Publication Date

February 1, 2016

Perspectives Section


Why are there so many medieval paintings of people battling large snails?

This is the top question on one of the largest and most heavily trafficked online history forums in the world, AskHistorians, which, according to its rules, seeks to “provide serious, academic-level answers” to anyone who asks a historical question. Located on the website aggregator Reddit, it is a platform that allows users to contribute content of all stripes—from videos of animals to personal stories—to be voted “up” or “down” by any of the site’s users.

A knight battles a snail in the margins of an English medieval genealogical roll. Decretals of Gregory IX with gloss of Bernard of Parma, c. 1300–c. 1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 107r, British Library Digitized Manuscripts.AskHistorians is a digital history project that is both remarkably simple and incredibly unlikely: an independent clearinghouse without traditional scholarly credentials or the backing of an academic institution that nonetheless promises trustworthy answers to good historical questions. Like Reddit itself, AskHistorians—with over 400,000 subscribers and 60,000 unique visitors a day—is a dynamic space that relies on the active participation of its users. But, unlike Reddit, which prides itself on being a meritocratic online space where all content is created equal until voted up or down, AskHistorians is heavily moderated by a team of dedicated volunteers who enforce strict standards of scholarly rigor and civility.

Four of these moderators, along with Monash University’s Margaret Harris, led a session on AskHistorians at this year’s annual meeting, called “‘AskHistorians’: Outreach and Its Challenges in an Online Space.” The session used AskHistorians as a case study to think about what it takes to sustain an open learning community and a culture of curiosity on the Internet, where an unwritten rule is “Don’t read the comments.” “The Internet levels the playing field even when it shouldn’t,” Harris said. “Internet spaces make holding authority difficult.” In other words, when everyone is given an equal space to speak, how do we decide who to listen to?

Because users are identified only by a chosen username, AskHistorians has had to develop internal standards of expertise. A user can become a certified specialist or a “flaired” user (identified by a colored banner listing a particular area of expertise next to the name) not on the basis of academic qualifications, but on the quality of their answers to three questions posed on the forum. The moderators, who have themselves gone through this process of internal accreditation, judge the answers against a set of straightforward criteria. Good answers must be in-depth, grounded in legitimate sources, and fully contextualized. Answers by flaired users on AskHistorians are frequently the length of standard undergraduate essays and include links to sources of supplementary information.

But it’s not only the flaired users who participate in AskHistorians. As panelist Chris Das Neves explained, the moderators have to “set and actively enforce a strict set of rules” in order to keep the forum from “devolving into chaos.” Some of these rules include bans on discussions of politics from the last 20 years, personal anecdotes, jokes, political agendas or moralizing, plagiarism, hostility or rudeness, and bigoted language. In addition, certain types of questions are not tolerated, including “poll” questions that prompt answers to questions like “Who was the best general in history?” and questions that contain implicit assumptions or biases.

Determining when questions or answers violate this set of rules is not always straightforward, and the moderators rely on one another to settle the disputes that inevitably arise. Further, rules are never finalized, and the moderators routinely set aside space on the site to explain their rationale and allow users to weigh in. Harris explained that by giving users both “access to information and control over the process of finding it,” AskHistorians has found a solution to the fundamental problem of authority in an online community grounded in the encouragement of curiosity.

What is perhaps most remarkable about AskHistorians to a scholar who works within traditional academic spaces is that the credibility a user might accrue cannot extend beyond the site’s invisible walls. Your AskHistorians expertise badge won’t translate anywhere else. The would-be scholars on the forum (some of whom are in fact scholars, but many just enthusiastic history buffs) offer their expertise outside the academy because they would prefer to flex their intellectual muscle without the attendant obligations and expectations of a traditional academic career. In fact, Ask­Historians is an appealing space for many because it avoids the traditional gatekeepers to an academic environment. According to Das Neves, “Simply because we are perceived as a product of the Internet engaged with academia, rather than the other way around,” AskHistorians is considered a comfortable space for people who might be wary of traditional academic venues.

AskHistorians is, in effect, a training ground for historical thinking facilitated by the moderators and experts. When you ask a question that is poorly framed or violates one of the site’s rules, you are often prompted by a moderator to ask it in a different way. If you apply to become a flaired user by sending the moderators three of your answers, they provide feedback. The discussions that take place below a question teach crucial lessons: how history is researched, how historiography develops and changes over time, and, most importantly, how answering historical questions well requires more than getting the facts right.

In a moment when digital history is increasingly prominent and when knowledge is disseminated via slick websites and digital programs, it is important to remember that the historical legwork—research, debate among scholars, refinement of arguments, and so on—can be scrubbed out to ensure a clear result, unintentionally perpetuating the sense that the answers and conclusions historians come to are inevitable. Instead, AskHistorians is the rare digital project that captures the process as well as the result of asking historical questions.

Although people all over the world access AskHistorians, its users, like those of Reddit, are mostly men between the ages of 18 and 35 from the United States. Because the flaired users are drawn from this base, there are few with expertise in such areas as gender and women’s history or the histories of non-Western regions. Similarly, because users’ interests drive the forum’s content, as Harris put it, AskHistorians “probably has the largest collection of random information about Hitler on the Internet.” Furthermore, Reddit’s format allows popular topics to be up-voted to the detriment of those that users are less interested in engaging with. Harris explained that this system may “punish subaltern members of the audience not just by silencing their answers but by discouraging them from asking the questions that might have those unpopular answers.”

It is an ongoing process, but Danielle Ciccone and her fellow moderators are committed to enacting active “practices of inclusion” that they hope will move the community toward greater diversity without becoming prescriptive. To achieve this, the moderators not only have to disrupt problematic user activity but also encourage and facilitate discussions in underrepresented areas by recruiting new experts and intervening more on the level of content. They have to perform the dual roles of disciplinarians and facilitators, working to simultaneously combat and encourage the principle of heterodoxy that makes the Internet both a dangerous and a groundbreaking space for historical education. For Ciccone, it is precisely because of the “revolutionary” capacity of AskHistorians that the caretakers of the site have a responsibility “to open up the process of history to a wide audience.”

So why are there so many medieval paintings of people battling large snails? The answer, like most historical answers, is complicated and contested. You can find it on AskHistorians.

is editorial assistant in the AHA’s publications department.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.