Dispatches from an Eventful #Summer
Vanessa Varin, September 2013
There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods.... I do not think that in the most enlightened rural districts of France there is intellectual movement either so rapid or on such a scale as in this wilderness.
-Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
During his journey through America, Alexis de Tocqueville quickly became entranced with the burgeoning communication revolution wrought by the United States Postal Service, noting to readers of his Democracy in Americathat the postal system served as a "great link of the minds" that joined disparate localities into an interconnected community. But as a casual observer of the system, Tocqueville's vision of America ignored many of the challenges even early communication networks posed for Americans, such as logistical and latency issues. Leaping forward several hundred years, the history discipline is itself undergoing an equally transformative revolution, only this time Internet trolls and software bugs pose more immediate threats.
Early in the summer, blogger and historian Claire Potter answered my call for a community discussion on the politics of web etiquette, in particular how social media platforms are the changing the way scholars communicate with each other, in ways both good and bad. We did the seemingly impossible; we enticed a number of our web colleagues out of summer hibernation to contribute to an AHA Roundtable on web ethics. Contributors included Potter, Ann Little, John Fea, andBen Alpers-all active bloggers who confront many of the issues pervasive in the "savage woods" of blogs and tweets.
Among the questions I posed was a request to consider how fellow netizens could develop and disseminate a consensus on web ethics. Commenting policies were a concern, particularly when it came to how a blog admin should handle commenters who get out of hand. I assumed (incorrectly) that bloggers were looking to institutions like the AHA to author professional guidelines on scholarly conduct online, but many of the forum contributors shifted the responsibility to the individual, arguing that each blogger should be empowered to create their own policies and moderate conversation as they saw fit. As Little pointedly argued, "...if you own the domain name and pay for the server space, it's your space. You own it." Fea seconded Little's point, arguing that the blogger is not just protecting his domain, he is protecting the rights of other users to engage in debate as well: "The Way of Improvement Leads Home is my space on the web and I want to make sure that my readers-most of whom are not scholars-have a comfortable space to share their thoughts."
Little and Fea are, however, established bloggers and have time and experience on their side. As Potter pointed out in her piece, there are still a considerable number of historians on the web who would benefit from guidance on web behavior, whether it comes from the AHA or the American Association of University Professors. The challenge, she argued, are the rogue users (also known as trolls) and contributors to Internet flame wars who thumb their noses at politeness in favor of nasty skirmishes that attract attention. The bloggers all agreed that we can't do anything about trolls and flame wars besides exercise a heavy hand at moderation. Otherwise, as Little poignantly remarked, "you get the behavior you settle for."
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While the comments in this roundtable focused on when online discussions go bad, more often than not, online conversation in the history community is civil. Just a few weeks after we posted this roundtable online, the AHA was the focus of intense debate among historians online over a statement advocating for the right of graduate students to delay electronic publication of their dissertations.
The ensuing conversation represented the advantages of online communications for the webisphere.
Readers used the narrowly focused statement as a jumping off point to talk about much broader professional concerns, including open access, hiring processes, and adjuncts, and demonstrated the interconnectedness of all of these issues. I recommend readers visit AHA Today, not only toread the statement in question, but also to read the reactions and debate captured in the comments below. Despite a few bursts of incivility (whichJames Grossman mentions in his column in this issue), the online discussions demonstrated how the web has already become central to how historians approach and debate all issues in the profession.
It seems fitting, then, that just as more of our colleagues are gathering online, the AHA is announcing an ambitious online community for scholars. AHA Communities (communities.historians.org), we hope, will serve as an online space for the history community to connect with other historians, share ideas, discuss professional and theoretical issues in the field, and, perhaps more importantly, be a part of the online conversation already taking place. The challenge we face together is how we can incorporate the lessons extolled in our previous conversations about web ethics and citizenry, and how we can truly make AHA Communities a "great link of the minds."
-Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.