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Historians and Facebook: In the Halls of an Electronic AHA

Hobbling along with my cane, I have only recently arrived on Facebook, where I have found great numbers of youth already there, moshing, banging their heads together, high-fiving and dapping each other, singing their distinctive songs, giving new meaning to the term “friends with benefits,” and engaging in other rituals of youth. At 71, I may be the oldest person on Facebook. From the number of “friends” my Facebook friends are only just now acquiring, I suspect that I am part of a new wave of late and older arrivals now first joining the 70 million who are already there. (Why now?) Among those who are on Facebook, it’s hard to find historians older than fifty, and much easier to find younger historians. There are obvious explanations for this, having to do with younger people’s greater skills in this area and their participation in a culture that is at home with the Internet. As for my cohort, we have gotten to e-mail, but we seem cautious and fearful about taking this next step. (To work my way onto Facebook – a simple operation -- I had to have a friend hold my trembling hand.) Although my Facebook “friends” (awful term) include some younger historians, I have regretted the difficulty I have had in locating people of my generation and slightly younger: every time I try to locate a contemporary and fail (“found no results”), tears fall from my eyes and I start singing “September Song” in the cracking voice of Walter Huston. (It would be bad manners for me to out them by name, but you mostly left historians, but not exclusively left, know who you are.)

Why should historians be on Facebook? I think it has the potential to be an electronic version of the halls of the AHA: a place of lively and utterly informal talk about what historians are doing and saying, and what’s going on in their lives. Just as Facebook threatens to replace college reunions, it can constitute something like a professional meeting, between professional meetings. (Note that “something like”: I have no desire with this proposal to replace professional meetings, but rather to extend them.) I’ll show below the ways that Facebook can foster rewarding communication among historians. But first, the negatives:

1) Time. Oy, vey: Here’s another Internet time waster. We just got finished consuming several hours looking at: all available YouTubes of the Beelzebubs and other college a cappella singing groups (they have left the Whiffenpoofs in the ancient dust); the Third Man theme (not just Anton Karas, but also, playing in the background as I write this, the Lugano Mandolin Orchestra); the Red Army Chorus singing “Eets a Lung Vay to Tipperary”); and “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” (with an additional couple of minutes searching fruitlessly for the Lonnie Donegan version). Our inbox has 400 messages in it, some of which require reading, some of which, g_d help us, require answers, and some of which even require thought. And the Provost is telling us to rush in the syllabi for our Second Life courses.

2) Privacy. It seems that Facebook is constructed so as to make Oprah-esque self-revelation the default position: “in a relationship”? it asks; “in an open relationship”? “it’s complicated,” etc. And every time you edit your profile, a message goes out to all your “friends.” Thus if, out of motives of privacy, you prudently neglected to mention that you are in a relationship but subsequently decided that it would be more prudent to do so, a flash goes out to all your friends (and their friends?): “[heart] Jesse Lemisch is now in a relationship.” (People are writing to congratulate me, and I have much to explain to others.) Your picture is displayed – if you send them one -- and, if you are female, stalkers come after you. All of this of course can be traced back to the singles-bar dating site milieu out of which Facebook arose. It’s fine, for those who are looking. But if not, and you try to beat it by holding back personal information, one way or another it will get you. We want more human contact than our profession has allowed, but those of us who grew up in a different world, before the general collapse of society, probably want to limit what we display on the Internet.

3) “Friends” and the presentation of self. And of course there are numerous questions as yet unresolved: are “friends” actually friends? Just what is a friend? How do we select what we communicate to our friends, and what is left out? What are we vibing out by the picture we choose to display, if we do display a picture? Should we be smiling, or soberly wise? Finally, such questions will lead us to consider just what is true on Facebook, and what is inflated self-advertisement. Do we choose, in answer to the question, “What are you doing?”to convey to our friends the moment in which we write a piece like this one, selecting this moment out of 24 hours of sloth and passivity? We need to think of Facebook material as first-person testimony, and to think -- as historians do about other sources -- about the value and biases built into such testimony. Is Facebook a reasonable sample of reality, or is it rigged towards certain kinds of content? Why are people there, and just what is it they are seeking?

So, there are plenty of negatives. (And it should be added that Facebook is a money-making, commercial milieu, with ads.) But I’m here to argue that, despite the above (and much else that might be added), the virtues outweigh the drawbacks if we think of Facebook as, among other things, an opportunity to construct a meeting place for historians. I value the papers given at the AHA and OAH, but I generally come away from these meetings as well educated by conversations in the halls, and while prowling the book exhibits. Somebody has mounted a stupid and uncomprehending attack on me in a book whose galleys are available at booth 432. And there he is, at booth 927, hiding, but available for animated conversation. Here’s somebody you haven’t seen in years, and, thank goodness, she has a name badge. And, you find, she is doing fascinating work. Here is somebody who responds to regards to the spouse with a facial expression that tells you immediately that your information is no longer accurate. And here are historians of all stripes, and information about new sources and new work and controversies not yet erupted. And so on: readers of HNN know what happens in the halls of the AHA. For better or worse, all these things can happen on Facebook.

What can historians do on Facebook? Pretty much all of the things we do in the halls of the AHA, as above. And more. Of course we want to maintain human contact and keep up with developments in the lives of our friends insofar as they are willing to mention such developments; even some people in their seventies can be pleased that we have lived on to the 21st century with its new and more candid ways. Aside from the personal, what can we do, and how do we do it? As I mentioned, I’m just a recent arrival, but even from my limited experiences, I see a world of possibilities: “Notes,” Walls” to write on, chats, “status updates”on what we are doing, “News Feeds,” “Groups,” group messages; “notifications,; “discussion boards, videos. (e.g. a talk presented), links to other sites. What are we doing? What have we read? What do we think of what we have read, and what have we written, and what are we writing, or what are we thinking about writing? Do we dare, as one courageous young historian has done, to announce that we have writer’s block? And speaking of that young historian, by its very nature, Facebook fosters intergenerational communication – an obvious good thing. And we can contact all of our friends or select those to whom we want to send stuff.

In advance of my call to historians, there is evidence that some historians are already doing these things, though, so far, they are just taking baby steps. Consider these Facebook groups, with pictures of members who are mainly young people: American Historical Association (20 members); Organization of American Historians (13 members); H-Net Editors (4 members); Clio (x members), Progressive Historians (55 members and a discussion board: “there are no discussions.”); and even HNN (218 members).

There remain many questions and problems, and more down the road. Why is this form of communication better than the serial discussions that take place on lists like those on H-Net? Shall we break our groups and friends down by discipline, period, etc,? How do we define “historian,” and is membership closed (as with the AHA and OAH groups), or open to all?

With all its drawbacks, Facebook could be a good place for historians to be. Let’s think about using it for our own purposes. Literacy in the 21st century requires that we experience this mass phenomenon, and we should cook up our own ways of doing it.

Acknowledgment: Joanne Landy, a newcomer herself, has kept a step ahead of me and guided me through the strange new geography of Facebook.