Digital communications are central to how we communicate, debate, teach and assess understanding of the past.
In this post, David Geiringer goes back to one of the earliest, and most resilient, of these formats — the blog — to consider its development, use and relevance for historians.
Originally championed for taking the communication of historical research beyond mainstream publishing and the academy, blogs are now integral to higher education assessment and practice. With blogs mainstream, it’s time to consider how much of their original, disruptive capacity — in terms of content, format and readership — still holds; and reflect on the future of the communication format you’re about to read.
As the US historian and technology commentator Jason Steinhauer suggests, the internet has changed the past forever. Even if we consider the so-called ‘culture wars’ more heat than light, there’s no denying that much of its energy is focused on and derives from the digital sphere. Contests over the legacy of empire, gender history, and the roots of capitalism are being played out online. Digital platforms such as Wikipedia, Facebook, Substack, TikTok and X (the platform formally known as Twitter) are not simply neutral conduits of knowledge, but shape the tenor of historical discussion. Social media – with its relentless immediacy yet subversive interactivity – has dominated recent debates about the impact of digital technologies on public history.
By contrast, the blog, the longest-running digital publication format, has slipped beneath the radar. Typically between 500-1500 words in length and presented in a more informal style than the traditional article, blogs have served multiple purposes for scholars: appetisers for larger research publications, ‘gardens’ to grow ideas, channels for what Cory Doctorow describes as ‘knowledge grazing’, and more recently, extended footnotes for bite-size social media commentary. The ambiguities of ‘the blog’ have resulted in it receiving less critical attention than other forms of historical communication.
Blogs make an implicit claim to the democratisation of historical knowledge.
History degrees now routinely include blog assessments – a natural response to the relocation of the historical conversations to digital spaces. Blogs make an implicit claim to the democratisation of historical knowledge – they represent an attempt to extend the modes, style, agents and authors of history. Helen Rogers suggested in 2015 that blogging ‘has the potential to “turn history upside down” by breaking down traditional hierarchies separating amateur and professional, young and old, theorist and practitioner, reader and writer.’
Rather than debating whether the blog is a good or bad format for historical communication, I want to probe into the deeper political and pedagogic assumptions behind uses of the genre by historians. Which ‘publics’ are being imagined as the audiences of public history blogs? As we approach a decade on from Rogers’ assertion that blogging promised to ‘turn history upside down’, to what extent has this revolution been realised?
Blogging the past
As Amanda Zantal Wiener shows, blogging has a contested and convoluted history. The original ‘weblog’ authors of the mid-1990s, generally concerned with technical topics and sharing links to other resources, were supplanted by a new generation of users at the turn of the millennium. Online resources such as Open Diary, Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanger, TypePad and WordPress enabled a growing community of web users to tell us what was on their mind. Historians were quick to take advantage of this opportunity. A Canadian PhD student at Harvard, Rob MacDougal, is thought to be the first historian to venture into blogging, publishing a post on 25 January 2001 that bemoaned inaccuracies of the citation software Endnote. Blogs by historians seeking to engage wider audiences soon followed, with Esther McCallum-Stewart’s Break of Day in the Trenches and Rebecca Goetz’s Historianess launching in 2002.
History degrees now routinely include blog assessments – a natural response to the relocation of the historical conversations to digital spaces.
Today, the history blog is far from a codified genre. Traditional institutions of the historical profession – university departments, archives, museums, journals and learned societies – all publish blogs, often managed by a dedicated social media editor or even team. Many academic historians produce personal blogs. A few personal favourites include Matt Houlbrook’s intimate reflections on the practice of writing history, Rob Saunders topical commentary of the value of history in contemporary politics, and Dion Georgious’s experimentation with ongoing research.
In the early 2010s, when many favoured journals remained behind paywalls, the Open Access movement encouraged scholars to publish blogs, to reach audiences otherwise denied access to their ideas. Open Access is now more prevalent among leading journals, but blogging is still often viewed as a form of resistance to the ‘pay-to-read’ structures of academia. These history bloggers continue a lineage of academics from the early 2000s who turned to blogs to engage new audiences with their ideas.
The Goldsmiths sociologist Mark Fisher used his blog K-PUNK as a means through which to workshop and finesse concepts of capitalistic realism, Acid Communism and hauntology. For Hua Hsu, writing in The New Yorker in 2018, Fisher was active in a period when ‘blogging seemed like a distinct genre of writing and thinking’, offering academics an open forum through which to explore ideas which were marginalised within peer-reviewed academic spaces. Blogging appeared to hold a radical and disruptive potential. Scholars like Fisher helped forge what the digital historian, Adam Crymble, describes as an ‘imagined community of digital humanists’ – a relatively short-lived network of academics who thought collectively and across disciplinary boundaries.
History blogging as an assessment tool
Blogs are now a widely used form of assessment in HE: more than twenty modules in the School of History at my institution, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), use blog assessments. Marking criteria vary across institutions, but tend to test a student’s capacity to communicate complex historical subjects to a wide, non-academic audience. The academic’s personal blog is perhaps the closest in form to how we ask our students to write; that is, to put aside the conventions of academic style for a second and translate your intellectual work into accessible content for a non-specialist audience. The rise of the blog assessment has come hand-in-hand with the rise of ‘public history’ as a field of expertise.
Blogging develops similar core skills to essays – the ability to analyse sources, present a clear argument, write fluently – but also emphasises engaging wider audiences, capturing attention and creative use of multi-media
Over the last ten years, public history MAs have been introduced at universities across the country, with departments keen to pursue public-facing, skills-orientated teaching. On these courses, the blog has become the go-to alternative to the essay. Blogging develops similar core skills to essays – the ability to analyse sources, present a clear argument, write fluently – but also emphasises engaging wider audiences, capturing attention, creative use of multi-media and addressing that key question of ‘what’s the point?’ In many ways, the history blog is as much a product of the late-modern, neo-liberal university as it is the ‘history from below’ movement of the 1960s – an exercise which promises to develop transferable skills and make students competitive in the attention economy.
Who reads history blogs?
One of the primary goals of public history blogging is to reach a wider, non-academic audience. So who are these intended public audiences? In summer 2023, I ran a survey on student experiences of blog assessments through an anonymous digital questionnaire. The survey was open to all students at QMUL who had submitted blog assessments and part of an initiative to improve the way we assessed public history. Of the 103 responses, students overwhelmingly tended to imagine themselves as their public.
When asked who they were writing for, they spoke of ‘someone like myself’, ‘like-minded people’, and ‘someone my age’. Clearly the blog is thought of as a tool for engaging with younger generations. But when asked if they read history blogs beyond their degrees, or whether this genre had changed their own learning experience, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. In part, this might be about blogs not always being identified as ‘blogs’ – ‘platforms’, ‘publications’ or ‘content’ being alternative labels – but it’s apparent that text-based online history is not reaching younger audiences.
If students as authors view themselves as the audience of their blogs, while also being conscious that this is something of a false premise (those between 40-60 are in fact the most avid blog readers), to what extent is the blog assessment achieving its goal of developing a more creative and inclusive approach to communication? It becomes vital to prompt students to challenge their image of the audience, just as Roberta Bivens does by including an ‘audience statement’ component in her blog assessment. But the cultural identity of the history blog also brings with it certain associations. One student commented:
‘History blogs are supposed to be different from books and articles, but they don’t seem that different to me. Blogs are written for the same people who read history books – white, middle-class people.’
A study of US students found that an ‘educational gap in blogging’ along class and racial lines ‘persists, rather than narrows, even among people who are online’. The blog might be a slightly dated genre now, but similar questions could be raised about the audiences for history podcasts, magazines, zines, exhibitions and art installations.
Blogging as a gateway to inclusive pedagogy?
When considered alongside perennial issues of digital accessibility and disenfranchisement, it might be time for us to think more critically about the inclusive credentials of the blog. I’m not calling for us to do away with blogs altogether, but there is a need to rethink the claims we make to our students about blogging.
To some extent, this is about doing more to unpack highly freighted and potentially exclusionary terms such as ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ in in marking criteria. It’s also about allowing students to disrupt the public history blog as a genre. Experimentation with form and style, community blogging and ungrading offer some indication of future directions. However, it’s our students’ generation who will ultimately determine the fate and shape of tomorrow’s history blog.
Finding ways to encourage students to rekindle the radical potential of blogging is a mission which will not only benefit their learning, but could also provide a vital shot-in-the arm for the wider historical discipline. I’d certainly be interested to see how this blog, composed in its conservative, marking-criteria-friendly style, could be reloaded into a format that transgresses the conventions of historical communication. If you have ideas, please let me know.
 H. Rogers, ‘Blogging Our Criminal Past: Social Media, Public Engagement and Creative History’, Law, Crime and History, 5, 1, (2015) p. 54.
 A. Crymble, Technology and the Historian: Transformations in the Digital Age, (Illinois, 2021)
About the author
Dr David Geiringer is a social and cultural historian of modern Britain at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on histories of sexuality, religion, gender and emotions.
David has published widely on the topics of oral history methods, anti-racism, and religion and sexuality. Indeed, his first monograph, The Pope and the Pill (2019), examines the sexual and religious experiences of Catholic women in post-war England.
Dedicated to public history, David has contributed to numerous projects on communicating history to wider audiences, and has shared his own research via public channels such as the BBC, The Independent, Guardian, and Metro.
Header Image: iStockphoto, credit Nikolai Mentuk
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