Top 15 Posts of 2013—Number 11: Gary Gallagher, ECW, and the Wild West of Civil War Blogging (part one)

Chris@Computer

I’ve had two experiences recently that have given me pause to consider the relationship between history and blogging—and, by extension, that’s given me the opportunity to reflect on our specific mission here at Emerging Civil War.

The first was a column by Gary Gallagher in the June 2012 issue of Civil War Times. The second was a conversation I had with a colleague who teaches social media, including blogging.

Civil War Times teased Gary’s monthly column on its cover: “Why Gary Gallagher doesn’t trust bloggers”—a guaranteed attention-grabber for a blogger like me.

“Bloggers are stunningly diverse,” Gary wrote. “[T]hey represent every level of expertise and a variety of ideological and interpretive stances…. Blogging sites vary widely in focus and quality.” He’s right, for sure, when he says, “Blogging represents the ultimate in the democratization of history….”

But that’s been true of the entire internet since its very creation. Literally anyone can get a domain name and start saying whatever he/she wants. With the right skillset, an asshat who knows nothing about the Civil War can still come across as an expert and then circulate his balderdash to hundreds of thousands of people.

But here’s the funny part: that’s no different than the bigmouths who used to fleece tourists in Gettysburg by pretending to be experts on the battle and then giving totally bogus battlefield tours (a problem eventually solved by the requirement for guides to be licensed). The same could be said of the writers who contributed to publications like Confederate Veteran and the National Tribune, passing off their opinion and Lost Cause commentary as fact. The technology has changed but the human impulse for asshattery remains the same.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no internet version of the Licensed Battlefield Guide Association. A reader must discern for him/herself whether a blogger is credible or not in much the same way a historian must evaluate the credibility and usefulness of primary source material.

Unfortunately, readers frequently don’t or can’t assess a blog’s credibility. They find a blog they like, or one with views similar to their own, and they keep going back without a discerning second look. (That’s how the Lost Cause mythology caught on so readily with Confederate Veteran readers and why, even today, it still get perpetuated so widely.) It’s the same way most Americans consume their news, too.

The media theory behind that is called selective exposure: people expose themselves to ideas and opinions they like and already tend to agree with.

Alas, though, just because someone has written a blog or even published a book, it doesn’t make that person an expert.

Overall, Gary’s column did little to illuminate anything for me because, mostly, he just relayed a few of his own limited experiences. The internet is like the Wild West, and you need to be careful, he seemed to say. Hardly a newsflash. But I was troubled by the way he framed his musing: “some thoughts, and a word of caution, about the general phenomenon.” In essence, he seemed to suggest that bloggers, on the whole, weren’t to be trusted.

“[M]y limited engagement with the Civil War blogging world has left me alternately informed, puzzled, and, on occasion, genuinely amused,” he concluded. “I suspect these are common reactions to the mass of valuable information and unfiltered opinion that crowd the multitude of blogs out there.”

Fast forward a few days, then, to the conversation I had with my colleague, who began by asking, “Would you consider yourself a historian?”

She went to explain that she was interested in the idea as it relates to social media, her area of professional and academic expertise. “What does a historian do, really? It seems to me that it’s not just documenting the facts of what happened, but rather, they help us make sense of the world around us,” she said.

In her work with social media, she’s begun to move away from primarily emphasizing the use of the tools themselves (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and has begun to focus more on helping students better understand the larger context. “For example, they don’t really understand the nature of the Internet,” she explained, “or what the characteristics are of the social media space or the behaviors appropriate for it. We live by a code of conduct in that space, but how did it come about?”

A focus only on tactics—how to use social media—seemed like it underserved the students. “When I first started teaching social, it was so new that people just needed to know how to use the basic tools,” she said, “but as things evolve, I can see that I’d serve my students better in the future by giving them stronger context—and context comes from history.”

I answered her initial question by saying, yes, I am a historian, but I come at my history as a storyteller, not an academic. My Ph.D. is in creative writing, after all, and my professional background has been journalism. For me, professionally and artistically, it’s always been about “the story.” In my experience, many historians have lost sight of that, and as a result, they’ve spoiled countless of people on history by focusing too much on facts: names, dates, and places, or on esoteric minutia that have no practical relevance to nearly anything.

The poet Richard Hugo once said that as soon as language exists merely to convey information, it is dying. I think the same is true for history. If we’re merely trying to convey information, we risk boring our audiences to death. That why I’ve always tried to approach history from the broader perspective of story, which then makes those facts more relatable and gives them context.

“I think it’s the same kind of mindset that’s driving your thoughts about social media,” I said to my colleague. “You feel a need to move away from the tactics—the ‘facts,’ if you will—to the larger picture. What does it all mean?”

That brought me back to Gary’s concerns about the blogosphere. Individual bloggers act as tacticians. But what’s their larger purpose? Is there a consistent, informed interpretive vision? Is there an educational component? Is it self-promotion? Armchair generalship? What kind of quality control exists?

Ironically, Gary’s column itself embodied the same basic concern he expressed about blogs. It was a collection of facts—individual experiences Gary’d had—without anything to ultimately help readers understand those facts. After all, to conclude that the internet can leave people “alternately informed, puzzled, and, on occasion, genuinely amused” is hardly enlightening.

How we respond to those reactions when we have them—that’s the real issue. How do we choose the blogs we read, and why do we keep reading them? How do we assess their credibility? How do they challenge our thinking—or do they just affirm it?

I’ll talk more about how we here at ECW tackle those questions in an upcoming post.

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