Build it and they will come

The crisis in the humanities is a well discussed topic, at least inside the humanities. The humanities are often seen as less important than departments that bring in money from the federal government or private businesses looking to turn a profit. These (like engineering and the sciences) departments produce “useful” and “practical” things while the humanities are just abstract. Frankly, this view of knowledge simply isn’t true (there may be a future blog post about why we need the humanities). While I abhor the commercialization of education, knowledge, learning, etc., I did begin wondering if there was money to be made in history (so then history could become “useful” and “practical”). In a practical sense, history will never have the ability to generate profits like a new medical drug, but I did find conceptualizing how history can increase its social capital in a commercial sense interesting.

I see two business models in particular that history (and the humanities) can follow:

1. The History Channel (the bad way)

2. Twitter, Facebook, Google (the good way)

The History Channel

via a friend on facebook

As the above image shows, the history channel shows little real history anymore, except for old school (outdated) military history and the occasional show on drugs, sex, and presidents. So why has the history channel devolved into a worse version of the discovery channel? Is it that no one really cares about “everything else that ever happened”? We could assume that these types of shows (aliens, Nazis, etc.) are the ones people want to watch because in order for the history channel to profit they need to show popular programming.

I guess I think more highly of Americans than the history channel. People will watch good historical programming on other topics, granted it keeps their attention. Ken Burns has made several popular documentaries essentially just from old pictures and voice overs. I’m not saying Ken Burns’ work is perfect, but he makes better programming than anything on the history channel and while his topics are not obscure (The Civil War, WWII homefront, Baseball, Jazz, The National Parks), again, they are more thoughtful and possess more depth than Aliens and Nazis.

Twitter, Facebook, and Google

The reason I suggest Twitter, Facebook, and Google as the example for a good business model is that the companies made something that everyone wanted to use first and figured out how to make money off of it later. Using this idea, historians need to make history people will want to consume, not simply because of its topic, but because the work is accessible and interesting. Historians should not simply all start writing “popular” works, but historians write on few topics that literate, thoughtful people could not understand. Many undergraduates read historical monographs, so why should we think academic history is out of reach of non-professionals?

Even though historical monographs are not going to start flying off the shelves anytime soon, there are other ways historians can open their work to broader audiences. One way is digital history. Putting quality historical scholarship on the internet (accessible) certainly reaches a broader audience. Even more important to digital history’s ability to take advantage of the Twitter/Facebook/Google business model is that digital projects allow users to explore the topic in an interactive and dynamic medium. This interactivity has the potential to provide the popular demand (granted on a smaller scale) that Twitter et al. have done.

The other reason the Twitter/Facebook/Google model appeals to me is because of these companies did not take something that they knew people liked (i.e. drugs, sex, guns, Presidents, Nazis) they created something original. I would not have guessed having only 140 characters to say something would become wildly popular. Many of Facebook’s (currently) most popular features were objected to as invasions of privacy when they first came out and Google’s home page is incredibly simple. As Steve Jobs recently said in reference to market research done for the iPad, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Historians (and the History Channel) do not need to continually pander to “popular” topics, but need to produce quality, accessible, compelling scholarship regardless of topic.

3 responses to “Build it and they will come”

  1. I think your comparison of the History Channel to social media is pretty apt (and something I had never thought of). While the social media business model is far more risky (think of all the failures and the dot come bubble burst), it can also be far more rewarding in the long term (Google’s IPO was something like $90 which many people scoffed at, now it’s around $600).

    The problem is, corporations and their executives are highly incentivized to maximize short-term profits. It’s all about the now, even though worrying about the future is better for the long-term state of the company. Few CEOs have patient enough shareholders to withstand losses year after year in return for the promise of future riches (Amazon being a notable exception–they actually celebrated recording record losses b/c it meant they were expanding their customer base).

    The History Channel being what it is, I think change would come very hard to them. It’s a strategy that works best with new, start-up companies. It’s a lot harder for an established company to completely reinvent itself. I don’t know enough about the power structure behind the History Channel, but my guess is the History Channel, with few–if any–competitors, is pretty well entrenched as it is. The best chance for quality historical television programming would probably have to come from a new competitor.


    1. I agree whole-heartedly with your comments. I didn’t actually think about the risk involved in the social media model. For every Twitter, there’s any number of sites that didn’t take off, but I think that is where academia’s low-stakes (in terms of real money) benefits it the most. If I try and reinvent the e-book and completely fail, I’m not going to have to fire a bunch of employees. I’ll probably have to explain the failure, but most mistakes in an academic setting can be repurposed into learning experiences.

      As for the History Channel, I agree it is firmly entrenched in its flashy programming (and I use a great deal of generalization in my depiction; there is still quality programming on the channel, just not enough). It is probably too optimistic to think academic scholarship, even works which use new technologies well, could challenge a basic cable channel, but I like to think there is a segment of the population that mourns the lack of a History Channel competitor, which (I like to imagine) would welcome academics asserting their work in more visible ways.


  2. Svetlana Rasmussen Avatar
    Svetlana Rasmussen

    The History Channel is not the only one out there. There is also Viasat History (my window into the world while I was in Russia) –!/ViasatHistory


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: