Ask Me, I’m a Historian: Quora Tries to Build an Inquiring Community

QuoraWho are the most important American historians of the 20th century? How do historians account for bias? How important is Bernard Bailyn as an American historian? Do historians consider Martin Luther King as important as he is seen in popular culture?

These are a few of the questions currently posed on Quora, a fast-growing social media network. Quora provides a platform for questions, and members of the network provide the answers. While it’s unclear if Quora has mass appeal (see Hackeducation’s post on this), and while it’s even unclear how many users are currently signed up, for now the site provides a fascinating glimpse into what people want to know about history and the history profession, and a way for historians to talk directly to a curious public.

Quora seems to be attempting a balance between giving all users equal weight (à la Wikipedia) and honoring authority. Unlike Wikipedia, most posts are not anonymous. Posters may add a brief bio to their answers, explaining how they know what they know. And Quora allows users to “ask to answer,” in other words, to direct a question to a particular authority on the network. To prevent these authorities from becoming swamped, Quora developed a system of credits. Quora users begin with a balance of 500 credits and can earn more by posting questions that fellow users follow or “upvote” (in other words, by posting thoughtful or popular questions). Directing a question to a self-described “historian by education if not profession” costs 155 Quora credits, while directing a question to an “MA in history” costs 35. Users who run out of Quora credits will eventually have their credits “refreshed,” so they can use them again.

This all has a very experimental flavor. Many of the features have a definite “beta” feel. The credit system is not terribly transparent. The asking and answering public skews young and toward the tech professions. There is clearly potential for flame wars and insults, though the posts are lightly moderated and the general tone seems respectful and helpful. It’s unclear at this point how a professional historian would get along in this crowd, because there aren’t very many signed up.

Right now, on Quora’s history topics, it’s largely amateur hour. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In his recent article on amateur historians, AHA president William Cronon asked professionals to think about passion for the past as common ground. There is no shortage of passion on Quora. A question about the controls in an airplane cockpit recently generated a 9,000-word response from a private pilot. The event prompted The Atlantic’s Megan Garber to write:

It used to be that a key ingredient in human knowledge was the suppression of human passion. From science’s method to journalism’s, people claimed authority by proving how little they were able to care about the knowledge they were creating. But that’s changing, and quickly. Increasingly, it’s passion itself—messy, quirky, productive passion—that is guiding what, and how, we know.

Like that passion, Quora is messy. Still, for historians who just can’t bring themselves to answer William Cronon’s call to “join ’em” on Wikipedia, for historians who want to interact with people who have a real passion for the past and can ask some very pertinent questions, for teachers who want to bring social media into the classroom in a productive way, Quora may hold some promise.

Please use the comment box below, or e-mail the author of this post, to share your experiences or ideas for how historians could use (or should never use) Quora and related sites.

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