The issue with @HistoryPics and lack of attribution

Internet

I rarely find myself in a position where I want to “engage” with the company who makes my toothpaste, so I generally don’t follow brands on Twitter (or any non-individual accounts, for that matter). But I recently indulged in a couple of guilty pleasure accounts. Faces in Things posts pictures of (wait for it) things that look like faces, and Behind the Scenes posts (wait for it) behind-the-scenes pictures from iconic movies.

I found the accounts interesting and funny for a while, but then I started noticing a few things that made me uncomfortable. Two things started bugging me:

  1. Photos are never attributed to their original sources, and
  2. These accounts (and several similar ones, most notably History In Pictures) seem to be run by the same people who just end up retweeting their own stuff to create some kind of snowball effect

I started suspecting that these accounts were created to amass hundreds of thousands of followers, only to then be sold to the highest bidder who wants to pimp their products to an unsuspecting audience. It’s a common practice on Facebook (I’ve written about that in The dirty world of Facebook EdgeRank Optimization), but I haven’t seen it on Twitter before.

Anyway, I unfollowed the accounts and didn’t think much more of it.

And then I read Wynken de Worde’s It’s history, not a viral feed1, in which he tears these Twitter accounts apart. He focuses quite a bit on the attribution issue, confirms that most of the accounts exist only for the bait-and-switch sale2, and then concludes:

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. […]

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.

The inaccuracy of these accounts (see, for example, 12 More Viral Photos That Are Totally Fake) is a huge deal, of course. But for some reason it’s still the lack of attribution that grates me the most. Back in 2009 I adopted Chris Messina’s use of slashtags on Twitter to attribute sources using the syntax “/via @name”. I’ve been using it ever since, and I saw many people who did the same. But it’s a practice that has slowly diminished over the past few years3.

Why is it a big deal to tell people where we found something? Isn’t the web free and open and we’re all one and blah blah blah? Sure, but the web is also fundamentally about hyperlinks. The ability to follow links back to their original sources — with plenty of pleasant detours along the way — is the core of what makes the internet such a wonderful place. Do you ever get happily lost on Wikipedia? Exactly. So if we stop caring about attribution, we rob others of the ability to find more people and topics that they might be interested in. I’ll say it again: It’s not about making the source feel important. It’s about helping others follow the breadcrumbs to places of interest.

So I guess the point of this post is to join in Wynken’s plea that we look at these new crop of Twitter accounts more critically, and call them what they are: get rich quick schemes. And to ask that we remember to take attribution seriously. It’s the right thing to do.


  1. Link via The Loop

  2. Also see Alexis Madrigal’s interesting reporting in The 2 Teenagers Who Run the Wildly Popular Twitter Feed @HistoryInPics

  3. There were other attempts at attribution syntax, of course — most notably the much-mocked curator’s ǝpoɔ