Being a Good Web Citizen
Vanessa Varin, May 2013
A few months ago, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association,explained that she was backing away from Twitter because of the negative "shame culture" of academics that had taken root in that social media space. According to Fitzpatrick, "there is a significant difference between thoughtful public critique and thoughtless public shaming. And if we don't know the difference, we-as a community of scholars working together online, whose goals are ostensibly trying to make the world a more thoughtful place-need to figure it out, and fast."
We have heard countless scholars, including former AHA President William Cronon, express excitement over the many ways in which the digital age is revolutionizing the way historians practice history, but Fitzpatrick has pointed out a fundamental problem with how we may be reacting to these changes. If we are not creating a positive and inviting space for our fellow colleagues to share their work, what will the future digital community of scholars look like?
I am by no means implying the history web community has a larger than normal population of Internet trolls, but I have noticed over the past year, particularly in the last few months, a growing number of public and unappealing fights between historians online. A few months ago, for example, I watched a historiography debate devolve into a series of nasty tweets, which became uncomfortable to watch. It started when a blogger posted an op-ed piece on a popular blog regarding the state of the field. While the comments section on the blog grew heated, the moderators seemed to quell some of the uncivil outbursts. But a few historians (including the author) carried the debate to Twitter, where there was no moderation. It quickly devolved into a nasty feud between historians regarding the author's approach to the post, methodology, and word choices. Soon, insults poorly disguised as hashtags were lobbed back and forth, and the feud lasted for days. I wasn't the only one who noticed. A colleague found the entire exchange on Storify and posted it on my Facebook wall, shocked and dismayed over the level of incivility online among our own.
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If Fitzpatrick is right about the state of collegiality online, and I think she has a point, we have a vital task at hand. How do we articulate a standard of behavior and dialogue between scholars that is mutually understood? In contemplating an answer, I keep coming back to a concept that is seldom discussed in the historical community online-web citizenry. What does it mean to be a "good web citizen"? As it happens, the concept of "web citizenry" complements a theory historians may be much more familiar with: republicanism. Both ideas emphasize how the individual participates and contributes to the common good of the community.
A lot of this work is already being done online, from history bloggers like John Fea who cross-promote the work of other bloggers, and Claire Potter, who advocates for better web practices, to web admins like Ben Alpers and Andrew Hartman, who volunteer to moderate and police the comments section of the Society for US Intellectual History blog. All of these roles, which we traditionally conceive as self-directed and distinct, contribute to the scholarly community in some form. Instead of approaching the problem of online civility by pointing fingers, what if we start to consider the online community as a mutually shared, mutually owned space, and recognize that our collective actions online help define that space, for better or worse? Regardless of how fraught the phrase "republicanism" may be in history circles, I wonder if using common language like this may be a start toward Fitzpatrick's call for respect.
I hope we can start an ongoing conversation about web citizenry. How can we adapt our academic dialogue so that it is rigorous, but also governed by respect? We look forward to hearing what our readers think, either on Twitter, Facebook, orLinkedIn.
-Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.
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