter overcoats—with the dark-coated unit commander cropped out of the image.
Conspiracies and Credentials
Many black Confederate proponents invoke conspiracies as the reason more people have not heard of these soldiers. For example, H. K. Edgerton calls the black Confederate narrative “a perspective of Southern Heritage not taught in our public schools or seen in our politically correct media.” The implication is that Edgerton’s and others’ websites provide a valuable public service in highlighting primary source documents and interpreting them for an Internet audience—though a brief survey of their sites often reveals conservative and even reactionary ideologies—while at the same time occasionally calling out as white supremacists those historians who seek to debunk the black Confederate soldier narrative.
Such charges highlight one significant way in which digital tools have changed the way people do history: there has been an increase in the speed with which they exchange information or, more likely in the case of proponents and dissidents of the black Confederate soldier narrative, barbs. Prior to the age of easy digital publishing tools, such unpleasant exchanges might have been kept private, perhaps e-mailed among colleagues and partisans; they would have been unlikely to see print, and they certainly would not have been found as easily as they now are by Google’s indexing. This war of words flared up tremendously in the summer of 2011, when the exchanges devolved into name-calling, with each side accusing the other of revisionism motivated by racism.
Milder ad hominem attacks take the form of a questioning of credentials and a disagreement about what constitutes a historian. In one weeks-long iteration of this rhetorical dance, Connie Ward takes issue with some bloggers’ insistence that real historians do history for a living: “I’m as much a historian as Corey [Meyer], [Kevin] Levin, [Andy] Hall and [Brooks] Simpson. I’m a writer of history; I work with history. No, I’m not employed to do that, but I nevertheless am a historian.” She then turns the tables, claiming that these men are teachers more than they are historians: “With the possible exception of Andy [Hall], . . . what these gentlemen do for a living . . . is teach. That makes them teachers.” She voices a common charge of black Confederate soldier proponents: historians are only willing to share certain facts and are suppressing some big truth.
To be a historian at an institution of learning just means you have to show some papers that presumably verify that you’ve studied and learned. Most people so credentialed get their papers from institutes of higher learning, which as we know, have changed over the last fifty or sixty years from places of free thought and inquiry— a setting for acquiring knowledge—to centers of indoctrination.
Corey Meyer calls Ward “an amateur historian” and points out to Ward:
I nor the other blogger claim no more authority than you. . . . You and yours have repeatedly shown that you do not have a grasp of the original source material that you present. However, the other blogger and I have history degrees which is not the be-all-to-end-all on the situation, but it does help us when we are working with source materials. . . . [W]e have a background understanding of how to work with those items.
This exchange raises three related questions, one of which lies at the heart of this volume: what constitutes real historical practice, how are digital research and publishing tools changing that practice, and what ought to be the role of professional historians in a space where authorship has been democratized? On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog—and they cannot be sure, either, that you are a credentialed historian.
Interventions by Professional Historians
The most vocal opponents of the black Confederate soldier narrative in the digital realm are not employed by universities, museums, or other organizations as public historians. Corey Meyer teaches U.S. government and history; Kevin Levin was a high school teacher until 2011 and now bills himself as a “history educator” and “independent historian” who publishes in academic publications and has a book forthcoming from a university press; and Andy Hall does not disclose his profession. Brooks Simpson appears to be the only regular commenter employed as a historian outside of K–12 education.
Why have academically employed historians been reticent to engage in such debates? “Eddieinman” suggests that participation is pointless: “Seems to me about like space scientists devoting themselves to the Roswell incident.” Similarly, Matthew Robert Isham writes that countering the black Confederate soldier narrative distracts historians from more significant and rewarding varieties of public engagement during the sesquicentennial. Marshall Poe offers a more substantial reason for historians’ absence: such online engagement “doesn’t really count toward hiring, tenure, and promotion.” Furthermore, he points out, while “amateurs” have written books, authored screenplays, and created historically themed TV programs, academic historians have tended to write for an audience of other academics. The result of historians’ and their institutions’ reluctance to embrace digital media and public engagement means that, in Poe’s words, “‘users’—uncritical, poorly informed, and with axes to grind—are now writing ‘our’ history. Some of that history may be good. But the overwhelming majority of it is and will be bad.” He maintains that crowdsourcing history via the “wisdom of the crowds” fails because “the crowds are not wise.”
My outlook on how the public “does history” online is less cataclysmic than Poe’s. I have seen enthusiasts produce interesting and useful historiography, and the ease of sharing digitized primary sources makes it easier than ever to determine the strength of the evidence presented in those narratives. Even when a narrative is on shaky factual ground, we can learn about the writer’s—and possibly the audience’s—beliefs, habits, and values, which can also be useful to historians seeking to understand a cultural moment. That said, there is much at stake in the case of black Confederates. John Gillis has written that the people and places of our imagined past give meaning to present-day people and places. Furthermore, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that the production and dissemination of historical narratives consolidate power in much the same way as do firearms, property, and political crusades. The black Confederate myth does have political currency in this era where partisans seek to weaken the federal government and consolidate power with the states: the existence of black Confederate soldiers has been cited as proof that the Civil War was fought over a regional disagreement about states’ rights, not slavery. In this case, the attempt to historicize states’ rights as a deeply rooted political tradition while effacing its history as a tool of racist subjugation is troubling. This neo-Confederate narrative has real political consequences, as throughout U.S. history, some states have repeatedly tried to curtail civil rights gains made by women and minority groups elsewhere in the country.
So where do we go from here? Levin suggests that a better sense of mission and audience would help historians determine when to become involved in discussions of black Confederate soldiers. He writes that persuading the Sons of Confederate Veterans to adopt a different perspective is a lost cause but that mainstream audiences might be highly responsive to historians’ critiques of the black Confederate soldier narrative. In that sense, Levin points out, the effort to debunk this narrative is about digital literacy, as professional historians can provide alternative and ultimately more convincing interpretations of primary sources. This approach makes sense; it is in line, after all, with what historians already do: help the public make sense of primary sources. It may be time for us to bring more of those efforts into the highly democratized digital realm.
Beyond increasing digital literacy, each such interaction provides an opportunity to educate people about historical context. High school and college students often take multiple-choice tests that focus on textbook content rather than historical context, on political players and events more than on the diverse everyday realities and allegiances of, in this example, nineteenth-century black men, enslaved or free, literate or illiterate, throughout the United States. Brooks Simpson emphasizes the importance of sharing not only the quotidian experiences of blacks living in the Confederacy but also what these people’s experiences, mundane and extraordinary, meant in the bigger picture. He tells historians that, in best practice, “you are going to make sure that, for all this talk about memory, . . . we remember that the Civil War destroyed slavery in the reUnited States, and that black people, free and enslaved, played a large role in that process and in the defeat of the Confederacy. Tell that story, and tell it time and time again.”
The same digital resources that allow for the spread of the black Confederate soldier myth may provide for its reconsideration and revision. Deployed thoughtfully, digital technologies allow public historians to focus on details that, were they merely in print, might seem abstruse or patronizingly didactic. The annotation feature on Flickr, for example, which lets enthusiasts highlight and comment on the smallest details of a photograph, could allow for nearly pixel-level analysis and discussion of Civil War photos. “Black Confederate soldier” photos could provide a rich location for pixel-scale interpretation of much larger issues. Take Thomas Roche’s photo of the dead artilleryman and his own not-so-dead assistant (fig. 3); historians could unpack elements of the photo in ways that prove useful to students, and in many cases, Civil War enthusiasts might recognize important details that escaped the historian. Similarly, audio annotation of visuals, as on VoiceThread.com, might provide both the lively polyvocality many netizens desire and a venue for the historian’s expertise, without descending into unbridled relativism.
Considering the low opinion some reference librarians and historians have of genealogists, historians might be surprised to find genealogy forums to be self-regulating regarding the black Confederate myth. For example, multiple threads on the Afrigeneas Military Research Forum open with a question about black Confederate soldiers and then turn immediately to a debunking of the myth. Sharon Heist there offered the following counternarrative in response to a post:
I’m sorry, but I have to tell you there were no Black Confederate soldiers. There has been a lot of confusion about this, but they were illegal until the very end of the war (General Order # 14, passed two weeks before Appomatox [sic].)
There were thousands who served as servants, teamsters, laborers, cooks, etc. but the fact is they were not there willingly, and to fight for the Confederate cause.
As these examples make clear, digital technologies allow a broader spectrum of people to research the past and write about it for a large audience. Previously, one needed the time and money to travel to archives and, in some cases, the academic credentials to study particular primary source documents. Once the research had been transformed into an article or book, gatekeepers—publishing houses, editors, and peer reviewers—ensured academic rigor. More historians need to explore new roles in the digital realm, assuming whatever responsibilities appeal to us as individuals. For some, this might mean starting a blog or podcast on an area of research; for others, it might mean publishing an e-book on how to interpret primary sources from a particular era and geographic region. Others will relish a more assertive or even combative role as debunkers of myths on forums or Wikipedia.
That said, our best role is perhaps not that of an authoritative figure or the “sage on the stage”; the “guide on the side” role makes more sense in the digital space. There are tremendous possibilities for collaboration with the lay public, amateur historians, and other professionals. This digital revolution is making ever-larger pools of primary source materials accessible and opening avenues for exciting and sometimes challenging interpretations of those sources. Our role as historians—whether we hold academic degrees in history or learned to practice public history on the job—ought to be encouraging greater, more thoughtful participation in historiography regardless of medium. Citizen science—collaborations between the lay public and trained scientists on projects that are meaningful to specific communities—provides one model for the intersection of rigorous research, lay and amateur engagement, and the increased public understanding of complex subjects. We ought to look for others. At a moment of multiple social, economic, and environmental crises, citizens would benefit from employing the critical and creative thinking required by historical practice. Despite my own dissatisfaction with some of Connie Ward’s assertions about black Confederate soldiers, I would like more members of the public to share her interest in historical interpretation; I would like to hear more people say, despite their lack of academic credentials, “I nevertheless am a historian.”
1. The ethics of digital data collection are much debated—especially reading, analyzing, and citing postings on blogs and forums. My stance is that blogs and static websites are analogous to any serialized print publication; they are published online and, if indexed by major search engines, are discoverable by any Internet user. I did not post, comment, or otherwise influence the discussions. I cite posts only from public forums that do not require membership approval. See Heidi McKee and James E. Porter, “The Ethics of Digital Writing Research: A Rhetorical Approach,” College Composition and Communication 59, no. 4 (2008): 711–49.
2. Kevin Levin, “Ngram Tracks Black Confederates and black Confederates,” Civil War Memory, 20 December 2010, http://cwmemory.com/2010/12/20/ngram-tracks-black-confederates-and-black-confederate/. I also searched for terms that may have been used to describe black soldiers prior to 1989 and particularly during the nineteenth century, including Negro soldier, black soldier, and nigger soldier. None of these terms, of course, isolates Confederate soldiers from Union troops. Not surprisingly, the term negro soldier spiked (in books) in the 1860s. Searches for these terms in digitized periodicals from the era proved unsuccessful.
3. Edward A. Bardill, “Black Confederate Soldiers Overlooked during Black History Month,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 27 February 2005, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1351948/posts.
6. For more on African Americans’ contributions to the Confederate war effort, see James Hollandsworth Jr., “Looking for Bob: Black Confederate Pensioners after the Civil War,” Journal of Mississippi History 69, no. 4 (2007): 295–324, and Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
7. For more on this shift in discourse and the growing acceptance of the black Confederate soldier myth by Southern heritage enthusiasts, see Bruce Levine, “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates and Black Confederates,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, ed. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 189–91.
8. James Brewer, The Confederate Negro: Virginia’s Craftsmen and Military Laborers, 1861–1865 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 7–8, 135–36; Jordan, Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees; Charles Barrow, Joe Segars, and Randall Rosenburg, eds., Black Confederates (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 2001), 2, 4, 8.
9. Kevin Sieff, “Virginia 4th-Grade Textbook Criticized over Claims on Black Confederate Soldiers,” Washington Post, 20 October 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/19/AR2010101907974.html.
11. Royal Diadem, posting to Southern Heritage Preservation Group on Facebook, 7 August 2011, https://www.facebook.com/groups/shpg1/?view=permalink&id=271184879563396, accessed in May 2012 but has since been removed. For the identification of “Royal Diadem” as a pseudonym used by Ann DeWitt, see Corey Meyer, “The Leap . . . ,” The Blood of My Kindred, 14 April 2011, http://kindredblood.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/the-leap/.
12. Andy Hall, “Famous ‘Negro Cooks Regiment’ Found—in My Own Backyard!” Dead Confederates, 8 August 2011, http://deadconfederates.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/famous-negro-cooks-regiment-found-in-my-own-backyard/.
15. Ann DeWitt, “Confederate Soldier Service Records,” Black Confederate Soldiers, n.d., http://www.blackconfederatesoldiers.com/soldier_records_for_black_confederates_50.html.
16. David Tatum, “Myth Buster!” Atrueconfederate, 2 July 2011, http://atrueconfederate.blogspot.com/2011/07/myth-buster.html.
18. “[Confederate and Union dead side by side in the trenches at Fort Mahone],” photo by Thomas C. Roche, 3 April 1865, Selected Civil War Photographs, 1861–1865, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000602/PP/; David Lowe and Philip Shiman, “Substitute for a Corpse,” Civil War Times 49, no. 6 (2010): 40–41; Kevin Levin, “Scratch Off Another Black Confederate,” Civil War Memory, 10 August 2011, http://cwmemory.com/2011/08/10/scratch-off-another-black-confederate/.
19. Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, “The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph,” Retouching History, March 2007, http://web.archive.org/web/20080908190524/http://www.retouchinghistory.org/. My search on 14 August 2011 for the original version of this photo at TinEye.com turned up more instances of the cropped photo than the one with the officer.
20. H. K. Edgerton, “Southern Heritage 411,” n.d., http://www.southernheritage411.com/index.shtml.
21. See, for example, Edgerton’s publication on his site of the article “Isn’t the Southern Poverty Law Center the Real Hate Group?” by Michael Brown, 28 July 2011, http://www.southernheritage411.com/newsarticle.php?nw=2270. See also Carl Roden’s comments, as reprinted on Andy Hall’s site: “The Self-Appointed Defenders of Southern Heritage,” Dead Confederates, 3 August 2011, http://deadconfederates.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/the-defenders-of-southern-heritage/.
22. For some examples of the vitriol, see David Tatum’s posts at Atrueconfederate, [formerly http://atrueconfederate.blogspot.com/2011/08/anti-southern-society.html] (11 August 2011) and http://atrueconfederate.blogspot.com/2011/08/research-is-like-box-of-chocolates.html (10 August 2011), as well as Connie Ward’s post “The Civil War Thought Police,” 180 Degrees True South, 10 August 2011, [formerly http://one80dts.blogspot.com/2011/08/civil-war-thought-police.html].
24. Corey Meyer, “Connie (Chastain) Ward Responds Again” and “Connie (Chastain) Ward Admits: ‘History & Heritage Are Not Synonymous,’” The Blood of My Kindred, 8 August 2011, accessed 13 August 2011, http://kindredblood.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/connie-chastain-ward-responds-again/, and 22 July 2011, accessed 13 August 2011, http://kindredblood.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/connie-chastain-ward-admits-history-heritage-are-not-synonymous/.
26. Corey Meyer, comment on “Ponderings on American Exceptionalism,” The Blood of My Kindred, 25 September 2009, http://kindredblood.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/ponderings-on-american-exceptionalism/#comment-147; Kevin Levin, “Welcome” and “Resume,” Civil War Memory, n.d., http://cwmemory.com/about/ and http://cwmemory.com/cv/.
27. Eddieinman, “Re: Simpson—Prof. Historians and the Black Confederate Myth,” 19 June 2011, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/civilwarhistory2/message/173491.
28. Matthew Robert Isham, “What Will Become of the Black Confederate Controversy? A Follow Up,” A People’s Contest, 13 May 2011, [formerly http://www.psu.edu/dept/richardscenter/2011/05/what-will-become-of-the-black-confederate-controversy---a-follow-up.html].
33. Kevin Levin, “What Will Become of the Black Confederate Controversy? A Response,” Civil War Memory, 8 May 2011, http://cwmemory.com/2011/05/08/what-will-become-of-the-black-confederate-controversy-a-response/.
34. Brooks Simpson, “Professional Historians and the Black Confederate Myth: Part Two,” Crossroads, 20 June 2011, https://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/professional-historians-and-the-black-confederate-myth-part-two/.
35. Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “Civil War dead—posed photo,” Flickr photo annotation, 21 September 2011, http://www.flickr.com/photos/trillwing/6169777283/, based on original 1865 photo, available at the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000602/PP/. For more about this photo, and how it is posed, see David Lowe and Philip Shiman, “Substitute for a Corpse,” Civil War Times 49, no. 6 (2010): 40–41.
37. Sharon Heist, “Re: AA Confederate Solider (sic) Info,” Afrigeneas Military Research Forum, 24 October 2004, http://www.afrigeneas.com/forum-militaryarchive/index.cgi/md/read/id/1553/sbj/aa-confederate-solider-info/.
The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia
How has the digital revolution transformed the writing of history? If asked, I suspect most historians would point to the tremendous advantages of electronic access to published scholarship and primary sources. In this view, the digital revolution has served primarily to enhance scholarly productivity, much as other once-new technologies, such as online card catalogs and word processing software, facilitated research and writing. Yet, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, digital spaces offer platforms for entirely new kinds of research, while “digital-first” publishing simultaneously accelerates the propagation of ideas. As Dan Cohen observes, this nascent transformation in the historian’s craft challenges the academic status quo assumption that scholarly success and intellectual credibility stem from a PhD and a published monograph. Even as radically new forms of publication emerge, print-first journals and books continue to reign over the profession. It is no wonder that despite a willingness to explore new media, few historians take the plunge and immerse themselves in the digital world. Concerned that online scholarship will be found wanting by their peers and institutions, most shy away. Open-source knowledge generated through transparent drafting and review procedures does not yet resonate with the norms of the historical profession, nor does the notion that quality scholarship might be freely available. Beyond the ivory tower, however, purportedly authoritative histories proliferate throughout the Internet, accessible to all. Herein lies an important challenge for professional historians as they confront the digital age.
Underlying much of the trepidation with digital-first scholarship may be the realization that on the web, professional historians are not the sole arbiters of what constitutes “history.” As academic scholarship (with some exceptions) lies on library shelves or behind electronic subscription paywalls, vast swaths of historical information and analysis can be found readily on the open web. For the experienced scholar, the riches there seem endless. In moments, I can choose class material from Documenting the American South, browse the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, and peruse the criminal records of the Old Bailey. I can read about 18th-century funeral broadsides at Common-Place or download articles from the latest African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter. Yet the exponential growth of historical discourse on the Internet draws on the labors of not professional historians but, rather, the wider public that edits entries on Wikipedia, contributes to genealogical discussions on Ancestry.com, posts photos of historic sites to Flickr.com, and invokes the Founding Fathers or scripture in the comment pages of the Washington Post.
People with little or no formal training in the discipline have embraced the writing of history on the web, which raises the question, whose histories will prove authoritative in the digital age? Since the professionalization of history in the last decades of the 19th century, college and university professors have worn the mantle of authority. Through creation of such professional associations as the American Historical Association (founded in 1884) and through editorial control of academic journals and book presses, they have determined which narratives meet their standards of scholarly rigor. At first, the emergence of the digital age did little to dilute the authority of disciplinary experts in history, but that has begun to change. Although Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig rightly observed that “the Internet allows historians to speak to vastly more people in widely dispersed places,” it can just as easily be said that the Internet allows vastly more people to speak about history without professional historians. The popular understanding of the past differs greatly from that of academic historians; it often reflects an effort to muster the past in service of a particular worldview. As such, it may tell us as much about memory—how events are remembered—as it tells about history.
Ordinarily, historians see history and memory as distinct ways of understanding the past, the former governed by professional imperatives, the latter by cultural and familial expectations. David Blight summarizes this distinction as follows: “History—what trained historians do—is a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; critical and skeptical of human motive and action. . . . Memory, however, is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised.” Writing history in the digital age will force professional historians to share a space (i.e., the Internet) with others whose narratives draw on the “sacred set of potentially absolute meanings” that characterize popular memory. Nowhere is this characteristic of the web more apparent than in Wikipedia, which, for good or ill, provides more historical information to the public than any other site on the web. When you type any historical topic into the search engine of your choice, chances are excellent that the first hit will be Wikipedia. Its extensive entries demonstrate the ways in which popular understandings shape digital narratives about the past.
Why explore writing history through Wikipedia? Simply put, because it allows any reader to peel away layers of narrative to explore how entries have changed over time, juxtaposing revisions for comparison. In keeping with its self-fashioned identity as a community of writers, Wikipedia also maintains discussion pages for each entry that permit even the casual visitor—as well as the scholar bent on digital history—to follow the give and take between different contributors. In short, Wikipedia invites readers to peer behind the curtain and, if interested, take a place at the controls. This open-source quality has troubled many observers, who question the accuracy of Wikipedia’s entries and/or deny that it has any utility as a reference source for students and the wider public. Rather than discuss its accuracy, however, I wish to explore the process by which Wikipedia contributors craft entries about the past. Despite protestations that its entries may not serve as either a “soapbox” or “memorial site,” Wikipedia is not simply an online encyclopedia. Its historical entries serve as virtual “sites of memory” (to borrow from Pierre Nora), places at which people attempt to codify the meaning of past events. Moreover, as they discuss and debate the language used to narrate the past, Wikipedia contributors may strive for a “neutral point of view” (NPOV), but in practice, they judge new entries and revisions via a moral economy of crowdsourcing.
How does Wikipedia depict past events? How do contributors resolve debates about history? What happens when popular understandings (memory) clash with academic discourse (history)? To answer these questions, I traced a single entry for the “Origins of the American Civil War” (OACW) beginning with its first appearance in December 2003, when anonymous “User 172” posted a dense, 9,700-word essay accompanied by two images. Since then, more than 900 other users (some of them automated) have updated the page, which now consists of roughly 19,000 words, 14 images, four maps, copious notes and bibliography. Because debates about the war’s origins have often served as proxies for other struggles, such as the 20th-century civil rights movement, the OACW seemed likely to show traces of contestation. Depending on region and background, as a sizable literature demonstrates, the popular understanding of the American Civil War varies tremendously. I paid particular attention to skirmishes in the OACW’s discussion and history pages (see fig. 4). Most editorial changes elicited no controversy whatsoever; they either added new information or tackled the perennial problems of organization that plague longer Wikipedia entries. I also ignored minor acts of vandalism. For example, for nearly five days in 2004, the phrase “Michael Cox is the coolest kid at CMS” appeared in the OACW; perhaps for those days he was. Excepting these pages, considerable discussion about the “Origins of the American Civil War” occurred behind the scenes as contributors challenged one another over terminology, imagery, and context. (See the images in the web version of this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.)
Wikipedia currently provides a plausible, if somewhat rambling, essay on the origins of the American Civil War. It opens with a statement with which many academics will agree: “The main explanation for the origins of the American Civil War is slavery, especially Southern anger at the attempts by Northern antislavery political forces to block the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Southern slave owners held that such a restriction on slavery would violate the principle of states’ rights.” On this essential point, the OACW shares the broad consensus in the historical profession. User 172’s narrative of the events leading up to the American Civil War resembles that of many American history textbooks; it covers the rise of the Republican Party, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” and the collapse of the Whig Party as a national alternative to the Democrats. It further places that narrative within the context of a significant historiographic divide between scholars who have viewed the Civil War as irrepressible (i.e., as the inevitable consequence of the regional differentiation between an agrarian, slave-labor South and an increasingly industrial, free-labor North) and those who have argued that the conflict was repressible (i.e., the result of blundering politicians and/or reckless agitators in both regions). To be sure, the original narrative did not address events that professional Civil War historians today see as essential to our understanding of secession and the outbreak of hostilities, such as the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. User 172 relied on much-dated historical works, which explains the original narrative’s narrow emphasis chronologically (the 1850s) and thematically (politics).
Beyond this, the OACW offers an unruly congeries of information reflecting its crowdsourced roots. Not only is every Wikipedian his or her own historian, but for each, the past possesses different meanings. User 172’s narrative strongly suggested that white Southerners bore more responsibility for the outbreak of war than their Northern counterparts. User 172 wrote that the “vitriolic response” of the “Reactionary South” to Northern concerns about slavery in the Western territories exacerbated sectional tensions and that Southerners, “increasingly committed to a way of life that much of the rest of the nation considered obsolete,” therefore responded to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 by seceding from the Union. In January 2005, a contributor with the evocative name “Rangerdude” challenged “anti-southern biases” in the OACW, objecting to the header “The Reactionary South” as “pejorative” and deleting a reference to the South’s “hysterical racism.” Underlying Rangerdude’s criticisms lay a preoccupation with the OACW’s depiction of nonslaveholding whites in the South as racist: “The term is a modern one and is not neutral for a historical article.” Not surprisingly, Rangerdude’s editorial changes provoked a response several hours later from User 172, who insisted that the underlying causes of the Civil War could not be addressed without discussing racism: “To claim that all references to racism should be removed from the article is patently absurd. It would leave us with no way to address how white people came to believe that Africans should be kept in bondage. That’s why the relationship between slavery and racism has inspired a rich tradition in scholarly literature.” In an “edit war,” the two contributors fought back and forth, taking turns deleting the other’s revisions and substituting his own text. At one point, Rangerdude exclaimed, “Please do not revert edits because they remove bias that you happen to like.” User 172 asserted the importance of authoritative secondary sources, while Rangerdude challenged User 172 through demands for neutrality. Perhaps because both invoked the moral economy of Wikipedia, if in different ways, revisions to OACW sought a middle ground. The header “The Reactionary South” gave way to “The Southern Response.” A reference to Southern whites so poor that they “resorted at times to eating clay” disappeared. References to Southern racism, supported by User 172’s references to secondary sources, remained.
But what happened when one person’s interpretation clashed with the collective narrative? In August 2004, user “H2O” insisted that OACW include African American slaveholders in its description of the antebellum South. “The article,” H2O complained, “implies that [slavery] was about the rich white people suppressing the poor black people, when it was really about the powerful (white or black) using the powerless (white or black) for their own gain, as evidenced by the fact that there were free black slaveowners who took advantage of the system as well.” This is, of course, a nonsensical position, as there were no instances of powerful blacks owning white slaves. For H2O, slavery was simply an exploitative economic system in which whites and blacks participated equally according to their ability. H2O must have seen as incidental the fact that all slaves were of African descent. Elsewhere H2O makes the claim that slaveholders “treated their slaves kindly, and wanted to see an end to slavery, and believed that it eventually would die out, but did not see a simple way to end the practice.” Another contributor proposed that the OACW be rewritten to reflect that Northern aggression led to hostilities, driven by people “wholly opposed to the regular order of living and more into experimentation, the counter-culture.” Neither of these proposals led to changes in the OACW, because other contributors judged them baseless. In other words, they failed to meet the community’s standard for authoritative information. These examples, from both the OACW page and its talk history, suggest that the Wikipedia community does effectively gauge basic historical knowledge and can exclude claims that lack a factual basis.
Authoritativeness in Wikipedia, however, is not simply an imperfect version of scholarly authority. In other words, although it is tempting to see Wikipedia as a space in which the expertise of professional historians is not yet (or not always) recognized, the popular understanding of the past that informs Wikipedia’s moral economy has never accepted PhD academics as definitive experts. Of course, some contributors do acknowledge the influence of professional scholarship. When challenged by Rangerdude to defend the argument that Southern society entwined slavery and racism, User 172 cited a battery of prizewinning scholars—Oscar and Mary Handlin, Winthrop Jordan, David Brion Davis, Peter Wood, and Edmund Morgan. Others reject scholarly expertise altogether, positing that only original sources can reveal true history. For example, User 184.108.40.206 lambasted other contributors for their “repugnant bias,” meaning by this that instead of presenting just the facts, they “editorialized.” First-person perspectives are authoritative, User 220.127.116.11 seemed to say, but everything else is opinion: “Remember in you[r] search for history, do read memoirs, diaries and other accounts. Old newspapers articles are always interesting. You can always corroborate the memoirs etc. . . . for accuracy against accounted for events.” For this person, history can only be accurate if it chronicles the past in the words of those who experienced it. Across this spectrum, contributors share a belief that known facts form the foundation of historical narrative. A willingness to see professional scholarship as a source of factual information separates User 172 from User 18.104.22.168, but not even User 172 acknowledges that historians interpret past events. Intriguingly, although OACW contributors accept that slavery was a cause of the Civil War and that racism was a fundamental aspect of antebellum Southern society, Martha Saxton demonstrates, later in this volume, that Wikipedia editors consistently obscure American women’s history through “suppression, exclusion, and marginalization.” As she argues, American exceptionalism—the desire for a unitary, triumphalist historical narrative—frames the worldview that many contributors bring to Wikipedia.
Although impossible to specify for any one entry, the demographics of Wikipedia contributors must also play a role in shaping their perspectives on the past. According to its own research, Wikipedia contributors are 26 years old on average. Roughly half hold a bachelor’s or more advanced degree. Surprisingly, 34 percent have completed high school only, 11 percent not even that. If the profile of OACW contributors resembles this overall picture, most have studied history—in high school or college—but few will have studied it in depth. Perhaps this explains the stunning omission of Edward Ayers’s prizewinning In the Presence of Mine Enemies and its companion website, The Valley of the Shadow, from the OACW.
If, according to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, “millions of Americans regularly document, preserve, research, narrate, discuss, and study the past,” it should not be surprising that they are drawn to Wikipedia. More than just an encyclopedia, Wikipedia serves as a people’s museum of knowledge, a living repository of all that matters, where the exhibits are written by ordinary folk, with nary an academic historian in sight. On the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina (the event that began the American Civil War), more than 28,000 people visited the fort’s Wikipedia entry. In 2011, when presidential aspirant Sarah Palin provided her own take on Paul Revere’s famous ride, people turned to the relevant Wikipedia page in droves—peaking at 140,000 visitors in a single day.
As the digital revolution spreads popular historical narratives, academic and public historians have an unprecedented opportunity to make our expertise available and relevant to an audience that, whatever its assumptions, possesses a deep, abiding investment in the importance of the past. This is not a plea for all PhD scholars to rush out and edit Wikipedia pages—far from it—but it is a call to greater engagement with those digital spaces that “document, preserve, research, narrate, discuss, and study the past.” That engagement can take many forms but must begin with an acknowledgment that popular audiences understand and have always understood history without the scholarly norms familiar to professional historians. Digital technology may transform the production and performance of historical narratives, but it will not necessarily change the relationship between the public and the academy. That said, open discussions of NPOV, targeted “wikiblitzes” (such as the one described in this volume by Shawn Graham) and sustained efforts to better integrate academic insight into popular narratives (see again Saxton’s discussion of Women and Wikipedia) can all be part of a larger strategy to reconcile history and memory. Indeed, this is essential, because the momentum of the digital age can only further blur the line between scholarly and popular narratives of the past, a line first drawn in the late 19th century with the professionalization of history. Before that moment, published histories were but one form of memory. In the 21st century, the discipline of history seems likely to come full circle as all history and memory become digital. This does not mean that monuments, museums, historical reenactments, and print scholarship will disappear. But the normative form of access to the past will be electronic, and the line between history and memory will be difficult to discern.
1. Dan Cohen, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web: Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books (Draft).” Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog, 26 July 2011, http://www.dancohen.org/2011/07/26/the-ivory-tower-and-the-open-web-introduction-burritos-browsers-and-books-draft/; Robert Townsend, “How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?,” Perspectives on History, November 2010, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1011/1011pro2.cfm.
2. In addition to this volume, see, for example, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: NYU Press, 2011), which first emerged online at http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/.
3. Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, http://docsouth.unc.edu/;Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas Libraries, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/; The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913, University of Sheffield, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/; Joanne van der Woude, “Puritan Scrabble: Games of Grief in Early New England,” Common-Place 11, no. 4 (2011), http://www.common-place.org/vol-11/no-04/van-der-woude/; African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, http://www.diaspora.uiuc.edu/newsletter.html.
4. American Historical Association, http://www.historians.org; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: Tthe “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
7. See Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (2006): 117–46; “Key Policies and Guidelines” and “What Wikipedia Is Not,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Key_policies_and_guidelines and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not.
9. “Neutral Point of View,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view. By “moral economy,” I mean a set of normative beliefs and expectations collectively held.
10. For more on automated editing, see R. Stuart Geiger, “The Lives of Bots,” in Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, ed. Geert Lovink and Nathaniel Tkacz, Institute of Network Cultures Reader 7 (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 78–93.
11. This particular topic lies close to my own expertise—I teach a graduate course on the Civil War and Reconstruction—and is also the subject of many volumes. See, for example, Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001); David W. Blight, ed., Beyond the Battlefield (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
12. OACW, 16:39, 12 May 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=3550913. With so many citations to the same Wikipedia page, I developed this shortened form for use in the notes. Unless otherwise noted, access to all Wikipedia URLs was verified in March 2012.
13. OACW, 23:20, 11 August 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=444350362. This is a permanent link to the page current when this chapter was completed.
14. OACW, 9:12, 20 December 2003, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=2005512.
15. OACW, 11:39, 21 December 2003, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=2014509.
16. Wikipedia user Rangerdude, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Rangerdude&action=history.
17. Talk: OACW, 07:07, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=prev&oldid=9198574. Talk: OACW citations are references to the OACW discussion page, not the Wikipedia entry itself.
18. Talk: OACW, 12:49, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=9201516.
19. OACW, 6:48, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=9197400.
20. Wikipedia user H20, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:H2O&action=history.
21. OACW, 7:43, 16 August 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=5234557; Talk: OACW, 9:17, 16 August 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=next&oldid=5235613.
22. Talk: OACW, 2:51, 23 December 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&diff=prev&oldid=259648581.
23. OACW, 12:49, 8 January 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=9201556.
24. Talk: OACW, 08:34, 28 June 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Talk:Origins_of_the_American_Civil_War&oldid=370560458.
26. Ruediger Glott, Philipp Schmidt, and Rishab Ghosh, Wikipedia Survey—Overview of Results, Collaborative Creativity Group, UNU-MERIT, United Nations University, March 2010, http://www.wikipediastudy.org. The data also show that the vast majority of Wikipedia contributors are men; fewer than 13 percent are women.
27. Edward L. Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859–1863 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003); The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Libraries, 1997–2003, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/.
29. “Wikipedia article traffic statistics,” Wikipedia, http://stats.grok.se/en/201104/FortSumter; Chris Beneke, “Revere, Revisited,” The Historical Society; A Blog Devoted to History for the Academy and Beyond, June 13, 2011, http://histsociety.blogspot.com/2011/06/revere-revisited.html.
The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in a First-Year Undergraduate Class
In this essay, I describe an experiment conducted in the 2010 academic year at Carleton University, in my first-year seminar class on digital history. This experiment was designed to explore how knowledge is created and represented on Wikipedia, by working to improve a single article. The overall objective of the class was to give students an understanding of how historians can create “signal” in the “noise” of the Internet and how historians create knowledge using digital media tools. Given that doing “research” online often involves selecting a resource suggested by Google (generally one within the first three to five results), this class had larger media literacy goals as well. The students were drawn from all areas of the university, with the only stipulation being that they had to be in their first year.
The positive feedback loops inherent in the World Wide Web’s structure greatly influence the way history is consumed, disseminated, and created online. Google’s algorithms will retrieve an article from Wikipedia, typically displaying it as one of the first links on the results page. Someone somewhere will decide that the information is “wrong,” and he (it is typically a he) will “fix” the information, clicking on the “edit” button to make the change. To Google’s algorithms, this is one of many signals that the web page featuring this article is more valuable, more relevant, and thus worth a higher ranking. In this way, Wikipedia and Google feed one another, and the loop is strengthened.
We as historians need to teach our students to understand how all this works and how it creates historical knowledge. Digital media make all history public history (whether we like it or not), and we need to get our research into that positive feedback loop. While Google is a closed service, its workings only dimly perceived through its effects, we can at least engage with the other part of that positive feedback loop, Wikipedia.
Using Wikipedia in teaching is not a new idea; Roy Rosenzweig made that argument in 2006. Wikipedia itself now has a page for “School and University Projects” that lists over 50 formal collaborations with Wikipedia. This experiment was my first foray into using Wikipedia editing as a formative assessment exercise. While it was by and large a successful experiment, it did have one unexpected element: push back and resistance from one significant element in the class, my declared history majors.
FYSM1405a, Digital History
We took some time to get to Wikipedia in this course. The first section of the course looked at the sheer mass of historical materials available on the Internet, asking: How do we find our way through all of this? How do we identify what is important? The structured readings during this module were reflections by the seminal author Roy Rosenzweig (founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University).
We also looked at how the “doing” of history was itself an “unnatural act,” in Sam Wineburg’s felicitous phrase. This led to a second module where the students explored the idea that we never observe the past directly; we must build models to fit what we “know” into a system of explanation. In digital work, these models are explicitly written in computer code. Understanding how the code forces a particular worldview on the user is a key portion of becoming a “digital historian.” Computer games are another kind of model of the world; historical computer games are some of the best-selling games on the market today. A consideration of gaming and “playing” with history led to a module focused on crowdsourcing history and to the Wikiblitz assignment. Wikipedia can be thought of as a kind of game where competing visions of common knowledge vie for dominance. I introduced the related idea that since Wikipedia involved complex interactions between hundreds of thousands of autonomous individuals who interacted according to a small set of rules, it could be considered a kind of complex system. In this way, a coherent Wikipedia entry is an emergent property of decentralized, undirected cooperation and competition. Before the Wikiblitz, we spent two sessions looking at crowdsourcing and ways that small changes/additions can add up to substantial revisions. We discussed Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” (NPOV) provisions by looking at political blogs and contrasting them with other resources. We looked at the history of wikis more generally and that of Wikipedia itself specifically.
The assignment prompt follows:
At your computer, examine the article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Valley (the Wikipedia entry for Ottawa Valley). Identify areas that are logically weak or poorly written, or areas (especially related to its history) that are otherwise incomplete. Using a pseudonym, log into Wikipedia and make a substantial improvement to the article. Email me with your pseudonym and a brief description of the changes you made. All changes are to be made within class time.
During a subsequent class, you will review how the article evolved during your blitzing of it, and the subsequent changes made by the wider Wikipedian community. You will be asked to reflect on how much of your contribution survived the interval. Why did those parts survive? Why did some parts get reverted or deleted? How does the Wikipedian community deal with citations and points of view? Your reflection will be written before the class, taking the form of a short paragraph, and will form the starting point for the class discussion.
Part 1 of this assignment, the Wikiblitz itself, was conducted on November 26, 2010. Part 2, the reflection and discussion, took place on December 1, 2010. On December 1, the students were shown a time-lapsed video illustrating how the Wikipedia page changed over the course of the blitz and the subsequent week. They shared their observations with their classmates to either side, before sharing with the class as a whole. Their written reflections were taken in for grading per the rubric in table 1 (noting that the majority of the points concerned their actual engagement with the Wikipedia page).
My desired outcome was that the students should see how knowledge creation on Wikipedia is as much about style as it is about substance. I wanted them to see that writing for Wikipedia constitutes a kind of peer review. Finally, I hoped that they would perceive how the NPOV provisions could lead to particular kinds of rhetoric and judgments regarding knowledge credibility and suitability (and could thus situate this kind of writing firmly within the continuum of historiographic writing). In preparing for this exercise, I did not engage in any explicit debate over whether wiki writing was an appropriate activity for a historian. Given the trajectory of the class content and conversation, I assumed that the rationale encapsulated in the opening to this essay was by this point self-evident. In hindsight, making that assumption was perhaps an error.
|Blitz||Editing||Major contribution made||Minor contribution with several corrections made throughout the text||Minor edits only|
|Wiki Style||Observed Wikipedia’s house style||English is generally correct, but NPOV is not observed||English is problematic|
|Sources||Cited appropriately||Citations problematic||No citations|
|Reflection||Knowledge creation||Reflection shows deep thought on how knowledge is negotiated in a wiki||Reflection shows some awareness of how knowledge is created||Reflection shows little awareness beyond the student’s own point of view|
Resistance and Surprise
I had made it clear to my students that I felt that Wikipedia was a valuable resource, when students understood how it worked and used it appropriately. Curiously, however, there was push back from an unexpected quarter: my actual history students. As a first-year seminar at my institution, the majority of the students come from other majors. My history students themselves were actually in the minority. In conversation, it became apparent that these students already had quite clear ideas about authority, authorship, and intellectual property, ideas that fit in quite well with established ways of writing history. They had internalized the main strength of a wiki, that it may be edited by anyone, as a challenge to “their” work and thus something to be avoided: “I did the work. I don’t want somebody screwing it up.” Others have noted this phenomenon.
Clay Shirky wrote in 2003,
And this [the speed with which changes can be reverted], mirabile dictu, is why wikis can have so little protective armor and yet be so resistant to damage. It takes longer to set fire to the building than put it out, it takes longer to graffiti the wall than clean it, it takes longer to damage the page than restore it. If nearly two hours of work spent trying to subtly undermine a site can be erased in minutes, that’s a lousy place to hang out, if your goal is to get people’s goat.
The idea that one has to monitor a site also produced push back in my core group of history students. It seems to me that trained by years of launch and forget—according to which a paper or assignment is written, graded, and then never revisited—has made it difficult for students to entertain the idea that scholarship is conversation, that what you write can have an impact and that you should respond to that impact.
We discussed these issues in class, and I felt that I was making progress. However, when the day arrived to do the Wikipedia assignment in class, a large proportion of that minority of students were “sick.”
The Day of the Wikiblitz
While the students were making their edits to the page, I observed the edits page and commented on what I was seeing via instant messaging to the class as a whole. The class period was 1 hour and 15 minutes. Many of my comments concerned the intricacies of editing and formatting the page and guiding the secondary research going on in the background (or at least trying to guide it). Below are certain key observations:
Great to see some changes being made already. But a question for you—many of the recent changes are focusing on the City of Ottawa itself: is that appropriate for an article on “the Ottawa Valley”? Shouldn’t the focus be elsewhere? Perhaps this is a change that needs [to] be made . . . ? (n.b. You can of course make edits to somebody else’s edits, from this class!)
[some time later:] Folks, this is an article about the Ottawa Valley, not the city of Ottawa!
[some time later again:] Seems to be a lot of energy focused on the tourism aspect . . . has anybody corrected any obvious errors in the text yet? What about the fact that a valley has two sides . . . ? where’s the info on the Quebec side?
Perhaps one of the hardest lessons for the students to absorb was that Wikipedia articles are “spare” in the sense that they contain no fat. If an article loses its focus, other users will either delete that fat or remove it to its own wiki page. In the subsequent discussion of the exercise, the students were evenly split on whether or not I should have intervened during the exercise to remind them about scope. Was a paragraph on the Ottawa Valley’s largest city warranted? By and large, the class ultimately decided that it was not, since the city is now culturally (at least in the students’ point of view) and legally distinct from the other jurisdictions in the region. We explored the pattern of links that did or did not connect these two articles, noting that a person who landed on the “Ottawa (City of)” page or even the “Ottawa (disambiguation)” page would not be directed to the “Ottawa Valley” page, nor would a visitor to the “Ottawa Valley” page be directed to the “Ottawa (City of)” page. As in life, so in art: the two concepts were distinct, and their treatment reflected and reinforced that distinction. It is important to remember and to make clear to students that what matters in Wikipedia is not just the content of a given page but also the network structure of links that connect pages together. (Perhaps a few rounds of Six Degrees of Wikipedia could be useful to make that point.)
The energy that the students expended on the tourism industry was interesting. In the discussion, it transpired that this was because it was the “easiest” subject. Aside from the Wikipedia link, a basic Google search for “Ottawa Valley” returns nearly nine million results, the first few pages of which are tourism related. We were on campus and had full access to library resources while we did this blitz, and we had already had numerous discussions about best practices in research. That it became apparent quite quickly and was publicly demonstrable that the students were not even approaching basic expectations for research was an important outcome.
One event was a great surprise to the entire class, me included. I observed,
[A student] has just made some edits to the site . . . but a wikipedia automated vandalism ’bot has reverted them!
We did not realize that these bots even existed. Wikipedia has a page explaining how wiki bots work. Much of the tedious work of editing Wikipedia pages (correcting link formatting for instance) can be automated within the wiki framework. Currently, there are well over 1,000 distinct tasks that are approved for bots. Some of the earliest bots were created to upload massive amounts of material into Wikipedia quickly (apparently, this is how major portions of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica on the Project Gutenberg site were uploaded into Wikipedia).
As we discussed this incident, we surmised that our small class’s activities, a concentrated stream of edits, all from more or less the same place at the same time, must have triggered the bot to revert our changes. The student whose edit finally triggered the bot was greatly upset by this. How could a bot decide that her work was somehow malicious? It was a prime teachable moment on the way humans and computers interact.
My final comment during the Wikiblast follows:
Hi everyone—in the space of a class, we’ve made 30 substantial edits to the page (and many minor ones); increasing its size from 13.8 kb to 23.4 kb—that’s the equivalent of about four pages of text. Now—until Wednesday [the following week’s class], keep an eye on the page. Let’s see how long this version lasts; don’t make any more edits.
A year after this class ended in 2010, there have been about 40 edits to the page. Clearly, this page is not one that attracts a lot of attention from the contributors to Wikipedia. But our burst of activity did attract others to the site, and some changes and reversions were made by other users. Wikipedia users and editors might often operate under pseudonyms, but activity draws attention. Many of the students were quite surprised by this, since it undermined the idea of the anonymous troll making malicious changes undetected.
The following week, I put together a time-lapsed video of the edits to the page from its one-line birth in 2005 to the end of November 2010, following the example of Jon Udell’s “Heavy Metal Umlaut” video. Visualizing the evolution of a Wikipedia page is very instructive. The interests and early structure that emerged in the article’s first few months seem to set the skeleton for all subsequent revisions. Once a structure emerges, it seems that it takes a lot of energy to overrule it or otherwise make substantial changes. For instance, the political history of the Ottawa Valley was quickly expunged, but a section on First Nations land claims in the area resisted all efforts to remove it (by other Wikipedia authors that were not part of my class).
The exercise was mostly successful. In the students’ written feedback, I was particularly heartened to read the following:
The fact that many of the changes made by the class were reverted [by other Wikipedians] means that even an “any one can edit” site like Wikipedia is in fact conservative and resistant to change. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because people take ownership of particular pages . . . I also thought it was quite amazing how the anti-vandalism bot reversed some of our changes . . . this feature[,] designed to preserve the presentation of fact[,] has the effect of preserving misinformation as well . . .
The fact that the people writing and editing Wikipedia pages could in fact be just like us—first years with little in-depth knowledge—is actually rather frightening.
I tabulated the content of my students’ feedback in table 2.
|Gist of Comment||Number of Mentions by Students|
|Ease of use||1|
|The way Wikipedia “self heals”||3|
|Lack of professionalism||3|
|Content is contested by other Wikipedians||5|
|Fact that it is “in public” compels professionalism||1|
|Authority lacking—these people could be just like us!||2|
|Futility of trying to improve articles||2|
|Where do Wikipedians get their sources?||1|
That students need to understand how knowledge can be crowdsourced, produced, and disseminated on the web is, I think, not a radical conclusion. What this small exercise demonstrates for writing history in the digital age is one small way of confronting the more important issue: that our history students can be reluctant to engage with this mode, this way of writing. There will be push back, and we need to explore it, understand where it comes from, and think carefully about how to address it. If we want to raise the quality of public discourse about history, we have to begin with our students and show them how what they do can have immediate impact, given the feedback loop that exists between Google and Wikipedia. My experiment failed in some ways, in that I did not achieve the buy-in of all of my “official” history students; but it succeeded in other ways, in that I reached my other students who did not normally (as a part of their regular course of study) have to confront the ways in which knowledge is socially constructed. For one brief moment, they were digital humanists.
Acknowledgments: The Wikiblitz was part of the course work for FYSM1405a (Digital History), and a brief reflection on this assignment was first posted on Graham’s blog Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research (http://electricarchaeologist.wordpress.com).
1. This is a generalized pattern; see, for instance, Bernard Jansen and Amanda Spink, “How Are We Searching the World Wide Web? A Comparison of Nine Search Engine Transaction Logs,” Information Processing and Management 42, no. 1 (2006): 248–63. Google currently has around two-thirds of the U.S. search market, according to comScore, a digital marketing research firm (comScore, “comScore Releases May 2011 U.S. Search Engine Rankings,” company press release, June 10, 2011, http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Press_Releases/2011/6/). This pattern of shallow searching is also evident for more traditional sources; see Barbara Rockenbach, comment on Shawn Graham, “The Wikiblitz,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., Fall 2011 version.
2. Ruediger Glott and Rishab Ghosh, Analysis of Wikipedia Survey Data: Topic: Age and Gender Differences, Collaborative Creativity Group, Wikimedia Foundation, United Nations University MERIT, Maastricht University, March 2010, 6, http://www.wikipediasurvey.org/docs/Wikipedia_Age_Gender_30March2010-FINAL-3.pdf.
3. Shawn Graham, “Signal versus Noise: Why Academic Blogging Matters; A Structural Argument,” Electric Archaeology, April 2, 2011, http://electricarchaeologist.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/signal-versus-noise-why-academic-blogging-matters-a-structural-argument-saa-2011/; Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (2006): 117–46. Google+ is a recent facet to this feedback loop. It is too early to say what its impact will be, but it seems designed to keep users in thrall to Google’s services. See Stephen Levy, “Inside Google+—How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social,” Wired, June 28, 2011, http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/06/inside-google-plus-social/. For how Google Scholar is affecting knowledge creation, see Jose van Dijck, “Search Engines and the Production of Academic Knowledge,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 13 (2010): 574–92.
4. Neither paywalls nor logins ultimately keep materials hidden. See, for instance, on the Swartz affair, Ben Goldacre, “Academic Publishers Run a Guarded Knowledge Economy,” Guardian, 2 September 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/bad-science-academic-publishing; see also [formerly http://youropenbook.org], on the porosity of Facebook. (This site was shut down for legal reasons in July 2012, “Openbook,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openbook_%28website%29.)
6. “School and University Projects,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:School_and_university_projects.
10. A useful source for this was Robert E. Cummings and Matt Barton, eds., Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), http://www.digitalculture.org/books/wiki-writing. See also, Jon Udell, “Heavy Metal Umlaut,” January 21, 2005, http://jonudell.net/udell/gems/umlaut/umlaut.html.
16. Cf. Stephanie Vie and Jennifer de Winter, “Disrupting Intellectual Property: Collaboration and Resistance in Wikis,” in Cummings and Barton, Wiki Writing, 109–10, on the challenge wikis present to established patterns.
17. Brian Lamb, “Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not,” Educause Review, 39, no. 5 (2004): 37–48, http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume39/WideOpenSpacesWikisReadyorNot/157925; Cathlena Martin and Lisa Dusenberry, “Wiki Lore and Politics in the Classroom,” in Cummings and Barton, Wiki Writing, 213–14. Blau and Caspi noted a similar mood in collaborative writing spaces like Google Docs, where students reported that their own edits improved the draft but that edits by others made it worse: see Ina Blau and Avner Caspi, “Sharing and Collaborating with Google Docs: The Influence of Psychological Ownership, Responsibility, and Student’s Attitudes on Outcome Quality,” in Proceedings of the E-Learn 2009 World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, & Higher Education, Vancouver, Canada (Chesapeake, VA: AACE, 2009), 3329–35, [formerly http://www.openac.il/research_center/download/Sharing_collaborating_Google_Docs.pdf].
18. Clay Shirkey, “Wikis, Graffiti, and Process,” Corante, August 26, 2003, http://many.corante.com/20030801.shtml.
20. For the page history, see “Ottawa Valley: Revision History,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ottawa_Valley&action=history.
21. While true at the time of the exercise, this was no longer the case in 2011, see “Ottawa,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa.
22. A. Capocci et al., “Preferential Attachment in the Growth of Social Networks: The Internet Encyclopedia Wikipedia,” Physical Review E 74.3 036116, accessed January 13, 2012, www.inf.ufrgs.br/~buriol/papers/Physical_Review_E_06.pdf. The network structure to the patterning of author collaboration on Wikipedia should also be scrutinized. See Ulrik Brandes et al., “Network Analysis of Collaboration Structure in Wikipedia,” in Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on World Wide Web, Madrid, Spain, ed. Juan Quemada et al. (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2009), 731–40.
23. Wikipedia can also serve as a platform for casual games of “racing” to find the shortest paths between random articles. See Alex Clemesha, The Wikigame, http://thewikigame.com/.
24. It is an outcome that Gabriel Bodard noted when using Wikipedia in classics courses (“Wikipedia as Teaching Tool,” March 25, 2007, http://www.stoa.org/archives/600).
25. “Bots,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Bots.
26. “History of Wikipedia,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:History_of_Wikipedia_bots.
Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience
In 2007, I began assigning my women’s history students the task of researching a new Wikipedia article or making a significant editorial intervention in an existing essay on women. My colleague, Scott Payne, director of academic technology, had suggested I survey Wikipedia’s women’s history content, and I was, as he anticipated, very distressed by its absence and by its superficiality and inaccuracies when present. A New York Times article at the beginning of 2011 noting that only 13 percent of contributors to Wikipedia were women offered a partial explanation. Nonetheless, to explain the slowdown in entries about the United States, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, said in a recent interview, “There aren’t that many obvious topics left to write about.” A little checking for women’s topics still reveals a great shortage of material on women. Historical material is confined to some profiles of the famous, and there is very little of substance on women in the more comprehensive articles. Therefore, my purpose initially was twofold: to increase the representation of women in this global source of information and to use a relatively new tool to teach students some not-so-new methods for evaluating and writing responsible history.
Many educators have expressed strong misgivings about Wikipedia’s role in education, due to its fast-changing content, the uneven level of research and writing, and its reliance, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, on the work of amateurs. (Robert Wolff’s deeper criticism is significant but could be said to apply to all encyclopedia-like projects: “[P]rofessional norms of interpretation, discourse, and debate cannot be readily applied and may be unwelcome.”) Nevertheless, according to the “School and University Projects” page in Wikipedia, there are almost 200 documented college and university courses involving the encyclopedia, many of them ongoing. Roy Rosenzweig’s influential 2006 article expressing careful enthusiasm for Wikipedia’s accomplishments and potential and calling for academics to become involved helped increase faculty recognition that Wikipedia merits classroom time. The present essay, written with contributions by Scott Payne and two students, Melissa Greenberg and Leah Cerf, will sketch in some of my and my colleagues’ experiences and discoveries in trying to add women’s content to Wikipedia.
Working with Scott Payne, I asked students first to analyze an entry, evaluating its content and sources for accuracy and significance. Their major assignment was to intervene in an existing article that they thought needed content on women or to draft one of their own on a new topic. They used the library to find articles and books to prepare them to compare accounts and sources. Unusually for a course requiring research, they did not use primary sources, as Wikipedia prohibits them as “unverifiable.” But they did learn the technical skills and politesse required to intervene in Wikipedia.
Payne introduced students to the hierarchy of Wikipedia articles and its implications for how and what kinds of changes may be made. For example, articles that achieve the status of “featured” or that are successfully nominated as “good articles” are starred, and Wikipedia editors judge them to be well written, broad, stable, neutral in point of view, informative, and “verifiable.” Former contributors and other interested people (as well as “bots” or automatic devices alerting concerned people to changes) keep track of these articles—including those titled “American Revolution,” “Vietnam War,” and “California Gold Rush,” as well as numerous others—protecting their content. Payne fine-tuned the best approach to editing articles on a case-by-case basis, inviting students to look at a topic’s revision history and talk page to judge the activity, the types of changes being made (e.g., minor wording or more substantial edits where an ideological tug-of-war can sometimes be apparent), and who the main contributors are. The talk page gives a sense of how excited the back-and-forth has been. Payne’s judgment also depended on the nature of the planned changes. If a student proposed a major rewrite, it was usually a good idea to run the proposal by the other contributors. Adding a section and/or and making some minor edits was normally less controversial. Payne sometimes recommended that students first explain their revision plans on the talk page; for quasi-dormant pages, he suggested that they revise immediately. These preparations were helpful, and some editors responded welcomingly, but students also encountered such criticisms as “irrelevance” or “inappropriate tone.” An author may upload, of course, whatever she or he wishes, but the editors can and do remove material as they see fit.
While practicing the art of Wikipedia diplomacy, students also learned, as Shawn Graham describes in this volume, “how knowledge can be crowdsourced, produced, and disseminated on the web.” They also got a lesson in how little women’s history has penetrated mainstream culture. A review of our activities and the lives and half-lives of the essays that students have posted suggests that this project teaches useful lessons about the protocol and mechanics of writing crowdsourced history in a digital format. But it also suggests that to the extent that popular judgment determines what history gets produced in this format, the significance of women’s role in it and of gender as a discourse or a method of analysis are likely to be devalued.
Writing for Wikipedia is not the customary closed dialogue between student and instructor; it is, as Shawn Graham says, a conversation, sometimes with many participants, and it may make unusual demands on students’ social and intellectual abilities. When students propose changes to an active article’s talk page, they can receive challenging feedback in a matter of minutes. During a workshop, one student posted her proposed revisions to the talk page for the article “Vietnam War.” The student’s proposal was slightly ambiguous, prompting several fast responses, ranging from a call for clarification to sarcastic objections. (Ideologically charged conversations routinely take place in that space, despite instructions to discussants to “be welcoming” and “engage in no personal attacks.”) Within a few minutes, a “reviewer” for the article responded with several substantive questions about the student’s proposed modifications. A reviewer is an experienced and reliable contributor qualified to evaluate possible changes to essays with “semi-protection” status (controversial articles can be “protected” to discourage vandalism and “edit wars”). The student huddled with a number of classmates, Scott Payne, and me to think through her response. What would have been an exchange between student and teacher became a less predictable conversation among some students of U.S. women’s history and the Wikipedia community that had coalesced around its interest in the Vietnam War. Although several respondents were active, the reviewer seems to have had (at least as of this writing) the final word. Students had the experience of defending the inclusion of material on women to critics with little interest or knowledge in the subject, some of whom were hostile toward it.
Thus, writing for Wikipedia lets fledgling historians directly engage in the conflicts and debates over who gets to tell which stories about our past. Writing in the wake of the culture wars of the 1990s, Eric Foner, in a 2002 collection of essays entitled Who Owns History?, called for historians not to shy away from engaging in debate over history with the “larger public.” Learning Wikipedia’s evolving rules equips students to join the fight digitally. The struggle, unlike debates in print, occurs very publicly, is likely to be multivocal, and is often very fast-paced. It is not for the faint of heart.
Contributing to Wikipedia is a continuing, sometimes confusing and heated conversation that also blurs the boundary between author and reader. In Wikipedia, as cultural critic Dubravka Ugresic writes, “the balance of power formerly dominated by Author and Work, has been flipped in favor of the Recipient. . . . transforming perception, comprehension, and taste.” Students may not be aware of all these transformations, but they certainly feel the loss of ownership of their work when they click Wikipedia’s “Submit” button. Many have invested considerable work and time into formulating well-researched, cogent content, only to see it challenged, condensed, paraphrased, moved to a different location, or deleted altogether. Jimmy Wales, aware of the problem of potentially unreliable material, said in a recent interview, “Now there is an increasing focus on quality and referencing.” But unreliability and what seem to be arbitrary revisions of well-researched material remain particularly problematic when alterations appear to be motivated by sexism (in one instance, a kind of reverse sexism) and/or American exceptionalist bias. This notion will be explored in greater depth below.
Elsewhere in this volume, Robert Wolff found that in his study of discussions of the causes of the Civil War, the “Wikipedia community does effectively gauge basic historical knowledge and can exclude claims that lack a factual basis.” We learned, however, that crowdsourced judgments on women’s history were more problematic. Some editors regard the insistence that women’s historical experience is sometimes distinct from men’s as a priori “inappropriate” and/or “irrelevant.” Others find that discussing discrimination that has accompanied many of women’s efforts to be included in mainstream activities does not pass muster because it is anachronistic or not neutral in point of view.
Students encountered acceptance, mild resistance, and vigorous opposition to women’s content in Wikipedia. I recommended that students consider integrating women’s experience into broad subjects, on the theory that this is both more challenging intellectually and, ultimately, more to the point of the overall project of bringing women into our acknowledged history. Adding a section that can be easily overlooked and that seems, by its separateness, to be incidental to central events of our past helps to confirm a view of women’s participation in history as peripheral, precisely the view that our interventions are trying to challenge. Some students introduced women into the Wikipedia articles titled “American Revolution,” “Vietnam War,” “Reconstruction Era,” “Prohibition,” “Screen Actors Guild,” and “Social Security Act,” while others preferred the more manageable canvas of biographical profile. Students added entries on women’s participation and experience to the articles titled “California Gold Rush,” “Indentured Servant,” “Incarceration of Women,” “Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” and “Women’s Suffrage”.
Melissa Greenberg contributed to “Reconstruction Era” and found that her work was well received. In her preliminary critique of the article, she observed that it was heavy on military and political history and light on “social history [altogether], including women’s history.” She was particularly struck by the absence of information on legalizing slave unions, which was “particularly important . . . [for] the ability of freed people to have control over their families.” Her contributions stand, although the preponderance of the article still concerns the military and formal politics, despite the widespread findings of African American women’s remarkably active participation in Reconstruction politics.
Leah Cerf substantially revised “Eugenics in the United States,” finding that the previous editor had never used the word woman in the text. Cerf therefore anticipated that “[the editor] viewed women’s contributions to the U.S. eugenics movement as ‘inconsequential’ and that her contributions, too, would be seen as ‘inconsequential to the overall history.’” Nevertheless, she uploaded material on “how Native American and Black women were often sterilized without their consent,” as well as other examples of “women’s unique roles as victims of the eugenics movement.” She also wrote about such women as “Margaret Sanger and members of several other women’s associations,” who “promoted the eugenic agenda and advocated for eugenic legislation.” Leah writes,
I was astonished! The editor . . . fully support[ed] my references to women as . . . victims but thought it was “anti-woman” and “biased” to write about their role as promoters of this dark pseudoscience. . . . To ignore women’s historical role as champions of this now discredited movement not only fails to show the complete historical record, but it also ignores the political clout women had even before they were able to vote. To ignore that women were key players in this movement . . . is to say that men alone defined the political and social playing field. For me the article’s [previous] editor was the one being “anti-woman.”
Repressing women’s role in our darker chapters falsely removes them from participation, for better or worse, in many of our national debates, programs, and policies, and it just as falsely revives the fading myth that women are “better” than men.
As of this writing, much of the content on women that was created by my students has been removed and/or moved elsewhere. A 2007 student edited the article “Indentured Servant” to include the particular experience of women and the punitive lengthening of their terms if they became pregnant before their service ended. This material has disappeared. The article “California Gold Rush” was deemed “finished” by editors at the time that a student proposed an intervention in 2007. Editors permitted the student to upload quite a small amount of the material she had prepared, and a fraction of that material has persisted. In the article “American Revolutionary War,” students entered material on the contributions of various groups of women to the war effort. Now there is a brief subcategory entitled “Sex, Race, Class,” although sex, gender, and women are not mentioned. (The word family is used.) There is room for confusion here, because there is also an article titled “American Revolution,” with a brief but informative section on women’s roles. But the material that my students uploaded appears in a new essay entitled “Women in the American Revolution.” It is unclear who thought to make this transfer, as the WikiProject Women’s History, presumably a group that would be overseeing these kinds of articles, articulates its central goal as “incorporat[ing] the perspective of women’s history in overview articles of historical periods . . . which may currently lack such coverage.” Meanwhile, the WikiProject editors as a whole, who describe themselves as [wanting] “to work together as a team to improve Wikipedia,” rated “Women in the American Revolution” as having “low importance” for the WikiProject United States but “high importance” for the WikiProject Women’s History. Herein lies the paradox that underlies and undermines my classes’ work. As a separate and unequal field, women’s history has the highest significance for itself, but it apparently has little when the goal is understanding the United States.
At the moment, material that is segregated under such headings as “Women’s Roles” or “Women’s Experience” often has a better chance of surviving in featured Wikipedia articles than more integrated material. Women’s content is easily criticized on grounds of organization, length, relevance, and lack of neutrality, even if the substance itself seems to be the problem. Introducing the experience of disadvantaged groups into narratives that are closely guarded by editors committed to American exceptionalism is difficult, and the notion of “separate but equal” offers an easy solution but fails to advance the cause of locating women’s history—and all minority history—in our national development in all its complexity. Perhaps WikiProject Women’s History will alter these tendencies of suppression, exclusion, and marginalization. Certainly, having women serve as more than 13 percent (or 18 percent, for that matter) of the contributors should make some difference. But for now, as Melissa Greenberg concludes, “I find it especially ironic given the . . . collectivism of Wikipedia . . . that contributors who wish to include women’s history find it so difficult. One would think that Wikipedia should provide a more open platform for incorporating historical narratives that are traditionally excluded.”
Acknowledgments: The author credits three individuals who contributed to this essay: J. Scott Payne, director of Academic Technology Services at Amherst College; Leah Cerf, history major, class of 2013, Amherst College; Melissa Greenberg, history major, class of 2012, Amherst College.
1. Noam Cohen, “Define Gender Gap: Look up Wikipedia’s Contributor List,” New York Times, January 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/business/media/31link.html; see also Judd Antin, Raymond Yee, Coye Cheshire, “Gender Differences in Wikipedia Editing” (paper presented at WikiSym 11, Mountain View, CA, October 3–5, 2011), which revises the 13 percent to a possible 18 percent and argues that while women edit infrequently, they make more significant edits.
2. “Jimmy Wales Interview: Wikipedia is Focusing on Accuracy,” Telegraph, August 15, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/wikipedia/6589487/Jimmy-Wales-interview-Wikipedia-is-focusing-on-accuracy.html.
4. “School and University Projects,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schools_and_universities_project.
6. See John Broughton, Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media / Pogue), 220–22, freely available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Wikipedia:_The_Missing_Manual.
9. “Vietnam War,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War.
15. All articles listed are in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org.
16. “Reconstruction Era,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconstruction_Era_of_the_United_States.
18. “Eugenics in the United States,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States.
20. “American Revolutionary War,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War.
21. “American Revolution,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolution; “Women in the American Revolution,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_American_Revolution.
22. “WikiProject Women’s History,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women%27s_History.
23. “WikiProject,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiproject; “Wiki Project United States,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia: Wiki Project_United_States.