Snapshots of History

Wildly popular accounts like @HistoryInPics are bad for history, bad for Twitter, and bad for you.

JFK, John, Jacqueline
The context you don’t always get on Twitter: President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jackie, and their son John Jr. on his Christening day, Dec. 8, 1960.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

If you use Twitter, you’ve probably seen retweets from an account like @HistoryInPics or @HistoricalPics pop up in your stream. You may not remember which account it was, exactly—there are a bunch of them, and they’re difficult to tell apart. I count 14 Twitter accounts currently using a variant of the @HistoryPics handle: @HistoricalPics, @HistoryInPix, @History_Pics, and so on. Four of the 14 claim to be “THE ORIGINAL,” and most of them reuse each other’s material liberally.

Even discounting the repetition of particular images, there’s a sameness in tone to the tweets that come from these accounts. “History,” as these accounts define it, is a landscape peopled by JFK, the Beatles, Steve Jobs, various movie stars, pretty girls wearing miniskirts, quirky mustachioed bicyclists, and concentration-camp survivors. Even the accounts’ avatars are similar: The classic 1863 Alexander Gardner daguerrotype of Lincoln in a bow tie appears three times. Three other accounts use stylized logos featuring old-timey cameras.

The history-pics accounts are undeniably massive: The most popular, @HistoryInPics, has 1.02 million followers, and the top-five accounts each have more than 300,000. By way of comparison, @Slate currently has around 756,000 followers, and the account I run for Slate’s history blog, @SlateVault, has about 9,000.

In recent weeks, the attribution practices and accuracy of these feeds has become a source of consternation around the Web. Gizmodo blogger Matt Novak published a series of posts pointing out that many of the most-retweeted photos (Nikola Tesla as a swimming instructor; JFK and Marilyn Monroe cuddling) are fakes. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal tracked down the proprietors of the most-followed history pic account, @HistoryInPics, and learned that they aren’t much interested in where their images come from (“around the Internet”) or in providing any kind of attribution. Sarah Werner, digital media strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library, posted a heartfelt plea to readers of her blog, asking them to leave the historical pictures accounts behind. The post has had its own share of viral success.

As the writer of Slate’s Vault blog, I post a historical document once a day, running the gamut from the serious (the Montgomery Improvement Association’s powerful advice for successful bus boycotters about to ride integrated busses) to the bizarre (a strange 19th-century millionaire’s pork map of the United States). My goal is to surface compelling, beautiful, or funny items that reward a second look, and then stay on your mind, stoking your curiosity. About eight times a day, through @SlateVault, I tweet another (hopefully) interesting image, a lead on a newly digitized archive, or a link to a good historical read.

I’ve been doing this since November 2012, while continuing to produce academic work (I have a Ph.D. in American studies). Having spent a little over a year switching between writing history for the academic world and for the Web, I’m keenly aware of how hard it is to talk about history online. It can be difficult to hit the sweet spot between click-worthy intrigue and historical interest, and it’s tempting to post only things I know have viral potential (Kurt Vonnegut tends to be a big hit, as does a good map). I also harbor some sympathy for the difficulties of ascertaining who holds copyright for digital historical documents, which can be a difficult and time-consuming process.

These caveats aside, Werner’s cry—“These accounts piss me off because they undermine an enterprise I value”—resonates deeply with me. Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.

To get a fair picture of the content and practices of these accounts, I sampled a week’s worth of tweets from the four biggest: @OldHistoryPics, @HistoryinPics, @HistoricalPics, and @History_Pics. (The week in question was Jan. 15–22. Since @OldHistoryPics appears to have suspended their tweets in recent weeks, I sampled their tweets from the week of Dec. 10–17 instead.) I counted the total numbers of tweets, then looked at the numbers of photos with dates (even vague ones, like “1960s”) and with any attributions at all. I coded for subject matter, and identified the most popular tweets of the week for each account.

Of the top three accounts by followers, @OldHistoryPics dated 33 percent of its pictures and attributed zero percent. @HistoryInPics dated 54 percent and attributed 5 percent. @HistoricalPics dated 48 percent and attributed 5 percent. (Since Madrigal’s piece about @HistoryInPics was posted on the Atlantic on Jan. 24, @HistoryInPics has begun attributing more frequently.)

Even the fourth-largest account by size, @History_Pics, which dated and attributed far more often than other accounts (84 percent dated; 24 percent attributed), never linked out to sources or contextual information. @HistoricalPics occasionally included links, but these lead to a site called TeensDigest that’s full of questionably-sourced listicles, only some of which are historical. (I reached out to all four sites for comment. Three didn’t get back to me; @History_Pics replied to one email, then dropped communication.)

This lack of outward-leading links forecloses any curiosity a reader might have. Using Google Reverse Image Search to track the photos tends to turn up a flurry of retweets or context-free links to sharing sites like Imgur, Tumblr, or Reddit. Even if the feed includes the name of the photographer, it often remains difficult to discover more information on the historical events taking place in a given photograph. And in the weeks of tweets I surveyed, the people running these accounts never replied to readers’ questions.

After the Jan. 17 death of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese officer who hid in the Philippine jungle for 30 years after V–J Day, continuing to fight a war that had ended, several of the accounts tweeted his picture with a simple, link-free explanation. Readers of @HistoricalPics curious to know more about the story asked what his name was, and were answered with a link to a CNN obituary—not by the account, but by each other. That Hiroo Onoda story is complex: Presented as a Tweet, his life story looks like a curiosity, but he and his compatriots killed around 30 Filipino villagers over the years that they lived in the jungle. A link-free, capsule treatment of his life denies this complexity.

Attribution, meanwhile, isn’t just about giving credit to a creator. A historical document was produced by somebody, at some time, under certain conditions. To historians these details, and the questions they provoke, are what give historical documents dimension. As John Overholt, the curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library (and an avid Twitterer and Tumblrer), said to me via email:

Every image is also an artifact—it has a creator, a context, and, in the era of film photography at least, a physical original that sits in a repository somewhere. Divorced from all that metadata, a stream of historical images is always going to be a shallow experience.

By not linking to sources or context, history pic accounts create an impression of history as a glossy, impervious façade.

The accounts’ choice of content, which is repetitive and predictable, seems designed to provoke a feeling of familiarity: an “I know what this is!” rather than an “I wonder what this is about?” There’s an overreliance on old pictures of celebrities (@OldHistoryPics, 50 percent; @HistoryInPics, 33 percent; @HistoricalPics, 27 percent) and by and large, the accounts all focus on the same small group of stars: Monroe, the Beatles, Kurt Cobain, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Muhammad Ali. As Ben Breen, history Ph.D. student and editor of the online Appendix Journal, recently put it to me, this is a Forrest Gump approach to history.

Of course, the accounts are giving their followers what they want: The most retweeted posts for all four accounts were photos of celebrities. A photo showing Tupac Shakur flipping the bird after being shot in 1994 got 1,776 retweets (the tweet in question wasn’t dated, which was confusing, as some might have thought the picture was from Shakur’s fatal shooting in 1996). Two images of Heath Ledger, with “RIP” messages attached, got 22,570 and 10,562 retweets. Audrey Hepburn with a cigarette holder garnered 4,427 (@History_Pics has since removed this tweet).

The more traditionally “historical” content is hardly more varied or surprising: JFK, the Internet darling Nikola Tesla, Einstein, Hitler. Historical periods and events covered are similarly monotonous. The Titanic sinks over and over; WWII rages on. Old pictures of cities are always of New York, London, San Francisco, or Paris. (I should add that @History_Pics seemed to offer a broader variety of material, but the photos of theirs that stepped off this well-trodden circuit appeared to be the ones with smaller retweet counts.)

Occasionally, the accounts will feature photos of everyday people. They’re typically intended to provoke an emotional response, either tugging at the heart-strings or hammering at the funny bone by mocking some bizarre old bygoner. Photos of pretty women walking down the street provoke prurient appreciation, justified in the dignified name of “history.” Tweets of a liberated concentration-camp survivor holding a German at gunpoint are easily shareable: Everyone knows what side to be on. And oddities, like a photo of a policeman judging an ankle competition or a carte-de-visite of a sad old maid with a reverse Mohawk, offer an easy chuckle.

This diptych of two soldiers in 1945 and 2009 was the week’s most egregious abuse of history in the name of virality—but, in its egregiousness, it proves a point.

The tweet is engineered to trigger a retweet from readers whose views on gender and violence are pre-confirmed. By omitting context and claiming “historical” status for the argument, the tweet appears to be proving a simple fact, while it’s actually scoring an ideological point about human nature. Boys will be boys! It’s “history.”

When she posted her rant on the history-pics phenomenon, the Folger’s Sarah Werner received pushback on Twitter, and was accused of being “against fun.” But a critique of this mode of history-on-Twitter is actually the opposite of elitist schoolmarmery. By posting the same types of photographs over and over and omitting context and links, these accounts are robbing readers of the joy of the historical rabbit hole—and they’re taking a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.

In my capacity as blogger for the Vault, I spend a lot of time in (free!) digital archives, on the blogs of libraries and museums, and on sites produced by historians working inside and outside of the academy. A delirious pleasure of historical inquiry, on- and offline, lies in the twists and turns: You think you’re writing about children’s encyclopedias from the 1920s, and at the end of the day you’re researching the primatologist Robert Yerkes. This joy is easier than ever for anyone to experience, given the ever-growing body of linked information and original documents available on the Web.

I’m under no illusion that every blog reader follows the links I include to the archives where I find documents, or that every Twitter follower clicks on the links I put in @SlateVault tweets. But if they do, and they land in a digital archive or on a blog, they might see a slider pointing to related documents, a right rail with links to intriguing past posts, or an appealing subject heading. Or, they might decide to plug some of the information they find into Google Books, and see whether anything fun surfaces.

My hope is that I’m providing a starting point, not an end point, with each post. I never know for sure if what sparks my own curiosity will kindle a similar fire with readers, but if it does, I want readers to be able to pursue the subject beyond the confines of my short posts and tweets. The history-pics accounts give no impression of even knowing this web of legitimate, varied historical content exists. Given their huge follower counts, this is a missed opportunity—for their readers, and for the historians and archivists who would thrill to larger audiences for their work.

I’m not so naive as to think the history pic accounts are likely to change their ways; they’ve clearly defined their terms of success differently than I have. But for readers who would like to have a richer experience of history on Twitter, such a thing is very much possible. I’ve put together a list of history accounts on Twitter that do a great job in sourcing, linking, contextualizing, responding to readers, and representing a wider array of historical topics. They range from @BibliOdyssey, run by an Australian blogger who finds amazing illustrations in old books, to @TodaysDocument, an account that plucks great things from the National Archives.

And if I’ve succeeded in raising your ire at the history-pics approach, there’s some catharsis to be found in @PicPedant, run by Paulo Ordoveza, a Washington, D.C., Web developer who tirelessly researches unattributed photos and broadcasts their true origins. Or, try the anonymously-run, pitch-perfect parody account @AHistoricalPics, which tweets photos with wildly mismatched captions.

Or @WowHistoryPics, an absurd account that writes (a)historical captions for the same photo of a piece of toast:

At its best, Twitter acts as a portal, a place where knowledgeable guides point you to ever-more-interesting corners of the Web. The history-pics accounts treat Twitter as a static medium, where each photograph is a dead end. We might as well be looking at a piece of toast. That’s no good for history, and it’s no fun, either.