AHA Roundtable: Historians’ Perspectives on Web Ethics

I am participating in a roundtable on historians and web ethics at AHA Today.  Check out the roundtable posts by bloggers Ben Alpers (U.S. Intellectual History), Ann Little (Historiann), and Clare Potter (Tenured Radical). 

Here is my contribution:

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.  As a result, the burden of cultivating civility in the blogosphere probably rests more with the blogger than the commentator. In my attempts at creating a productive and professional space for the exchange of ideas at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I often have to enter the comment stream in order to rebuke commentators for their incivility. I don’t care if commentators have ideological disagreements or if they want to take issue with a post. I welcome this kind of exchange and value those regular commentators who contribute dissenting perspectives on the things that I write. But I will not tolerate name calling, a failure to empathize with an opposing viewpoint, or a general rudeness or lack of manners. I usually give a warning to the perpetrators and, if they continue in their incivility, I remove their comment. I realize that this may sound undemocratic or heavy-handed, but 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.

I am particularly troubled when historians engage in uncivil behavior in the blogosphere. We are trained to listen and understand before casting judgment. I hope that this applies to both the dead people we study and the living people we encounter in our everyday lives, both on and off the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of blogs are often conducive to sloppy historical thinking on this front.

Of course all web commentary is not the same. As an independent blogger unaffiliated with a larger website or online publication, I have the liberty to monitor my blog as I see fit. A majority of my readers are return visitors, thus creating an intellectual community whose members understand the culture of respect and civility I am trying to cultivate. The Way of Improvement Leads Home does not get anywhere near the number of comments as the large political or academic blogs, but I would like to think it is a safer place to create and share ideas. If historians are going to reach the general public on the web with thoughtful teaching and dialogue about the past and its relationship to the present, then we need to think hard about the spaces we have created for this kind of learning to happen. 

Thanks to Vanessa Varin of the American Historical Association for putting this roundtable together.  You can comment on the roundtable at AHA Today or @ahahistorians using the hashtag #webethics.  I look forward to the conversation.

2 thoughts on “AHA Roundtable: Historians’ Perspectives on Web Ethics

  1. I enjoy the accountability aspect that some blogs and Internet forums require. I've noticed that when local new forums allowed anonymous postings some really negative posts were made, but when the anonymity ended almost all of those types of posts ended.

    I agree with L.D. on what he said in the second paragraph as well as the part about David Barton, but I disagree after that. I think that if we're going to post something in cyberspace it should be what we'll willing to say and put our name behind.


  2. John, I enjoyed reading your column at AHA, but won't comment there because that would mean digging up my member number / login info somehow.

    However, I can assure you that, civil or uncivil, there's absolutely nothing I've written in comments here (or on any of the other history blogs, for that matter) that I wouldn't say in person. That's my rule of thumb as an academic blogger: if you wouldn't own up to it and defend it in real life, don't put it out there in cyberspace.

    So if you come to the S-USIH conference in November, I will totally tell you to your kindly face that you are boss for drop-kicking David Barton, but hypocritical for mocking doctrinaire political correctness at liberal campuses while working at a place that makes literal doctrinaire demands of staff and students. But I wouldn't be mean about it. I'm ornery as hell, occasionally imperious, but almost never mean. Life is too short for mean.


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