As part of my EUROTAST postdoc I partnered with the Institute for Public Understanding of the Past and Marc Pallascio, a History MA student to conduct a survey of the online outreach of museums and institutions that commemorate so-called “dark” or difficult heritage. At the outset of my postdoc I wrote:
How do I digitally remediate difficult heritage? What considerations do I take when I disseminate research on this incredibly sensitive topic, heritage that hurts? (…) Anyway, I’ve taken to calling my new job digital heritage on hard mode.
This article attempts to address some of these questions through social media metrics and the online interactions of heritage institutions associated with difficult heritage: The Holocaust, 9/11, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, with a focus on the latter. Additionally, we looked into existing online communities surrounding difficult heritage that are independent of these larger institutions.
Spoilers: there was little-to-no interactivity between official institutions and online places where people chose to “remember together.” Social media was used by official institutions purely to broadcast, not to interact.
Institutions and experts were also pretty scarce where there was the most interaction, debate and arguably a need for an informed opinion. It’s a complete cliche online, but we ventured where nobody dares to go: THE COMMENTS.
These were on a YouTube series for Africans in America, on the “Little Dread” YouTube channel. Even when a link to a reputable source is posted, it is countered with a reference to the van Sertima pseudoscientific book “They Came Before Columbus.” More importantly, there are several online places and communities that are obviously taking up issues of heritage, race, and origins and these are overwhelmingly NOT in ready-made, sanctioned arenas for such discussions. As we state in the paper:
Authoritative voices are absent in non-specialist discussions of heritage online, as experts frame their conversations within official settings.
From the conclusions:
The distributed network of the internet would seem to be an ideal venue for discussions with and between members of the diaspora formed by the descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet, there is little connectivity apparent on either websites or social media between academics, heritage interpreters, and the online stakeholder communities…identifying where meaningful performative collective memory is exercised, then engaging with stakeholders on their own terms, may be more impactful than websites or campaigns of outward-facing social media.
Despite the 2015 publication date, the article has just been published by the Journal of African Diaspora and Heritage:
Morgan, C., & Pallascio, P. M. (2015). Digital Media, Participatory Culture, and Difficult Heritage: Online Remediation and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, 4(3), 260–278.
It’s also available as a pre-print on Academia:
One thought on “The Holocaust, 9/11, the Slave Trade and…Facebook? How Museums & Experts Fail at Social Media”
Have you considered how ideas such as incentive structures, opportunity costs, and structural factors might affect your analysis? Its easy to talk about how more engagement between academics and the wider public would be nice, but engaging in online discussions and writing open-access resources cost time and emotional energy, and time is money. Finding online communities which are open to learning about academic sources or reasoning, and learning how to play Wikipedia politics or balance silly pictures with serious things, are also work.
Since academics who engage with the public mostly do so as volunteers, its hard to blame them for focusing on what is fun and rewarding for them. I seem to recall an argument about whether the past 50 years of science communication in the US, carried out by dedicated organizations with serious budgets, have had =any= measurable impact on public knowledge of science in the US.