Opinion

How Viral History Accounts Are Hurting the Past They Purport to Celebrate

Illustration from "The Queen Mary Psalter" (1310-1320) (via British Library)
Illustration from “The Queen Mary Psalter,” f.190v (1310–20) (via British Library)

Although it only started in March, the Twitter account @MedievalReacts has soared to over 270,000 followers — all because it takes images without attribution from libraries and other sources and pairs them with punchy, modern text. Unlike most of the rapid-image Twitter accounts out there, @MedievalReacts has been upfront about its commercial angle from the beginning. That’s rightly rankled the historians and academics who promote digitization and the availability of medieval manuscripts, as it strips the images of both their context and sources.

Earlier this month Vice interviewed 19-year-old Cathal Berragan, who runs @MedievalReacts as part of the Social Chain, which, per its website, “own[s] and manage[s] almost all of the biggest social media pages in the UK across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.” The Social Chain builds viral accounts like @MedievalReacts and slips in advertising periodically in a way that its account manager, Michael Heaven Jr, described to Vice as “seamless.” The medieval-themed account has already inspired a flurry of mimics, although Berragan did have this to say about copycats: “People do get very angry when they have great ideas and they’re copied, but I sort of think it’s fair game.”

For the medievalists, it’s less an issue about the use of the content, which is largely public domain; it’s that not even the slightest effort is made at attribution. Behind each of the images are a person and an institution that digitized it and made it available, as well as a place in art and time. As Kate Wiles wrote in an essay last week at History Today, adding dates and sources might clutter the tweet, but “wouldn’t it be nice if these huge audiences had the choice between investigating them further or not, and if libraries and archives received due credit for making this wealth of material available.” Not to mention that many of the images seem lifted from accounts that do regularly cite their sources, without lessening the impact. Compare these tweets, the first by @discarding_imgs, the second by @MedievalReacts:

medievalimages01 medievalimages02

Why not just tag the Beinecke Library at the end of the joke? It’s as if @MedievalReacts is afraid of any distraction from their base humor, when it could use comedy and the past to bring people into art history, or at least give a shout-out to the libraries that make these images part of our online dialogue. The issue of image attribution hardly starts and ends with @MedievalReacts, of course; Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other social media platforms encourage a speedy exchange of images in which sources often get lost, and Creative Commons levels can be confusing. However, the account’s fast rise, widespread media coverage from the likes of ViceMetro.co.uk, and Huffington Post, and its blatant borrowing of images — including lifting work from artists like James Kerr (aka Scorpion Dagger) — for monetary gain deserves attention.

The most infamous of these types of accounts — which pretend to embrace history but are really just tossing it out for endless attention — is @HistoryInPics, which has over two million followers. As TechCrunch reported in December, the three founders behind it and the equally viral @EarthPix have raised $2 million in investments — despite their regular sharing of doctored or inaccurate images. Matt Novak of Paleofuture and Factually regularly points out their errors, like a random baby erroneously labeled as Charles Manson or a photoshop of Che Guevara’s head to make it look like he once jammed with John Lennon. Paulo Ordoveza’s @PicPedant is also diligent in calling out @HistoryInPics and its clones. Yet that hasn’t affected their popularity.

medievalimages05

medievalimages04

Last year, Rebecca Onion of Slate Vault wrote a smart and thorough essay on the issue of history pictures accounts, stating that “[b]y failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what ‘history’ is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.” Likewise, @MedievalReacts is a dead end, offering a quick laugh without the opportunity to explore further. It turns strange images, like a 13th-century elephant illustrated by Matthew Paris from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, into static objects rather than portals of discovery. Why stop there when you could revel in the whole weird world of misshapen medieval elephants that evolved as the animal was brought to Europe? Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library wrote in a post on her blog last year that “[t]hese accounts capitalize on a notion that history is nothing more than superficial glimpses of some vaguely defined time before ours, one that exists for us to look at and exclaim over and move on from without worrying about what it means and whether it happened.”

@MedievalReacts could be discouraging libraries and other institutions from making their collections available, knowing that even with Creative Commons licensing that requires attribution, the images could be used to support commercial endeavors. Worse is this presentation of history as an island. Unfortunately, their wild popularity means these accounts have no reason to change. Yet that very popularity also shows that people are curious about historic images. Each represents a book, a collection, a long-dead artist— history that needs attention to be preserved. This is something these accounts could support, rather than disregard as if it doesn’t exist.

comments (0)