What’s In It For Them? Defining Digital History

Probably the most important thing I learned this week is “WIIFT.”  Well, actually, I learned “WIIFM” which is a business term meaning “What’s In It For Me.”  But, despite what some people (probably many) would say about me, I am not self-centered, so I changed WIIFM to WIIFT, meaning “What’s In It For Them.”  I came across this little gem while I was looking up blogging tips and I argue that this is a critical component to defining digital history. Digital History is an open, ever-changing medium for practicing history utilizing “new” technology to reach a specific client. 

Utilizing this definition, historians could quickly focus their efforts and shape the quality and scope history on the web. Before we can do this, there are two facts that we have to accept. First, the internet is obviously here to stay.  Second, digital history is a growing area of the internet.  More and more people are turning to the web to get information and if historians don’t quickly engage this medium the public will be exposed to incorrect and/or biased content

There is a dangerous potential for people to be exposed to bad history because the internet is open to anyone who wants to publish.  People at an alarming rate are now able to openly contribute to constantly evolving conversation on the web; much of this being trash.  This idea is further explored by Marshall Poe in his work entitled “Fight Bad History with Good.”  In this article, Poe discusses how much of the history available on the web is typically bad history.  He does, however, discuss how historians could utilize digital history to ensure that the ever-changing internet is supplemented with good history.  Among several suggestions that Poe suggests in this article some of the quickest ways for historians to make an impact is to edit Wikipedia, utilize social networking sites, contribute to the History News Network, and post developing scholarship on the web via blogs or personal websites.  I guess the real question then becomes what’s in it for them?

Primarily, what is in it for historians is utilizing another medium for practicing history.  There is amazing potential for the history web to reach an enormous pool of people.  With a few clicks on the keyboard the average person has access to a wealth of knowledge.  The purpose of history is to get ideas out to the people and make citizens consider (or reconsider) the impact of your work.  Why not try to affect the most people possible?  This may sound like a basic idea, but still many professors don’t have the motivation to put their life’s work online…for free.  This is basically tied to the fact that many college and university history departments do not put enough emphasis on publishing on the web.  Why would they?  What’s in it for them?

Although it may seem obvious that the more times that a professor is referenced in blogs or on websites through hypertexting, the more potential there is for a person to be directed to a university website; the holy grail of advertising in the new age of technology.   Of course, the technology of the history web has more to offer than advertisements.  History is well suited to adopt digital technology.  Digital history increases accessibility, integration of multimedia technology, breadth of the history conversation, and use of hypertextual annotation and indexing.  Each of these four areas makes history more exciting and entertaining.  Historians that can successfully execute these aspects of digital history have the potential to garner a following in and out of the history community.  Of course, that is if you can grow and sustain readership, which is not always easy. Why would anyone want to read your work?  What’s in it for them?

This is what it all boils down to.  All of the research.  All of the writing.  All of the revising.  It all comes down to an audience.  When producing history (whether it is books, displays, or websites) you have to know who your audience is, what they want, and how you can give it to them.  Fortunately, the internet allows a historian to focus their research and target their audience.  Before beginning a website a historian must become familiar with what is already done in the field and think hard about the genre.  What is the target audience?  What area of the market do you want to focus on? Education, archives, discussion.  The key to gaining and maintaining your audience is determining what’s in it for them?

Digital History is able to reach such a large audience because anyone can publish here, it is an accessible medium, new technology makes history accessible and exciting, and it is fairly easy to reach a specific clientele.  The most important aspect of this outlook is the clientele.  If the task of history is to make an impact on society, then the means is digital history.  The web is the fastest growing medium for people to acquire information.  Now is the time to make an impact.  Other disciplines have already embraced new technology.  When will historians actually realize what’s in it for them?

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