By Bob Nicolson
Why is Jimmy Carter not regarded as a great president? Is psychology a distinctively western tradition? Was Machiavelli’s The Prince a work of satire? What happened to Spartan soldiers when they retired? Did medieval tournaments have cheerleaders? Why did women start to shave their legs? When did men stop wearing hats? What did dodos taste like?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, reddit is a social news website that styles itself as the ‘front page of the internet’. Last month it attracted more than 70 million unique visitors, which places it among the most popular and influential websites around. Its users are responsible for generating and editing all of the site’s content – these ‘redditors’ submit material to the site and then determine its success by ‘upvoting’ items that they like and ‘downvoting’ things that they don’t. In theory, the best and most important material should rise to the top – in practice, it translates mostly into funny pictures of cats.
Reddit is divided into more than 5,000 themed communities that are created and moderated by users. These range from predictably mainstream topics such as movies, politics, and gaming, to more peculiar stuff like OneTrueGod – a community of nearly 60,000 users dedicated to worshipping the life, work, and facial expressions of Nicholas Cage. There are some weird (and occasionally quite disturbing) groups lurking in the website’s darker corners, but once you create an account, you can subscribe to the communities that you find appealing and block all of the ones that you would rather avoid.
All of which brings us back to AskHistorians. This particular subreddit functions as a forum where users can ask historical questions and have them answered by an expert in the field. All responses need to be comprehensive, informative, on-topic, and supported by citations to historiography or primary source material. The site is rigorously moderated and budding historians need to demonstrate their knowledge or academic credentials before being recognised as an expert. At present, over 300 users have made the grade and received a ‘flair’ that signals their expertise in a particular research area. For example, I’m currently flagged as a historian of 19th century Britain and America. Some of these experts are university lecturers like me; others are postgraduate researchers, archivists, librarians, curators, public historians, professional researchers, or accomplished amateurs. These experts cater to a large and rapidly expanding community of readers. At the time of writing, more than 180,000 people have subscribed. It’s a diverse, transnational, and refreshingly inter-disciplinary community of history enthusiasts that effortlessly bridges the gap between academic historians and the general public.
It’s worth subscribing to AskHistorians simply for the pleasure of browsing through its daily complement of new discussions. However, for early career historians (and anybody else who’s keen to share and promote their research) it offers an excellent opportunity to engage with a public audience. In terms of sheer numbers, the potential readership of AskHistorians blows most other vehicles for the popular dissemination of history out of the water. The circulation figures of leading magazines like History Today (c. 21,000) and BBC History (c. 69,000) are perfectly respectable, but they’re dwarfed by the size of the AskHistorians community and are difficult for early career researchers to publish in. Similarly, whilst twitter and blogging can be great public engagement tools, it’s taken me two years of dedicated tweeting to accumulate 1,700 followers – less than 1% of the audience accessible instantly via reddit. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful and accessible platform for historians to share their work.
I’ve been contributing answers to AskHistorians for over a year now. In truth, it can be rather addictive – readers are able to ‘upvote’ good answers and confer ‘karma points’ on contributors, which regrettably brings out my competitive side. When the REF comes around again I doubt I’ll include these karma points on my submission, but it’s possible to translate reddit’s sizeable audience figures into more established ways of boosting and measuring impact. For example, I posted a link to one of my academic articles as a citation in one of my answers – in less than a week it leapt from under 100 downloads to over 700. As a result, it’s now the second most read article of all time on the Journal of Victorian Culture’s website. It’s too early to tell whether these downloads will translate into citations, but the improved visibility of my work is reason enough to continue this kind of publicity. Of course, sharing research with the public is far easier when it’s hosted on an open access platform. I’ve seen similarly large increases in traffic when I’ve posted links to my blog, but haven’t managed to repeat the effect with articles that are stuck behind a paywall.
Of course, even in the age of ‘impact’ there’s more to life than numbers. Sharing my research with new people is pleasurable enough in itself, but it also generates valuable feedback about the things that readers find interesting. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that an answer about Victorian pornography will generate more interest than a post on Anglo-Russian exchange rates, but I’ve been encouraged by how many people have expressed an interest in my doctoral research and urged me to explore particular elements in more detail. I’ve also benefitted from the knowledge and suggestions of AskHistorians’ generous community of experts. I have already lost count of the times that somebody has helped me to overcome a problem with my research, alerted me to a new online resource, recommended a great book, or suggested a new avenue of enquiry.
So, if you’re keen to engage with a broad new audience, AskHistorians might well be for you. It’s a great way to boost your online presence and drive large numbers new readers to your academic work. More than that, however, it’s just a pleasure to be part of a rich and welcoming community of history enthusiasts. It’s well worth a look over your next coffee break.
Plus, I bet you’re dying to know what dodos actually did taste like, right?
Bob Nicholson is a Lecturer in History at Edge Hill University. In 2012 he completed a PhD on transatlantic journalism at the University of Manchester. His work has been published in the Journal of Victorian Culture, the Victorian Periodicals Review, and Media History. He was awarded the inaugural ‘Gale Fellowship in Nineteenth-Century Media’ for his innovative use of digital archives. He blogs at digitalvictorianist.com and tweets as @DigiVictorian.