Consider the Comments: Why Online Comments are Important for Public Historians

CommentsBy Kaitlin Wainwright

There are a few adages that go with comments on the Internet. Among them: “if you don’t have the energy to read something, you shouldn’t have the hubris to comment on it” and, simply put, “never read the comments.” It’s rare that comments and forums on the Internet are seen as something positive. Ian Milligan has written on ActiveHistory.ca about the Internet Archive and the preservation of old hosting websites like Geocities. But, what of the comments?

I used to be a detractor of “the comments.” I saw mean, angry things written there, so-called trolls (those who sow discord on digital forums), and people who didn’t understand the crux of the original content. I rarely comment on the Internet and I rarely read the comments. Until recently, I didn’t fully understand their value.

Yet online comments are another public, digital forum. They offer a unique tool for research and content space especially since public history increasingly demands a digital presence, whether through methods of its inquiry or interpretation.

Retired school librarian Alan Brown is the founder and webmaster of two websites devoted to commemorative plaques. Toronto Plaques does a remarkable job of capturing federal, provincial, municipal, and non-government plaques in Toronto with photographs and geographic information. Its counterpart is Ontario Plaques. Until recently, Brown had until recently allowed open comments on the plaque pages. After receiving an increase in spam or inappropriate comments, he removed the comment function. It has since returned, in a moderated format, but this brief loss of the comments highlighted for me their relevance for historians and heritage professionals.

The most commented plaque on Brown’s Toronto Plaques website is for William T. Mustard, a physician at Sick Kids Hospital who pioneered two treatments – one for polio and one for infant cardiovascular problems. The page for Dr. Mustard has 25 comments. This may not sound like many, but once you read them you realize that they are each rich histories that are being told either by those who were treated by Dr. Mustard or by the family of his patients. Here are just a few examples (though, I urge you to go to the page and sift through them):

“Every time I put on socks and shoes, the scars of his handiwork are still there and I thank him for his great gift to me.”

“Dr. Mustard performed my surgery in October 1959 when I was 7. I remember my hospital stay to this day. My parents and I travelled from the east coast, as there wasn’t surgeon in the area able to do the surgery at that time…I was a blue baby in need of a patent ductis and my prognosis was not good. Thanks to Dr. Mustard, I am still here.”

“In May 1974 I had the Mustard procedure done at Sick Childrens Hospital as well as 2 holes in my heart patched. I was 4 years old and weighed 24lbs at that time…I recall  meeting him, and actually have a plastic heart that he gave to my parents to help them understand what he was going to fix and how this was going to save my life.”

These are, by and large, uplifting stories of those who survived their illness and were treated well by Dr. Mustard, or at least made it through better than they otherwise would have if not for his developments.

A more contemporary example to illustrate the value of online comments exists in the removal this spring of Commander Chris Hadfield’s “Space Oddity” video from YouTube, in which the astronaut performed the iconic 1969 David Bowie song from the International Space Station. (Despite Bowie’s expressed desire for Hadfield to be fully licensed to record the song and produce the video, which received 22 million views on YouTube, Bowie’s publisher only licensed it for one year.) While many people expressed regret that they no longer could access this content for free and in perpetuity, the historian in me couldn’t help but wonder about the value of the thousands of comments that disappeared. The video’s comments section may have included important data: expressions of national pride, amazement at the emergence of technologies that allowed this to happen, and stories from our collective past. Admittedly, I have no idea of the true value of these comments; they were were removed with the video on May 13.

In addition to the emotional and intellectual value of these stories, there is the matter of space. One of the greatest challenges of working in interpretation —regardless of the medium —is working within the limits of the project. Sometimes not every micro-story can be elucidated within the narrative space allowed by the project, nor do we as public historians have the time or resources to pursue this. Nuance and personality is often left out in favour of brevity and clarity.

For example, during my recent work on a plaque for Toronto’s Chorley Park, a man contact me to tell me the story of 100 or so engineering students who came to Toronto during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, sponsored by a local group of mining prospectors. The group of refugees stayed for four months at the extravagant mansion at Chorley Park, Ontario’s fourth and final Government House from 1914 until 1937. By 1956, Chorley Park had served alternative purposes for two decades and he wanted to ensure his part of the story was not forgotten within the public memory of Chorley Park. But the Hungarian engineer and the details of his story–part of the diverse experiences of immigration in Canada and one moment in Chorley Park’s history–didn’t find me until the project was completed.

The digital realm easily and actively gives these stories a place. Writer Mathew Ingram, who moderated comments as Communities Editor at Globe and Mail’s website for several years, wrote in 2012 that “a blog without comments is a soapbox, plain and simple.” While I find the soap-box analogy a bit harsh in terms of digital interpretation or commemoration projects, allowing comments (whether published or not) does allow public historians insight into how audiences receive information presented to them and where their exhibit or project has succeeded or fallen short. The comments enrich the experience for both curator/historian and visitor, and can lead to important dialogs about how we present the past. This isn’t to suggest that the curator and the historian don’t have wisdom that should be passed along, but that the potential for exchanges that enhance the overall understanding of the subject matter—like the phone call from the Hungarian engineer—is high.

Since its founding in 2010, ActiveHistory.ca has featured a lively comment section for all posts. The words of readers have provided new research leads and angles for contributors and enhanced dialogue between historians and the public. Perhaps the most illustrative example of engagement was Veronica Strong-Boag’s article on International Women’s Day and Human Rights, which was published on ActiveHistory.ca after the Canadian Museum of Human Rights withdrew the article. (You can read more about that in the preface to Dr. Strong-Boag’s article.) In three days, the blog garnered 34 comments, plus countless other comments as media coverage picked up. In addition to telling important stories and allowing for dialogue, comments can also serve as an important form of advocacy for historians.

Social media gurus and community managers have written at length —online and offline —about what makes for “useful” or “good” comments on a website and in online forums. While opinions vary, particularly on the subject of anonymity, the consensus from digital leaders like Ingram is that encouraging a strong and healthy community conversation through standards of practice (such as moderation to prevent spam and codes of conduct) is paramount of successful online conversations. Moreover, as Ian Milligan pointed out recently, it’s important that we have a way to store, preserve, and access these digital anecdotes.

Online comments offer historians and heritage professionals research opportunities as well as a space for the public to contribute meaningful content. Although the quality of online comments ranges, they also provide opportunities for engagement. So let’s not give up on them.

Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program.  She is currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.

3 thoughts on “Consider the Comments: Why Online Comments are Important for Public Historians

  1. Ian Milligan

    Great stuff, Kaitlin.

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit, as comments can be missed by web archiving processes. A lot of websites use the Disqus platform, which you can miss if you hastily pull down web material (they take a few seconds to load, are externally hosted, etc.). A project that I’ve been working on with some other folks has found this to be a big problem.

    As you point out, a lot of the stories are found in the comments. It’s easy to be smug and say “don’t read the comments,” when it’s an opportunity for everyday people to easily contribute content.

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