For me, the Internet is a truly fabulous thing: in little more than a generation, its rapid growth has transformed the way that people find and communicate with each other, and has erected what is effectively a single global stage for a staggering number of people to become actors upon simultaneously.

For arguably the first time in history, we Netizens are part of a global grouping that brings people together right in their own houses. Surrendering access to this has become unthinkable: WiFi / broadband has marched right up the list of human needs to the #4 position, just behind shelter, clean water, and food.

Yet what I love so much about the Internet is not just its freedom of expression but its tolerance of diversity – any web page can be visited by people from a vast set of nationalities, ages, religions, and opinions. To my mind, it should be a given that different people have different points of view: and that we therefore all need to learn not just to tolerate those differences, but by treating them with humour, dignity and respect, celebrate and integrate them in an overwhelmingly positive way.

Diversity and History

History, though, sits awkwardly with this worldview, because it is a discipline built on two opposing strategies. On the one hand, it would be a dull historian who did not have access to his/her widening, creative side to fill evidential gaps, using empathy and pragmatic common sense to suggest imaginative ways explanations. And yet on the other, it would be a foolish historian who did not also have a narrowing, logical side that uses disproof, deep reading, attention to detail and rigorous thought to close down foolishnesses.

This widening / narrowing duality sits, to my mind, at the core of what it means to be a good historian: tempering the fire of empathic imagination with the cold steel of historical logic is what it is all about.

On the Internet, though, History struggles to express this duality comfortably. Blogs and uncritical forums offer safe sandboxes for historical imaginations to run wild, proposing all manner of alt.history, counterfactual history, pseudohistory and pseudoscience: but without the narrowing faculty to counterbalance this widening, what gets posted can quickly degenerate into a one-sided caricature of History, rather than anything approaching a useful asset in getting to the truth of what happened.

In short, the “History” I see written on the Internet relating to the things I research and know about brooks no disagreement, let alone accepts any criticism: its authors see the whole idea of narrowing as an insult to their right to personal expression, and as such treat any form of questioning as if it were a personal attack on them, and in turn often respond disrespectfully and abusively.

“Internet History”, really?

But History is not a fiction to be written how you like. It is evidence-driven hypotheses about the past behaviour of real people who just happen, in most (but certainly not all) cases, to now be dead. My opinion – which sadly seems to be shared by few others – is that these real people have as much right to respect as living people, even if by dying they have inadvertently foregone their legal right to sue.

What all too often gets described as “Internet History”, then, is something formed into the general ‘shape’ of History but without logic (and hence without balance), and without respect for the dead (or even the living).

Even though the authors of these pages would like to pass them off as History, the point I am trying to make is that this is the one thing that they are not – for without logic, without balance, and without respect, I think they have moved sideways into a completely different area altogether.

The problem is that we lack a word to describe this other area: it’s not History, and it’s not even “faction” (fiction threaded around a densely factual backdrop) because the authors typically do not consider it fictional at all. What should we call it? “Junk History” (a term used ironically to describe Gavin Menzies’ Chinese fantasy concoctions) is just about as close as I personally can get.


You may well have your own words. 😐

The Difference…

My suspicion is that the explanatory diversity of Internet historical theories that spring up is misread by many as an parallel expression of the cultural diversity of the Internet: and that we should (so the theory goes) therefore just leave them be – let a thousand (diverse) flowers bloom, no matter how wonky or twisted their stems.

However, the explanatory diversity of different proposed “Histories” (where usually at most one of them can be right, hence they are all in competition with each other) is not at all similar to cultural diversity (where each culture has found its own way of living simultaneously with all the other cultures).

What is missing from “Internet History” is (a) the ability to disagree with people amicably; (b) the ability to accept that there is a greater-than-90% chance that any given theory is wrong; and (c) the ability to face up to evidential problems in any given theory.

In short:
* It’s OK to be different – diversity isn’t an optional extra, it’s part of the whole Internet package.
* It’s OK to disagree – it’s a natural consequence of being different.
* It’s also OK to be proved wrong – better that than waste years of your life on something which was broken from the start, surely?

19 thoughts on “History, “Internet History”, and the importance of disagreement…

  1. bdid1dr on March 27, 2016 at 6:36 pm said:

    Oh boy! Oh joy! Can we now consider the WWW the greatest communications system yet? I am SO grateful that I was able to live long enough to participate in this great invention and its myriad uses and offerings!

    “The importance of disagreement” : There are times, even on the WWW, when I use the expression : “I beg to differ”. It seems ‘mellow out’ the more contentious/argumentative tones of discourse.

    Thank you, Nick, for being such ‘mellow fellow’ ! (Tempest in a Teapot?)

  2. I like it. And I think the important thing to remember about any kind of written history, is that it is told from the writer’s point of view. Americans think that the fact that they turn up for the last five minutes of the war ended it, being a notable example of a historical viewpoint not shared by the rest of us.
    In slightly related point, it is the census here again in Aus this year. I don’t remember ever doing that while living in the UK so not sure if we do it there. But my view of it here from last time, the questions are totally boring. Basically they could get all the info off your tax return (compulsory here) and add a box to pick a religion – enter internet plea to pick Jedi Knight just for comedy value. How dull. It would be more interesting for future (- and for us to read for past) generations to ask life questions. How tall are you? – relevant for standards for ceilings, doors, public transport… Are you a vegetarian? What pets do you have? (Would have been fun to see what the 1066 census said – pigs and ducks now cats and dogs..? – future generations think wow they’re big we only have hamsters now…) etc etc.
    So, mindful that some people are either bat shit crazy or criminals, but most aren’t, the internet should provide a more rounded ‘history’ for the future – as not so policed by the ‘one story only’ history we have now. 🙂 so keep posting your reality. What do you eat, what do you watch, is your cat funny… Cos future generations sure as hell won’t get that from any government census. 🙂

  3. Jennifer on March 28, 2016 at 10:50 am said:

    This is great. I would add “Don’t attempt sarcasm.” Not only does sarcasm usually reveal a root of bitterness, there is no such thing as sarcasm font. People can’t hear tone online (or in email), and it often fails miserably, even if you were just trying to be funny.

  4. Jennifer on March 28, 2016 at 10:59 am said:

    1. Take a deep breath.

    You should take a deep breath before you do anything, ever. This especially includes before you press “Post” or “Tweet.”

    2. Think about your goal.

    What are you trying to do with this comment? Start a conversation? Learn something? Solve a problem? Or are you trying to hurt someone or punish them because you feel hurt? Or maybe you are you trying to make yourself look good and make someone else look stupid? Think about it. If your goal is to actually further engage, does your comment have the potential to do that? If your goal is to actually hurt someone’s feelings, then hey, you’re a grown-up. Maybe delete and take a walk around the block.

    3. Remember that words have meaning.

    It might sound good to make a rhetorical point by calling someone a murderer or a racist or a rapist but are they? Really? If they are, unfriend them on Facebook and call the police immediately. But if they aren’t, then probably choose another name to call them or better yet, don’t call them names at all.

    4. Remember that all actions have consequences.

    And the thing about the internet is that you don’t always see the consequences. Use your imagination and think about what the likely consequences are of what you are about to write. The Golden Rule still applies. How would you feel if someone said to you what you are about to say, and said it in front of the whole world? Would you say this thing that you have just written if the person was standing in front of you?

    5. Don’t like or retweet mean comments.

    You know what’s worse than having someone say hurtful things to you? When a whole horde of people behind them pile on and yell, “Yeah! That’s right! What she said!” You know what’s more cowardly than saying mean things over social media? Liking someone else’s mean things.

    6. If you make a mistake, apologize.

    We’ve all done it. See: the above Becca story. As non-robots, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes. So when you do, when things get personal and you realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, just say sorry. It might lead to deeper understanding or even friendship. Sorry can be magical.

    7. Don’t put other people’s crap in your mouth.

    That one, except with a swear word, is from my mediation teacher. If it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes, it’s inevitable other people will too. Things will get nasty, personal, whatever, and you might never get an apology and you know what? It’ll be okay if you’re okay with yourself. When people get mean, it’s about them, not you. I know this sounds like basic first day of kindergarten stuff, but it bears repeating because it still happens and it will still hurt when it happens and the only possible thing you can do is feel hurt and then move on. Someone who lashes out at you online is probably insecure and maybe miserable and maybe scared. It’s worse for them than it is for you, guaranteed.

  5. Thanks very much, Nick.

    I like Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary:

    “HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant,
    which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly

    Of Roman history, great Niebuhr’s shown
    ‘Tis nine-tenths lying. Faith, I wish ’twere known,
    Ere we accept great Niebuhr as a guide,
    Wherein he blundered and how much he lied.

    Salder Bupp”

    Who said sarcasm needs a voice?

    Much of the internet content is simple projection.
    Remember the explosion of knowledge due to Gutenberg. 50 years.
    My view is the ease of production had a lot to do with it, but moving the content to the vernacular was also important.

    Keep your BS filters high Q.

  6. Don: there’s no shortage of vernacular spilling out of some people’s mouths, now ain’t that the truth. =:-o

  7. Don Simpson on March 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm said:

    Don’t we all wish our politicians would read and take to heart. Just think how different our election process would (and should) be.

  8. bdid1dr on March 28, 2016 at 8:46 pm said:

    The importance of disagreement : All of my life (70 years and counting) I have been ‘a-religious’. I am not an atheist; nor do I scoff at any religious beliefs. Several months ago, I passed the newspaper and magazine shelves. at my local library. The front cover was titled “The Koran, commonly called The Alcoran of Mohammed…and a sidebar label: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.
    At the bottom of the magazine’s title commentary, was “LONDON,
    “Printed for L. Hawes, W. Clarke, and R. Collins, at the ‘Red Lion’ in Pater Noster Row; and T. Wilcox, at Virgil’s Head, overagainst the New Church, in the Strand MDCCLXIV . The rest of the story is fascinating. One of the writers of this magazine article is/was Sebastian R. Prange : (doctorate in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

    There is more, Nick. I hope you are interested enough to see if there are any existing back-issues in the University’s library or professor’s files and notes.

  9. Milongal on March 28, 2016 at 10:03 pm said:

    Spot on Jennifer – especially with “breathe”, “consider what the point is”, “avoid sarcasm” (except where you’re in VERY familiar surrounds) and “walk away”.

    I think I’d also add to the one about no tone in written media (I find email easily comes across as hostile [I absolutely hate emails that don’t have a greeting but just have a name – it feels very direct and my instant reaction is “ain’t noone gonna tell me what to do”], and instant messaging even more hostile). One of the problems in public global forums like this is that they bring together EVERYONE. These people come from different cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds and this factors into the way they communicate. This means what seems funny to me is likely to be misconstrued by at least one person in the audience, possibly to the point where they take extreme offence. Even variants on the same language can cause some confusion (A thong is a very different thing in Australia than in the US; and it took me a while to realise that in the SitCom “The Nanny” the line “she was out on her fanny” wasn’t quite as strange as I thought it was either; and I’ve never “rooted for a football team”). Couple that with people who have a different grasp of the language (perhaps English is not their first language, or perhaps they’re dyslexic (like Ricky Mc 🙂 ), or perhaps they struggle expressing their thoughts in writing, or perhaps they come from a generation of l33tsp34k3r5. Either way, you can never tell from the other side what challenges someone has had making their point, and how well (or not) they’ve articulated their point. I’m a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor in everyday life, and I think it’s sort of appropriate here too (albeit a bit strong, perhaps):
    “Don’t assume malice where incompetence could be the cause”

    People are wrong on the internet ALL the time (not everyone all the time, but certainly no one I’ve yet seen is right all the time – myself included), but trying to correct them is usually pointless. We see the holy wars fought by the Religious zealot and the Atheist (or perhaps more oddly against people who claim Agnosticism, but care enough to engage in the debate); *nix vs Windows (or worse yet the pros and cons of different *nix distro’s and flavours); football vs soccer vs rugby vs Aussie Rules (vs any other game that calls itself football too – and worse yet the team vs team); etc….
    When you read any such argument you quickly realise that there’s several type of combatant. There ARE ones who deliberately try to niggle/troll their opponent (particular in football arguments – search for any discussion between Port Adelaide and Adelaide supporters, or any discussion that involves a Collingwood or Hawthorn supporter [watch the Hawks’ supporters take offence at that]). But there are also ones who simply staunchly believe in their view to the point where they think they are on a mission of conversion. In many ways, these are far more dangerous than trolls, because they care. They will passionately (and often aggressively) rant and rave increasingly convinced that the OP must be bonkers not to see things as “clearly” as they do. In certain forums, I used to fall into this category, and even now on FB I’ve found it’s often best to make a comment then unsubscribe from the feed – reading responses will simply inflame me at the OP’s ignorance.
    Without getting overly personal (although I sort of suspect the catalyst to this post), I actually think we’ve seen a lot of it here. That the “three antagonists” (as Pete referred to them) have 3 differing opinions (and 3 different motivations) and occasionally erupt at each other simply because one or other dismisses the ideas they’re so convinced about as implausible or impossible.
    Yes, almost every time it’s best to take a deep breath, think about whether you will change the errant person’s mind and walk away. It’s not worth stressing yourself out over the fact that someone somewhere in the world will never agree with the certainty in your head.

  10. Milongal on March 28, 2016 at 10:28 pm said:

    Oh and another thing. People generally don’t like when someone is more significant than them, so when somebody posts a close connection to the case, or some significance to it, the natural reaction is to disbelieve and challenge the claim because “they can’t be more special than me”.

    If I announced, for example, that I am a plant working for AGD trying to see what people do and don’t know about SM then (other than a little bit of attention from DSD or ASD or whatever the listeners call themselves these days) the idea would simply start a whole bunch of people disproving that idea – when in fact it’s a totally disprovable statement.

    I’m a firm believer that milk goes in the coffee last.

  11. Milongal: I’m almost always delighted to be proved wrong on anything, because that normally means someone has found some evidence (or perhaps figured out some previously unnoticed connection) that I was previously unaware of. But from what I’ve seen on the Internet, I’m probably fairly unusual in this respect. =:-o

  12. bdid1dr on March 29, 2016 at 10:16 pm said:

    Dear Nick, t”would be a sad, boring, world if ‘everything’ and every one had to agree on anything. The Nazi ‘age’ was terrible — and it produced some of the most awful consequences worldwide. I don’t think Stalin’s regime was much better.

    Bless you for opening this particularly important but scary discussion. Did my note in re Thomas Jefferson’s Library maybe cause some backlash maneuvers of trolls.? If so, I humbly apologize (once again for maybe causing another ‘tempest in a teapot”,

    beady-eyed wonder

  13. bdid1dr on March 29, 2016 at 10:31 pm said:

    Dang! I think I’m going to leave parentheses out of my posts — and take to using lots of dashes — instead !
    ps: my youngest child uses =:-o to indicate ‘rabbit’

  14. bdid1dr: anyone who uses a rabbit emoticon is fine by me. =:-o

  15. bdid1dr on April 5, 2016 at 8:13 pm said:

    Nick, this latest note I am typing may be objectionable to some people — but they really need to understand the awful consequences the inventor of the ‘computer’ endured.

    We also need to understand that some of the people who are communicating some very ugly threats to the World Wide Web, have NO idea of the consequences of their ‘hacking” fun. Let it be known, worldwide, to the ‘hackers’ that they will be committing their own communications ‘suicide’ with every hacking attempt. Poor hackers; how miserable they must be.


  16. steven on April 6, 2016 at 6:33 pm said:

    It needs to be remembered that history is written by the victor….

  17. bdid1dr on April 7, 2016 at 8:31 pm said:

    @ Steven: Not always. It took refugees from the Nazi concentration camps to tell the real, horrific history.
    Several years ago, when I was at a festival, I came back from the dance floor, to find that my chair was occupied by the twin sister of the woman with whom I had been conversing. I looked at the pair of them, and then hesitantly asked one question:
    “That godawful doctor ? ” — They both nodded, and sat me down in the empty chair between them.

    It may be that there are still some more survivors who can tell their stories.

  18. bdid1dr on April 17, 2016 at 5:41 pm said:

    For information about the notorious doctor, I’ll be searching the WWW for more mention of him. If my recall is correct, I’ll return to Nick’s post. I suspect there isn’t going to be a whole lot.
    Several months ago, I visited a website which was displaying and discussing the newly built Holocaust memorial in the Los Angeles area. It was scary, to say the least. A curving concrete ramp with eight-foot tall walls. I was horrified: WHAT were the architects and builders thinking ? !
    I can’t bring myself to return to that horrific website . There may, or may not, be mention of that gawdawful “Doctor”.
    It was not just Jews who were being persecuted. Gypsies went to the gas chambers. Mentally retarded persons were also targeted.
    If you feel like it, you may want to read Leon Uris’ books “Exodus’ and ‘QB Seven” (Queen’s Bench Seven). Both books became movies.
    Any of James Michener’s books: “The Source”, in particular, I read entirely; from dusk until dawn.

    1dr no more why bdid1dr ‘rants’ about the other side of the story !


  19. bdid1dr on April 26, 2016 at 3:09 pm said:

    I only got a glimpse of discussion: Recently, somebody bought Mengeles’ notebook. They are displaying the devilish man’s various sketches and commentary/notes — and releasing them to the WWW. I hope the purchasers of the diary will keep it in a bullet-proof, fire-proof, earthquake proof container — and release copies of every single page to our Library of Congress !
    Rough figures for the “Holocaust” : 6 million, give or take 2 million, people died in horrific circumstances. Another 2-million or so died while on forced marches; in the dead of winter, so to speak.
    My mother’s best friend was the sole survivor of two generations of her extensive family. In my teens, my mother told me about “Auntie Mil”. My mother also gave me a small elaborately embroidered skull-cap, and a pair of an infant’s soft leather shoes .

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