it’s history, not a viral feed

For months now I’ve been stewing about how much I hate @HistoryInPics and their ilk (@HistoryInPix, @HistoricalPics, @History_Pics, etc.)—twitter streams that do nothing more than post “old” pictures and little tidbits of captions for them. ((I despise them so much I’m not going to link to them or list them all. You’re clever. You can figure it out.)) And when I say “nothing more” that’s precisely what I mean. What they don’t post includes attribution to the photographer or to the institution hosting the digital image. There’s no way to easily learn more about the image (you can, of course, do an image search through TinEye or Google Image Search and try to track it down that way).

Alexis Madrigal recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic revealing that @HistoryInPics is run by a couple of teenagers who are savvy at generating viral social media accounts to bring in money: 

They met hustling on YouTube when they were 13 and 15, respectively, and they’ve been doing social media things together (off and on) since. They’ve built YouTube accounts, making money off advertising. They created Facebook pages such as “Long romantic walks to the fridge,” which garnered more than 10 million Likes, and sold them off. More recently, Di Petta’s company, Swift Fox Labs, has hired a dozen employees, and can bring in, according to an Australian news story, 50,000 Australian dollars a month (or roughly 43,800 USD at current exchange rates).

Madrigal’s piece focuses primarily on the ethics of the pair making money off of unattributed photographers’ work. (Unsurprisingly, they are entirely nonchalant about their appropriation of such photographs.) That aspect of these posts is part of what bothers me. (Unsurprisingly, as an English PhD who works in a library, I’m a firm believer in attribution.)

Another aspect of those accounts that makes me batty is their casual relationship to the truth. Matt Novak, in his Paleofuture blog, has written about some of the most ridiculous of viral photos, tracking down what they really are, rather than what their posters purport them to be. In “9 Fun Facts That Are Total Lies” and “7 (More) Fun Facts That Are Total Lies” Novak reveals, shockingly, that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t ride that moose across that river and that Nikola Tesla wasn’t a swimming instructor. (Disappointing, I know.)

Matt Novak sorts out the real Tesla from the fake.

As Novak explains,

Nikola Tesla was many things: a pool hustler, a gambling addict, a eugenicist, and a legendary genius. But despite what you may have seen recently in the miscaptioned photo above, Nikola Tesla was never a swimming instructor.

The photo is actually from 1898. And while the photo does bear a resemblance to the genius inventor, it’s almost certainly not him.

By 1898, Tesla was neck-deep in robotics, radio, and X-ray research. The man was also quite wealthy, enormously famous, and an obsessive tinkerer not known for taking leisurely swims. It seems highly unlikely that he took up a day job as a swimming instructor. But I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if someone was working on a graphic novel with a similar plot at this precise moment.

I can’t stand going through these feeds to find more too-good-to-be-true images, but I’m sure that you could, faithful readers. First, however, you’d have to get over your shock that a huge portion of what they post—and making up their most popular content—are pictures of celebrities. The Beatles as teenagers! Michael Jordan in college! Paul Newman with a beard! Kurt Cobain! Marilyn Monroe—again and again and again!

I only know about these accounts because people retweet them a lot (even, most horrifyingly, people whose jobs involve a respect for metadata and historical accuracy). At first I thought the accounts were just odd—who knew there was such a pent-up demand for old photos?—and then as they started proliferating, they starting annoying more and more. I muted them so that they wouldn’t show up in my twitter feeds, but they continue to bother me (it’s hard to mute them all, since there are so many of them).

Neither Madrigal nor Novak get at all of what bothers me, although they each get a part of it. So let me tell you what gets my goat.

Feeds like @HistoryinPics make it impossible for anyone interested in a picture to find out more about it, to better understand what it is showing, and to assess its accuracy. As a teacher and as someone who works in a cultural heritage institution, I am deeply invested in the value of studying the past and of recognizing that the past is never neutral or transparent. We see the past through our own perspective and often put it to use for our own purposes. We don’t always need to trace history’s contours in order to enjoy a letter or a photograph, but they are there to be traced. These 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.

But history is not a toy. It’s not a private amusement. And those of us who engage with the past know how important it is and how enjoyable it can be to learn about it and from it. These accounts piss me off because they undermine an enterprise I value.  Historical research—indeed, humanistic inquiry as a whole—is being undermined by the constant plugging of economic value as a measure of worth, the public defunding of higher education, and the rampant devaluing of faculty teaching.

And so @HistoryInPics makes me angry not for what it fails to do, but that it gets so many people to participate in it, including people who care about the same issues that I do. Attribution, citation, and accuracy are the basis of understanding history. @HistoryInPics might not care about those things, but I would like to think that you do. The next time you come across one of these pictures, ask yourself what it shows and what it doesn’t, and what message you’re conveying by spreading it.

And so as to not leave you on an angry note, I leave you with the following recommendations. Want some old pictures to laugh at? @AhistoricalPics is a hilarious, spot-on mockery of the trend. Looking for a twitter feed that will call attention to interesting historical tidbits while also providing accurate information and reliable attributions? @SlateVault, curated by actual historian Rebecca Onion, is a vault of treasures indeed. If those don’t give you enough outlet for your whimsy, try @libraryofaleph, which tweets verbatim the captions of images in the Library of Congress, allowing your imagination to run wild and then letting you search the Library of Congress yourself.

Follow these accounts and resist the others. You’ll thank me in the long run.

81 thoughts on “it’s history, not a viral feed

  1. Not only that, but because these feeds are so popular, and because our search engines have shifted more and more towards prioritizing socially popular content in search results, an even more insidious thing happens when one of these feeds posts an image: it buries other copies of that image in the search results, making it harder for the legitimately curious to find the omitted attribution and other contextual information.

    Whereas citing and linking to a source would create an active trail for both humans and search engine robots to connect the “popular” post with a more informative one, omitting it actually serves to obfuscate that trail.

    (Thanks for writing this, by the way: those feeds have been bothering me for similar reasons, and I haven’t been able to articulate it nearly as well as you have.)

    1. That’s a really good point about how their popularity infects search results and makes subsequent research harder.

  2. I’ve seen photographers on Twitter politely ask for acknowledgement of their work, only to be predictably ignored by accounts like the ones you mention. Their popularity owes a lot to their being “researched” with minimal effort and engineered for maximum retweetability; accuracy and attribution don’t feature highly. It’s all a bit cynical and insidious.

    1. Along the same lines, I’m also a fan of The Lively Morgue, posting pictures from the archives of the New York Times: They include the back of the print with notations and original captions as well as the date and source!

  3. Or else you could use the same filter we have to use for every other area of human experience, our intelligence and skepticism. If I want a moments passing entertainment whilst waiting for a train I’ll look at HistoryinPics. If I want history I’ll read history, written by a historian.

    1. My point—and one that I hope would be apparent if you spent a few minutes with Slate Vault—is that history and entertainment are not opposed. Yes, looking at old pictures is entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also actually be history, too.

  4. Thank very much, Sarah, for alert us. Despite my own insistence on rigor in the documentary sources, fell into the net: I myself kept a couple of those sites that you mention, although perfectly I noticed that their managers do not get any credit or source. I retwitting some posts a few times, when I recognized the pictures by other references, but no more. I should avoid doing so, has few times been, for not promote more that. Social networks become a breeding ground for quackery, and quackery has been with us throughout history. Now, I will follow the path you’ve drawn, to go more carefully on the road. Thanks for giving us this sopapo in our oversights- unintentional oversights, but mea culpa. Greetings. (I apologize for my faults of writing in English, I am not sufficiently skilled at it.)

  5. Thank you for the insight. I was following @HistoryInPics myself and replied twice to one of their tweets because they were just wrong:
    In one tweet they were talking about a “Serbian Tiger” instead of a Siberian Tiger. The other tweet talked about a “For Sale” sign in Italy. I had tweeted back why the “For Sale” was written in French, if that picture was from Italy.
    Of course I never heard back from them, nor did they post a correction.

    1. Well, to be fair, I hate all of them, which I guess is why another tweeter called this post “Franzenesque,” overlooking the fact that it’s on a blog and that I recommend some really excellent twitter streams in it.

  6. Thanks for posting this.

    There’s a similar problem with a number of popular quotation sites and Twitter accounts, where there’s no context or attribution to the quotes (other than the name of the purported speaker). Some of these outlets have hundreds of thousands of followers, and get retweeted a lot. And the quotes are often badly mangled, taken or revised out of context, or completely spurious. You end up with absurdities like Gandhi sounding like a motivational business consultant (as in )

    Sometimes the “viral” quotes can be traced to a specific person, but not someone as famous as the person being credited, which also can raise ethical problems similar to the ones you raise about photographers.

    It wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t see the uncited and spurious quotes often recycled in books, in instructional materials, and even by scholars and librarians. Those of us that act as guides to well-supported information should know better than this.

    (See also Jamie Chavez’ “No, You May Not Use as Your Source (and Other Thoughts About Quotations)”, at )

    1. Oh, the quote thing! That’s also crazy-making. It somehow doesn’t make me quite as crazy, curiously. Maybe since it’s been going on longer, I’m more immune to it? But it certainly has the same effect of the bad results crowding out the accurate sources when someone goes to try to figure it out.

  7. I’m glad you’ve drawn attention to this issues. Not only are there attribution issues but there are some serious copyright infringement issues at play as well. I suspect the owners of the copyright are unable to press their rights unlike the big players in film and music etc. Hence with no one to police, people will continue to take advantage.
    Unfortunately pop culture is in the process of being ‘dumbed down’ (not that it has ever been particularly intelligent) to the unprecedented level of moronic clones Gangnam garbage. This has been aided and abbetted by ‘social media’ which for the most part is a complete waste of time and now, as pointed out, search engine are being over-run by the drivel spewing from the likes of twitter, FB and the rest.
    Hopefully the world might get over it’s infantile fascination with social media and move on to more useful and productive things.

    1. Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic piece focuses on the copyright questions, and I agree those can be a problem. But I don’t think that popular culture is any dumber today than it ever was. And I certainly don’t believe that this is somehow a problem caused by social media. Social media might allow loosely attributed and inaccurate information to spread more quickly, but those problems have been around and have reproduced with the aid of digital tools for ages.

  8. I previously ran a blog of then and now photographs of Philadelphia which was basically reduplicated in its entirety, with no permission or attribution, by a very popular Facebook page. At the time, it was hard for me to put into words how infuriating that page was, aside from the fact that I became one of its victims. Thank you so much for writing this!

  9. Sadly @historyinpics is a sign of a general ‘dumbing down’ where all that matters is an instant ‘hit’ before moving on to the next ‘awesome’ whatever.

    1. I just feel like I ought to say it again: I don’t think that dumbing down is happening more today than it ever has. But these feeds are clearly more about getting hits than about anything else.

  10. We see the past through our own perspective and often put it to use for our own purposes.

    Too right. I wonder whether the irony of this admission is found on the author?

    1. Are you kidding me? Find me a scholar who doesn’t recognize this. It’s what we do.

  11. “[…]history is not a toy. It’s not a private amusement.”
    But that’s how interest starts, how passion starts. What’s wrong with people being interested in the fun side of history? Maybe that will get them interested in the rest as well. This post seems to assume that people are not capable themselves for looking for more information of they want to. If they want, they will do it. Then they will find out that Tesla was not a swimming instructor. Those that do not want that can just have a laugh about it. Maybe they would have never heard about Tesla without the feed. (And hey, even if all they remember is the misguided long exposure shot with Tesla and electrical sparks, at least they now know that Tesla has something to do with electricity.)

    “Attribution, citation, and accuracy are the basis of understanding history.” Of course, but that’s not the point. The feed just wants to entertain, and that’s what it achieves. I think you overestimate the need for accuracy. The whole Web is inaccurate, and people know this. They don’t need to be protected from inaccuracy; in fact, that’s good to develop a critical mindset. As far as attribution is concerned: blame Twitter’s character limit. Some correct attributions wouldn’t even fit in a single tweet. The image search tools you mentioned are the better way to find out more. I think it’s Twitter’s to to facilitate lookups, or to offer the possibility of adding metadata to images.

    But most importantly:
    “Feeds like @HistoryinPics make it impossible for anyone interested in a picture to find out more about it, to better understand what it is showing, and to assess its accuracy.”
    People are not stupid. Those who want to understand history can still do that. It’s not “impossible” to find out more—in fact, the Web makes this more possible than ever. Right click on the photo, “Search Google for this image”, or just visit Google image search. Those who don’t want to learn more, wouldn’t click a link anyway. And that’s fine, let them have what they want. That’s the beauty of the Web—despite its drawbacks for content creators: the curious can always find ways to satisfy their curiosity.

    1. The whole web is not inaccurate, and entertainment is not in opposition to truth. I think, first of all, that these feeds aren’t interested in history or in getting people interested in history. They’re interested in hits. Those of us who are interested in history might learn something from their ability to create viral content, but we should be invested in marrying that to information, not disinformation.

      1. Well, the Web as a whole is certainly inaccurate, and questioning information is our most important task on here—certainly if the source is an essentially anonymous Twitter account. I’m not too sure about your analysis… Twitter hits cannot be monetized currently. I think their main driver is entertainment. And while entertainment and truth are not opposed, truth is not a prerequisite for entertainment, as shown by the @AhistoricalPics account you mention.

        You’re right that there’s an opportunity to learn here. Why not create a Twitter account with factual historical photos with proper context and information? You’ll have a different audience for sure, and seen the comments on this article, many would be interested in that.

    1. Thanks for sharing that! I do think the ease of sharing images today is exactly like the ease of sharing texts that Shillingsburg is describing, and that’s in part why there’s such a sudden proliferation of these feeds. Twitter’s change to automatically show images in timelines makes these feeds super attractive–and it puts tweets that share links to images in, say, a digital collection like that of the Folger (as I do in @FolgerResearch #wunderkammer tweets) at a real disadvantage. I need to think about how to harness that desire for people to see pretty pictures while also providing links to metadata. But I think what gets my goat about @HistoryInPics is that I see librarians and historians playing into their game. We know better. We could be creating alternatives, rather than trading in bad history. In any case, I clearly need to go back and reread my Shillingsburg to help me work through this!

  12. Excellent post. I’m dabbling with a project to put old images from my city on line and always include links / attribution to material that’s not my own so people can access the originals if they wish.

  13. Thanks for this very relevant post. This is part of what I’m working on at Commons Machinery: to enable people to find contextual information about works posted and shared online, such as where it comes from, which gallery hosts it, when it was made, who made it, and so on. I believe that if we had this information available as we go about browsing the web, we would start to relate to works in a completely different way. And that’s exciting!

    Right now we’re building a plugin for browsers which could partly enable this to happen. I’m envisioning a use case where a person hovers over an image and relevant information about the context of the work expands from where the user is pointing, all related to the image indicated, inviting, encouraging, the user to explore the work in its proper context.

    We’re still in the very early stages of putting this together, and our web pages aren’t updated with this either, but we’d love an opportunity to get some feedback from you on how you would like this to work. In your example above for instance, how would you have preferred to see this contextual information, and what information is relevant to you? Let me know if you’re interested in participating 🙂


  14. The focus should be on Twitter (as a public traded company on Wall Street and) as a business model that grants and profits from theft. Focus on the company that enables two (2) teenagers to hurt and destroy the incomes of many in quick uploads via copyright theft, while Wall Street investors (and billionaires) scoop up against the law itself.

    Again, focus on Twitter. They are the criminals. If they enabled it, then they know it.

  15. Sarah Werner,

    Did you delete the post stating that the focus should be on Twitter more because they enable History in Pics to commit theft? Boy, if you did, that’s not a good sign to grant debate.

  16. Ed Straker: I do not check my email or my blog on Shabbat, so comments must sometimes wait in the queue. Now that I have approved your comments, I’ll respond that I think you are wrong. Twitter has not engaged in any criminal behavior that I am aware of, and while it is certainly wrong to post images without the license to do so, I doubt that the actions of such feeds have destroyed incomes. One might try to put into action the “report this tweet” button that Twitter implemented in response to truly egregious patterns of hatred and violence directed at users.

  17. In rebuttal, I’ll use the following example to try and sway your response. Let’s say AT&T owned 10,000 telephone poles, and History in Pics put up one of Sarah Werner’s picture on 1000 of them. In turn, AT&T appended ads from United Airlines to adult porn sites around those poles, granting anyone to post any picture on there, but using an honor system so that copyright infringement would not occur. From that, 1000 of your customers took 1 photo each and now have no interest to purchase any more.

    Would you sue AT&T for the money they received from the ads around your picture that enticed your customers to get them?

    Now what is different in Twitter’s case because AT&T do not append any ads around their telephone poles, inclusive of the fact that those 1000 pictures were actual physical objects, not digital reproductions (which are instant copies via an instant distribution)?

    Thanks, but Twitter is also 100% punitively liable through willful blindness on a wholesale level. I won’t write the case law and the statutes for you. Good luck

  18. Twitter and Facebook and other blog sites all encourage this kind of thing by making it easy to post a new copy of a picture with no attribution. If they provided better posting tools, they could do a lot to automatically preserve metadata and encourage users to provide metadata where they have any. Twitter could choose to include metadata separate from the character limit, so you see it in different, smaller type like a footnote which is easy to see if you are looking for it but also easy to skim past if you just want the amusing tweet.

    1. I would love to see a technology fix to this–as you say, if sharing image tools included metadata, that would be huge.

  19. I’m seeing a version of this pop up on Tumblr a lot – people make “edits”, which are sort of image collages based on a topic or theme, very often a 2×4 grid. But HARDLY EVER do you see any attribution for any of the images.

    One Tumblr, on their FAQ, says that if you want to find the source of the pictures you essentially need to do your own Google Image search and cropping:

    I’m working on a couple of Tumblr image-and-writing projects and have been pretty diligent about finding sources for photos – sometimes I’m unsuccessful, or only get so far, but I try anyway. I wish this was a more common Tumblr occurrence!

    Oh and Tumblr’s also got all these Random Factoid Of The Day blogs that are just *begging* for [citation needed] tags. Instead they are reblogged as gospel truth, especially if they help prop up some political point or other.

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