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Publishing on the Web

Session 3 Wrap Up: Blogging About the Past

— Contributors: Madeline Blythe, Shannon Furr, Jason McDaniel, and Jeanne Hoogbergen

This week, participants in App State’s Digital History course (HIS 5595) discussed online publishing, blogging, and academic writing in general as historians think about the digital possibilities.

Several themes emerged. One centered on the collaborative potential of writing about the past online. Sheila Brennan alludes to this as she acknowledges those whose helped her along the way as she wrote Stamping American History. To see that someone has walked the path before you is an empowering process, one that lets you know it can be done (especially for first-generation college students and academic professionals). Another consideration is that online writing can – depending on the format – allow for immediate feedback through comments. This fact raises many considerations, including: How do you have engaging conversation online? How do you decide on which post to comment? What constitutes an effective blog post? How permanent are your ideas when you write online?

Another theme dealt with the purpose behind writing online (as opposed to more traditional publishing). As Brennan and others suggest, one should consider various questions, such as: What has been your journey to (this current point)? What inspired you to write at this particular moment when your journey changes as interests and passions change? An interesting example centered on historian Kevin Kruse, who has earned notoriety on Twitter for responding to “flame throwers” that cherry pick, ignore, or misconstrue the past in order to score political points. When asked about why he engages with these “trolls,” Kruse argues that historians should lend their voices and help audiences see through the machinations of Twitter users who want to mislead the public by citing selective or false history narratives.

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Publishing on the Web

On Blogging: The use, necessity and style thereof

Blogging is a skill and medium that has been gaining vast audiences in the past few years, but it is not something widely taught on a professional level. Everyone is left to find their own way in the world, figuring how to best transcribe their ideas from their brains to their audience. This takes on interesting forms in the modern world, full of social media and short attention spans. 

This has led to blogging, a new form of writing, creating conversations across the internet in a collection of paragraphs collected around a singular idea or topic. They are created in a more informal manner, using first person and addressing the readers, using bullet points and lists to get their ideas across, organizing their writing as they see fit and the theme allows, rather than as conventions demand. This is a great shift from more formal styles of writing, like articles and essays which require a great deal of text and citations. This creates very slow and long feedback loops, which generally appear in the form of another essay or article ripping apart the proceeding arguments. 

Blogging is not meant to be so slow, or as in depth. It works quicker, more in real time, expanding and growing in a multitude of ways. It can spread a great deal of information out into the internet, contained in smaller portions than an essay, and on a much more informal basis. This allows for a greater deal of input and response from readers and writers, communicating their ideas, understandings and opinions as quickly as they can form them and put them to word, with some editing of course.

This can, however, become a double edged sword. As blogs move so quickly, it can be difficult to keep up with and be able to form the best responses. Waiting too long will cause readers to lose interest. Too short will mean it would be read and forgotten. Too long, and the blogpost is not even read in its entirety, leaving the reader bored with a wall of text they skip through to the end, if the even gather the courage to continue reading. The lack of sources can mean that everything written is of questionable validity, held up by the writer’s reputation and the lack of outrage from the readers. 

No matter their strengths and weaknesses, blogs are here to stay and hold a very valuable place in media, spreading the words of the masses on various topics of interest. People need to learn how to take this tool and use it to the best of their abilities, in order to keep up the stream of information as the times change. 

Emily Ball

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Publishing on the Web

Blogging and Various Online Scholarship

Our readings for this week challenge conventions in scholarly writing. The common theme, or question rather, throughout the readings ask if it is possible to consider online writing endeavors as ‘scholarly.’ The Cummings and Jarrett piece takes a fence-sitting approach by attempting to give blogging an appropriate place. I felt as if parameters were being set around the medium which doesn’t seem appropriate for something being freely published to the internet. The argument is made that serious writing projects, like a journal submission, should remain conventional while blogging and other internet mediums, like a wiki, should be left “for the rest of the time.”

Obviously, the main scrutiny of freely published internet works is that the peer-review process is nonexistent. You may occasionally have a panel of ‘experts’ that maintain watch over certain wikis but ultimately the internet seems to be a true test of thinking for yourself. I believe blogging, and other similar free-publishing digital works cannot be examples of true scholarship. There is a risk associated with elevating blogs and other similar mediums to the level of recognized scholarly work.

I believe that trends in academia slowly trickle into the mainstream over slow periods of time. Given the nature of the internet, such trends are likely to occur at faster paces. One of those trends could easily be recognizing blogs as accurate sources of information. Where do we draw the line? Are blogs written by Appalachian State University graduate students to be considered scholarship? Is App not prestigious enough? What about Duke? If the idea of blogs becoming recognized sources of accurate scholarly work becomes popular, then a trend of so-called ‘credible’ blogs would likely follow.

Taking internet sources at face value, and teaching the public that it could potentially be okay to do so, could be detrimental to society. Such things are already somewhat prevalent. Fake news persuades political opinions, affects national health and safety, and runs the risk of placing peer-reviewed scholarship back years. Obviously these are my own highly opinionated statements based on how I interpreted the readings.

With that out of the way, other parts of our readings focused on blogging in general and what makes a good blog. The Quicksprout article suggests that longer blog posts, those over 1500 words, are more enjoyable for readers and tend to draw more traffic. While some data is given (who can refuse data from charts, right?) this is still something I am hesitant about. The article comes with a counterargument, however, that if you can say something in 100 words instead of 2000, then you should do so. I would think this is something relevant to what kind of blog you are writing. If you simply created a free blogger account to share some ideas with the random public, without the hope or need for monetization, then shorter posts to simply spew a few ideas onto a page is useful. If you are creating content for subscribing readers, then longer blog posts are surely going to be more successful. I’m certainly open to thoughts here.

The final point I would like to discuss here is Rule #3 from Fogarty (Quick and Dirty Tips). I discussed the idea of placing parameters over something that should be a free area for thinking and creativity at the beginning of this post. By default, a blog post will likely make a point, be motivated, and provide context (or at least be contextual enough where it could be inferred). Respect is a unique parameter to place on a post.

Obviously here, in an academically sanctioned environment, respect should come first. In an anonymous private blog you made to rant about and verbally destroy your most hated sports team, is respect really part of the equation? I suppose this relates back to the idea of scholarship in blogging. Respect should always be priority in scholarship and if you were attempting to create a scholarly blog then perhaps respect IS a parameter you should place on your work. I will leave this with one lasting thought. During my short 1.2 semesters here, I have read many passive-aggressive scholarly pieces that I would absolutely say fall short of respect and tolerance.

If you were in Dr. Goff’s reading seminar last semester, you may recall my review of To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton. If you were not, the work was essentially about how Wal-Mart has had noticeable political influence among voters. Moreton frequently refers to conservatives as “Wal-Mart voters.” No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, you would expect scholarly work to be a bit more respectful, but that is not always the case. If such loose standards exist within traditional academic writing already, is it not hypocritical to ask the same of a simple blog?

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Publishing on the Web

Blogging and Digital History

Blogging has become a very popular form of sharing work in the digital world especially in the history field. Historians can now make a blog post and immediately get feedback from fellow historians which in turn can help them with their larger writing projects like books or journal articles. Those blog posts are more of a conversation than a full historical paper which makes it easier for historians to converse about a specific topic without having to be with one another or having to talk through the telephone. Not only do blogs make it easier for historians to connect but they also make it easier for the public to engage with historians. If someone has access to the internet, they can see a blog and comment on it. In the Public History field this is beneficial for historians or museums to connect with those people who may never see the museum in question and will most likely never meet said historian.

There are many ways to make a blog post more accessible for the public and easier to understand. One of the first items to consider is picking a topic that is popular. In the history field this may be a topic that relates to current news or events around the world. Next the blogger needs to create a unique title for the blog post. This will help draw a reader’s attention. The blogger also needs to find ways to hook the reader into reading the entire post instead of just scrolling away after reading a few lines. After this the blogger should allow for anyone to comment and open conversations about the topic that way it helps the reader understand the topic or helps the blogger refine their work.

With bogging comes risks. One major risk is the fact that anyone can see it and comment so the blogger may end up with comments from an audience they did not want to interact with. For example, a topic may draw in comments that are political or comments that are negative toward the topic to which the blogger has not control over. Another risk is depending on the topic one is blogging about it may be controversial which may create negative attention for the blog post and blogger. With blogs in the history field it is not impossible for fellow scholars to find each other. Depending on the context of the blog post or the reactions to it being found may hurt the bloggers chances in the long run of getting their work published or getting a job a certain institution. With the rapid advancements in technology blogging will only become a more popular way to reach a larger audience in the digital history field.

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Publishing on the Web

Start of Semester Understandings

(NB: I am not writing this for a grade, but instead as a tool to help me see how my understanding of what Digital History is, and what can be done with it changes over the course of the semester, and am publishing it because I think it might generate some interesting discussion.)

Digital history, fundamentally, breaks down into three pieces, not all of which are related to any great degree. First is what could be called Digital Pedagogy, which concerns the use of digital technologies to enhance learning, such as long distance courses, blogging, websites and such. Second is what I may term digital research, which focuses on the utility of digital technologies, such as portable cameras, digitized archives, and beyond that the ability to contact and engage with historians on research questions and share research material. However, gathering and sharing is not the extent of the influence of computers and the internet. Rather, computers also allow an engagement with information in more quantitative, rather than qualitative methods. Finally, what I may term digital history proper. Rather than a question of doing history using technology, it is a history of digital spaces.

Digital education has been a question facing the academic world for well over a decade, and is the domain not only of marginal institutions, but even academic centers, such as the University of Edinburgh. These provide a new way to engage with students, not just in the classroom, but beyond it. However, outside of the path of the direct academic teaching, there are also some 10,960,000,000, pages searchable by Google that to one degree or another touch on history. This online presence is the pathway that the vast majority of the population engages with historical topics.

Digital Research really represents a fundamental change in how research is done, what is useful in research, and how we as historians access resources. First, it globalizes what research can be done. Rather than solely focusing on local issues, and what foreign assets can be found in nearby archives, or making expensive trips around the world, the digital age has made it so that vast collections of materials can be brought to bear from anywhere with an internet connection. Computers also create the ability to engage more fully with large amounts of data, such as looking at day to day production at a particular factory, or rosters of Civil War regiments.

Digital history is a history that engages fully with the questions of digital spaces. At the risk of becoming too political, the 2008 campaign had a significant investment in digital spaces, what David Carr of the New York Times described as “a network of supporters who used a distributed model of phone banking to organize and get out the vote, helped raise a record-breaking $600 million, and created all manner of media clips that were viewed millions of times. It was an online movement that begot offline behavior, including producing youth voter turnout that may have supplied the margin of victory.” This was not a one off event, but rather one piece of a much larger opening of a political and social debate. Equally, the GSRM movements (Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minorities) movements gained significant ground, in part due to the ability of the internet to create communities and link individuals with similar conditions. While these topics are somewhat too close to ourselves to be engaged with in academic histories, the question of how and why digital spaces have shaped modern history is still one that should be considered, especially for the next generation of teachers, who will likely be guiding the research into these fields.

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Publishing on the Web

Pathways of Digital Publishing

Digital publishing combines a number of advantages and disadvantages. While worth exploring, the nature of digital publishing makes it a better platform for some forms of history than others. While a common concern seems to be the question of whether blogging is scholarship or not, such as in Cummings and Jarrett’s piece, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy.” I personally find that to be an issue that lacks in nuance and imagination. Blogs, and digital publishing generally are not challenges to traditional historical methods. Much like Facebook cannot replace meeting people in real life, so to can blogs and websites not replace conferences and seminars in the real world. Rather, it is a fundamentally different pursuit, one that can bring in new audiences who are not engaged by traditional historical work.

Digital publishing, and presenting work in the digital sphere has a few key components that make it better in some ways than traditional historical works. The first critical element is that digital publishing can engage far more fully with primary sources. Unlike a conventional book, which nearly always must cherry pick quotes and phrases, with a few extended sections, digital publishing can include pictures of the primary sources, and, with a little more effort, transcripts. Second, digital publishing is far more agile. With a physical book, once the work is printed off, there is little that can be done to make changes and corrections. Comparatively, for a digitally published work, there is an ongoing peer review process throughout the life of the work. This cycle of posts, comments, and revisions creates opportunities for websites and digitally published media to reflect not just a snapshot of a historians thoughts at the end of the process, but rather an ongoing conversation between the readership and the historian. Third, digital publishing allows for far more informationally dense work. Rather than having to spread all of the information out within the constraints of a page, digital publishing, such as Digital Harlem’s ability to map out hundreds of events that all occurred within a month in and on the borders of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. (http://digitalharlem.org/)

However, there are also disadvantages. First and most critical is that web systems are to a great degree fundamentally temporary. Even for information that is still somewhere, the links get lost or disconnect, changes on the technical back end can break integrations. Secondly, digital history often breaks the narrative arcs that traditional history relies on. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom works on narrative arcs both within chapters and across the entire work. When that narrative is hyperlinked, readers forge their own path, walking through pages that catch their interest. Further, each piece is often shorter, for example the Ted Talks usually range between about seven and twenty minutes, far shorter than common historical documentaries.

For historical work, digital history straddles the lines between popular, public, and academic history. While limited based on platform, digital publishing offer a pathway to present primary sources, examine secondary works under a historian’s lens, and publicize the historian’s craft. Beyond that, the internet can be used to present incomplete ideas, or simply interesting historical individuals. However, the most critical use of this public environment is actually to engage with the parahistoric works that see far more wide distribution than even popular historical works.

First however, some terms need to be explored, specifically, popular, public, academic, and parahistoric. While popular history is often little more than a snarl word in academic circles. However, it does provide a significant advantage in engaging mass audiences. As Wikipedia describes it, popular history “emphasizes narrative, personality and vivid detail over scholarly analysis” However, this style of history is also gripping, bringing in people who simply want a good story. Public history comparatively, is done by trained scholars, in attempts to reach out to a public audience. Academic history is primarily analytical. While bringing new or rediscovered primary source documents is a key piece of the historical system, academic history primarily relies on analysing, comparing, and interrogating the accuracy of source materials.Finally, there are the parahistorical works. These cluster around history, using historical themes, historical assets, without really explaining the significance. A clear example of this is the Call of Duty series, which engages with history, showing critical battles and high resolution images of the weapons and uniforms (most often of world war 2) but does not really draw on a real sense of history. It is these parahistorical works that provide the clearest challenge to traditional methods of history. First, they are popular. To use Call of Duty as an example, Call of Duty: World War 2’s multiplayer on Steam alone had some 56,174 concurrent players, and the game overall, had sold nearly 20 million copies as of February 2019. However, it is also fast moving. Within traditional history, the reaction and replies can often take months, or even years to formulate. By the time the historical sphere could react, the parahistorical sphere had already moved on to new media.

And that is where the advantages of digital history are maximized, while the disadvantages are comparatively minimized. It does not matter that a link has broken three years down the line, because the audience has moved on two and a half years ago, and is looking at different content. While traditional historical audiences demand footnotes and endnotes, a parahistorical audience often will not follow those footnotes, but may well follow a link.

A blog or other web project creates a space where some of the articles can relate those interesting personal stories of history, the ‘believe it or not’ pieces that drive much of popular history, while combining it with academic rigour by paralleling those with digitizing primary sources and more analytical articles. While traditional academic approaches are often difficult to approach, and require careful reading even for trained scholars, the informality of blogging and online spaces allow for history to be more approachable than either walls of verbiage or simple recitations of places and dates. Blogging, and online history more generally needs to be a gateway from a popular history to more academically driven approaches. Rather than being purely a side project, or a way to promote the “real” history books, a blog can serve as a place of historical development.This is not to say that real, serious, historical work cannot be done in the digital sphere, but rather that digital history opens opportunities to engage with communities that the standard practices of history do not reach.

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Publishing on the Web

Should We Value Digital Scholarship?

Does Digital History Count as Scholarship?:
In several of the readings for this week, I noticed that the main theme was not only about practical ways to publish content online, but also how that content is valued. In Alex Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett’s piece, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” the authors talk about the informality of blogging, but also discuss the ways in which this informality can reach people. They emphasize that “dense writing deters an audience” and for non-historians “the historical blogger can help decode the field.” This makes blogging invaluable for reaching a wider public and catching interest. Yet, the authors remind readers that the importance of blogs (and really digital scholarship in general) is being questioned. Sloppy writing, descent into professional gossip, inaccurate information, and the biased nature of opinion are all points of criticism. These are valid concerns, but adaptation and willingness to change for the enrichment of the field of history, as well as for the benefit of those who wish to learn from historians but need to do so in a different way than traditional scholarship, is something that must be considered here.

New Methods of Imparting Knowledge:
Blogging is quickly becoming, if it hasn’t already, one of the main mediums of information exchange to vast amounts of people in an easily understandable way. If you google advice on blogging, you will find hundreds of different people telling you the best way to start, maintain, and improve a blog on almost any subject. The articles this class read over for discussion on this subject are only a few out of the mass of articles we could have looked at. Mignon Fogarty’s post, “How to Write a Great Blog Comment,” insists that one of the requirements for a good comment is that you respond to someone else’s work with an acceptable level of knowledge about the subject you are discussing. If this medium is becoming so important in the age of technological innovation we live in today, and if it clearly is something accessible to a giant audience, it already merits value as a communication tool. If you add to it the fact that people who may be experts in their chosen field, hobby, or really anything, can share their knowledge to help improve the lives of others, it seems that blogs and other digital tools should be held in higher esteem than they are by the academic community.

Audiences can learn so much about a historical topic from a website or blog in a shorter amount of time than it takes to read books and articles. The colors, images, and design aspects of online content also draw in more viewers of varying demographics than other media can. As a viewer with almost zero knowledge of the racial violence happening in Harlem during the Great Depression, I was impressed by the two online publications telling this history that were assigned for this class to read. The first website, “Digital Harlem: Everyday Life, 1915-1930,” while a bit less user friendly than the second website, “Year of the Riot: Harlem in Disorder: A Spatial History of Race and Violence in the Great Depression,” it was helpful in showing me the context for the events surrounding race violence in this period. It also made it clear with informative captions and just a general representation of the geography both how many speakeasies and nightclubs actually existed at this time in Harlem that I had never actually thought about, along with the pure volume of violence that occurred at these places. I learned this information by simply clicking on the picture entitled “Nightlife” on the site’s home screen. This site is also a blog, making it even more relevant to this point of the importance of this type of digital media in the world of history. The author provides documentation of source materials used, and interestingly enough they are predominantly primary sources. Does this not make this site a piece of scholarly work worth appreciating and learning from? I learned more from the interactive and colorful nature of the website than I would have ever learned trying to skim through a book on the subject with few pictures.

The second website on Harlem, linked earlier, was even more informative than the first. The design was attractive but not distracting, and it drew me in to start clicking on links to learn more. The best part about this site is that it is still in progress, and is constantly updated with new information and improvements. Stephen Robertson, the creator of both sites, is working on a digital historical project and planning to continue building upon the work he did in his previous website/blog “Digital Harlem.” Looking over this ‘work in progress’ I have already learned more about the events mentioned than I would have thought upon first glance.

Conclusion:
I say all of this to remind people that this kind of work is educating many people who don’t have the ability to learn more about historical topics through schooling and reading countless books and journals on important and relevant historical moments. Maybe this should be considered more valuable than it is? It could be bringing history forward as a field, acting as a way to reach wider public audiences and educate larger numbers of people on historical topics.

Cummings and Jarrett accurately sum up my feelings on the subject when they claim that we have to stop hoarding our knowledge and viewing ourselves as the only ones able to “master” it. They suggest approaching our knowledge in our field as curators. We can share the information we possess with a larger audience, and facilitate their learning of it, adding to the development of knowledge instead of keeping it to ourselves.