The Web Wants to Know: Questions for Historians on Social Media and Wikipedia

In what may become a regular feature on this blog, we hope to collect and link to some of the best questions, arguments, and discussions relating to history on Wikipedia, Quora, and Reddit.

There are some very pertinent and fascinating questions for historians on social and wiki-based media, and very few historians answering them. Perhaps they have taken note of what can happen to historians’ work on Wikipedia. Perhaps they don’t want to sort through page after page of raging online debates about the “historical accuracy” of Game of Thrones, or who was “history’s biggest badass” (the latter becoming such a popular topic it’s become a subfield known as “badassery”).

 

But if they did investigate, like we recently did, they might find a few well-formed questions that could use a historian’s help. We hope the list below might inspire some readers to lend their expertise to ongoing discussions. We hope other readers might simply appreciate knowing the sort of questions that emerge from the Internet’s hive mind.

We also hope that those who do jump into these conversations write to tell us about their experiences. Were they able to help? Did they feel other users responded to evidence and argument? Is there room in these virtual spaces to make the case for historical thinking and contributions from working historians?

Send us your stories, as well as any tips for questions that need a historian’s intervention.

Wikipedia

Imperialism: The connection between imperialism and capitalism has been under discussion for some time on the “Imperialism” page, with the most recent comment coming from an unsigned editor arguing that the entry seems to uncritically adopt Lenin’s ideas.

The connection between imperialism and colonialism is also questioned, specifically the claim that “The extent to which ‘informal’ imperialism with no formal colonies is properly described as such remains a controversial topic among historians.”

And another unsigned user suggests that “it would be nice to see how the character of imperialism changed over time,” and “how the entire concept faded away giving rise to nation states of today.”

The rather short article has “citation needed” and “explanation needed” tags throughout.

Mexican-American War: The editors are seeking reliable sources on the US costs of the war. Another user has requested a timeline, and another has argued that the “Origins of the War” section is “very subjective” and includes “No citations to support statements regarding American desire for territory or inclination to ‘lie’ to get it.”

White Privilege: The neutrality of the article has been disputed. The article’s lede, according to the editors, needs to be supported by sources. On May 18, an editor wrote, “Because the article will need to be vastly changed, I would like to suggest that the work and revisions and consensus forming take place in a sandbox rather than in main article space.”

Quora

Quora is a social media network built around asking and answering questions. Anonymity is discouraged, and authority is recognized. There are several subsections devoted to history. We were interested to see the questions:

 

Reddit Ask Historians

Reddit is a social bookmarking and discussion site, and includes an “Ask Historians” section. Postings are anonymous, and Reddit is famous for flame wars. The history-focused sections are, however, surprisingly respectful in comparison to the rest of the site. Users who have been proven to be particularly helpful are given “flairs” that recognize their expertise.

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