In Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Cocreation of Knowledge, Amanda G. Sikarskie draws upon a lingering question of mine through her analysis of “lay scholars”— what exactly does “public” mean to the field of public history? It’s no secret that history is traditionally crafted in a top-down manner. The individuals accredited as knowledge producers often come from a deep academic tradition, granting them an edge over everyone else. The separation between producer and consumer is clear in this respect; the expert is responsible for creating a knowledge base for consumers to absorb over time.
Projects like “Engaging to Preserve: Building a Preservation-Minded Community through Twitter” embody Frisch’s concept of “sharing authority” by taking into consideration the importance of community, and extending the realm of discussion to unheard, often marginalized voices. More importantly, we need to take into consideration the decision making process of Caroline N. Stevens during the early stages of her project. Recognizing that she was “a newcomer to Providence”, Stevens decided to co-op the public by actively engaging with fellow “historians and preservationists” through social media, thus providing her with “a wealth of information about the Phenix building”.
The concept of co-creating knowledge is brilliant for it represents a reversal of roles. The hierarchies of knowledge production are therefore constantly redefined, and in its place we’re given a seemingly limitless, cyclical set of possibilities where the one-time consumers of such knowledge ultimately become producers themselves. For example, consider the role played by prominent YouTube “reactors”. The platform for a “reaction” video is quite simple—film yourself watching to a video, either trendy or obscure, that was produced by someone else.
Despite claims of “originality”, the one of the defining aspects of a “reaction” channel is the producer’s willingness to engage with their audience. By soliciting their fans for suggestions, reactors not only create content that caters directly to the needs of the audience in that specific moment, it allows the public to feel responsible for the creation of the video itself.
I’m not here to vouch for the credibility of YouTube “reactors”, instead I admire the efficacy of their business model. They’ve essentially monetized a video-based adaptation of “retweeting” that like Stevens, actively engages their audience in the process of content/knowledge production. While I’m not as optimistic as Sikarskie at the end of her piece Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Cocreation of Knowledge, I’m starting to understand the value of community engagement. While social media may be shifting the balance of power away from “the museum or the university history department”, our discussions last week point to the issue of participation in regards to online communities. As we look ahead to our projects, who will be given the right to participate in the communities we seek to establish? Will we create “true” democracies where everyone has a voice, or will we resort to minor forms of censorship in order to preserve our work?
If you’re hesitant over this issue, I’d refer to the recent Twitter battle between rapper B.o.B and Neil deGrasse Tyson over the shape of the Earth. Though it’s unrelated to the topic of public history, it’s nevertheless entertaining. Or if you’re really bored, here’s a video on the matter @ADoseofBuckley. Who doesn’t love a cynical Canadian? #triggerwarnings