AHA Roundtable: Historians' Perspectives on Web Ethics

Vanessa Varin, July 2013

Bar FightHow is the web, particularly social media properties like Twitter, changing the way scholars communicate and form connections with each other?" When I first started considering this question after the AHA annual meeting in New Orleans, I had been talking with bloggers and self-described "Twitterstorians" who had expressed concern over the lack of live-tweeting etiquette at conferences and meetings. Intrigued, we responded by crowdsourcing a "Dos and Don'ts of Live-Tweeting" list,  but quickly realized that we needed to have a much broader conversation about ethical web practices and the future web environment for scholars. In my last Perspectives on Historycolumn, "Being a Good Web Citizen" I asked readers to consider "web citizenry" as a concept for model web behavior, and highlighted Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Claire Potter, who have also confronted the issue of web ethics on their popular blogs.  We feel the conversation needs to continue. The roundtable presented here brings together a spectrum of viewpoints on the state of civility on the web, the possibility of forging a consensus on web ethics, and how we as a community can respond to colleagues who disregard norms of conduct.Contributors include Potter, Ann Little, John Fea, and Ben Alpers-all active bloggers who in different ways have confronted these issues on their own blogs and elsewhere.  Most importantly, however, this forum is an opportunity to hear the thoughts of our readers and the followers of the bloggers featured in today's forum. Comment on the blog or tweet us at @AHAhistorians using the hashtag #WebEthics; we look forward to seeing this important conversation move forward.

-Vanessa Varin, Assistant Editor, Web and Social Media

The Respondents:

"Although civility and ethical behavior online are issues as old as the internet itself, we're still in the early days of considering the special challenges posed by online scholarship. The various traditional genres of scholarship, such as conference papers, journal articles, and books, have a complicated series of largely tacit conventions that govern ethical behavior in connection with them, conventions our socialization into which is an important, if little remarked upon, aspect of graduate education." 
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-Benjamin Alpers, University of Oklahoma Honors College

"At The Way of Improvement Leads Home I am constantly dealing with issues related to civility. Perhaps I have an overly pessimistic view of human nature, but I assume that people writing in the comments section of the blog or tweeting a response to a post I have written are going to be tempted to say things that they would not say to me (or another commentator) in a face to face setting." 
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-John Fea, Messiah College

"Anyone who has taught a class, trained a dog, or raised a child knows this simple truth: you get the behavior you settle for. This is an important maxim to remember when beholding the boundless wonders of the non-peer-reviewed world wide timewasting web." 
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-Ann M. Little, Colorado State University

"If a scholar gives a poorly received talk, should it be followed by a discussion about whether and how s/he would enjoy being sexually assaulted by the audience? This is what happened to me in the unmoderated comments section of a law professor's blog." 
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- Claire Potter, The New School for Public Engagement, New York