Note: This is the English translation (automatically with DeepL). The German original written by Kristin Oswald (University of Hamburg) in coordination with her colleagues Thorsten Logge, Christian Bunnenberg, Nils Steffen, Mia Berg, Andrea Lorenz can be found here.
The Public Humanities and the Citizen Humanities are multifaceted and can only be separated to a limited extent – Barbara Heinisch pointed this out in her article “A Path through the Conceptual Jungle of the Public Humanities” for this blog series. But what can these fields and their overlaps contribute to research in the humanities? What does it mean in concrete and practical terms to not only communicate humanities content to the public, but to build and maintain active and participatory relationships with it or with specific subgroups, as Barbara Heinisch has elaborated as a necessary development? At the beginning of March 2021 – and thus only three weeks before the call for participation in this blog series – the project “SocialMediaHistory” started its work. A project that aims to find answers to precisely these questions. We have already developed initial ideas and would like to share them here.
Topic, relevance and expectations of the project
SocialMediaHistory is a joint project of the Public History department at the University of Hamburg, the Junior Professorship for History Didactics at the Ruhr University Bochum, and Kulturpixel e.V. as educational support. It is financed for three years, i.e. until the end of February 2024, by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of its funding for citizen science projects. In line with the citizen science approach, a core element – and certainly one of the major challenges – of the project is to conduct research together with citizens.
In the context of SocialMediaHistory, we investigate how history presentations function, especially on Instagram and TikTok, which actors tell history there, how they do it, and who reacts to it and how. In doing so, we see the pluralization and diversification of formats and actors as an opportunity to collectively reflect on ideas of history and practices of “making history”. Debates around examples like @eva.stories and @ichbinsophiescholl on Instagram or the so-called “Holocaust Challenge” on TikTok show that history enjoys extremely high popularity and reach in social media and thus influences a large circle of recipients on many levels. At the same time, it moves in a conflict-laden field of tension between normative expectations – e.g., from memory-cultural traditions, historical-political educational mandates, or political values -, individual practices, and media, aesthetic, and narrative specifics of the platforms. This is also reflected in the multifaceted nature of the formats. Scientifically oriented or journalistically informative offerings are juxtaposed with entertainment formats, educational offerings from established institutions meet personal memory practices and individual approaches, complex storytelling meets fragmentary narratives, traditional practices meet media trends. Together with citizens, we will enter this field of tension, analyze and test the range of forms and practices of representation. In doing so, we and the citizens are at the same time users and producers with different horizons of experience and expectation, which can result in insightful processes of negotiation, rapprochement and learning for the interaction between historical science and society.
Our concept for participatory historical science
The joint research will take two forms: First, the project team will be supported by a fixed, approximately 15-member advisory board (the “DabeiRat”) from fall 2021 until the end of the project. Interested parties from all over Germany can apply for this council until September 6, no specific previous experience is necessary. The main task of the “DabeiRat” is to prepare and follow up four public workshops together with the full-time team. These are the core of the project, as in them the participants* explore and test history presentations on Instagram and TikTok. The results of the workshops will be incorporated into Open Educational Resources (OER), which will be made available to the public beyond the end of the project. The members of the DabeiRat can participate in all meetings – the full-time team and probably also the DabeiRat are distributed over large parts of Germany and work largely digitally – and co-decide on topics, methods and the evaluation of the workshops.
The opportunity to participate as equally as possible in a humanities research project may be sufficient reason for some citizens to volunteer for more than 2.5 years. However, studies on motivation and participation in citizen science projects as well as on visitors and users of cultural and humanities offerings show that this only applies to a limited and rather homogeneous population group. However, in order to represent as diverse perspectives as possible and to conduct scientific research – because social media are used by people of all backgrounds – diversity plays an important role for SocialMediaHistory. That’s why we developed numerous benefits for our DabeiRat and tried to make participation as hurdle-free as possible. Our initial question was how we can convince people who are not primarily interested in history, do not feel addressed by it, or do not have enough time to participate in all areas of the project. Our concept is now based on the fact that participation in all meetings and activities is voluntary – everything can, nothing must. As benefits, we offer DabeiRat members a wide variety of qualification opportunities on scientific and social media topics and open up creative freedom and support for their own projects. How attractive the specific offers are for whom will become clear during the tendering phase and beyond.
Interaction of project levels between Public Humanities and Citizen Humanities
SocialMediaHistory is not the first Citizen Science or Citizen Humanities research project dealing with the past and history. However, our approach goes beyond previous projects in several respects, because in addition the Public Humanities and especially Public History are the research topic and at the same time the practical-experimental approach of the project:
- SocialMediaHistory researches in the field of Public Humanities how the representation of the past as history(s) is perceived and received, appropriated, produced or even distorted in social media. We are not primarily concerned with factual correctness and normative evaluations, but rather with the interplay of people’s images of history with technical information, aspects of identity or political orientation, and with the media’s own logics and stylistic devices through which history is conveyed. Our focus is on the Instagram and TikTok platforms, as these are mostly short, audiovisual formats. This form of processing history evokes its own forms of reception, is particularly far removed from the typical modes of presentation of historical scholarship, and is also why it has hardly been researched yet.
- In this context, SocialMediaHistory also belongs to the Digital Humanities, because a central theme and at the same time a difficulty of the project are the technical, ethical and legal challenges that arise in the study of representations of history in social media. Central to this is the question of the extent to which history in social media can be studied at all, far removed from case studies and not only in its representation but also in its reception, when the platforms provide only limited interfaces or completely prohibit automated data collection. The project therefore also reflects on the accessibility, analyzability, and reusability of data on history in social media.
- SocialMediaHistory itself becomes an actor in the public humanities, in that the project team and the citizens involved actively engage in scholarly communication in social media and thus strategically test forms of representation for scholarly and historical content on those platforms that they research as part of the scholarly process. The findings on the representation of history in social media are processed for social media in order to be able to discuss them there with other actors. Just like expert historians, we present our research narratively and thus participate as actors in historical cultures – only in other media and formats. We transfer this way of working into the digital space and observe the potentials and effects of such a change of media. This experimental process is also part of the research approach in the sense of an experimental public history and is scientifically documented and accompanied.
- SocialMediaHistory enables actors to conduct their own research on historical topics and to prepare their findings for social media. The goal is to demonstrate, but also to enable and promote fact-based, multi-perspective historical narratives and critical, reflexive participation in historical discourses in social media. In workshops, we develop Open Educational Resources together with citizens, in which we convey a basic understanding of research methods in the field of history as well as pedagogical approaches to the mediation of history in social media. The basic assumption here is that the ability to deal competently with the principles and possibilities of the representation and communication of history contributes to being able to behave in a fundamentally critical and reflective manner with regard to content on social media platforms. We therefore see the teaching of appropriate skills as part of a research project as a contribution to society that goes beyond historical issues to help respond to phenomena such as fake news and hate speech, and also encourages marginalized voices to tell their stories.
- SocialMediaHistory deliberately sets itself apart from common practice in the Citizen Humanities or develops it further. So far, the majority of citizen science projects in the humanities can be classified as crowdsourcing or contribution. In this case, a large and often anonymous group of participants provides data to the respective project. For example, objects from databases are indexed or texts are transcribed. The participants thus perform necessary scientific support work, but are rarely involved in the research process beyond that. SocialMediaHistory, on the other hand, works with the approximately 15 citizens in the DabeiRat, who can provide impulses, suggestions and criticism for almost all steps of the scientific process – almost all, because the research topic and the scientific procedure had to be pre-formulated, at least in outline, for the application. But beyond that, we strive for absolute transparency and participation. The members of our DabeiCouncil can participate in all our team meetings, discuss with us research methods, the topics and examples to be investigated, as well as the concrete procedure, point out our blind spots, and become an active part of our internal and external science communication. Thus, the citizen science approach influences the substantive aspects of the project and also its research process in a way that is only partially predictable for us. We do plan the procedure, but we do so on sight. And of course, this is also part of the research approach and is scientifically documented and accompanied by us.
These approaches make SocialMediaHistory a methodologically extremely demanding research project in public history. Not only do all levels overlap, but the fact that we also want to look at all levels scientifically forces us to permanently reflect on our own approach and our own ways of thinking as scientists. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that during the first months of the project we had to invest intensively in the study of literature and the development of concepts for the methodological approach and could not immediately begin with the analysis of specific channels or formats on Instagram and TikTok. This effect of self-reflection will certainly intensify as soon as we start working with our DabeiRat, as planned in the fall of this year.
But we see in this complexity above all a great added value. Anyone who wants to conduct scholarly communication in the humanities, to conduct their research in the sense of public humanities for the public or even together with the public, must first understand. Understand how modes of representation and reception as well as ideas of one’s own discipline function outside and inside the scientific community and who is involved. Understand how the interplay between science and society works in relation to one’s own discipline. And understand how scientists themselves (unconsciously) influence the exploration and perhaps even implementation of these modes of representation. For the public, digital, and citizen humanities are not only fields of practice in the humanities, but they are also fields of research themselves.
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How to cite this Article: Oswald, Kristin (2021): “Public Humanities in practice: the project ‘SocialMediaHistory – History on Instagram and TikTok'”. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie and Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanities. https://publicdh.hypotheses.org/277.