Fact, fabrication, and the Internet

I love pondering issues like this. The Atlantic headline and subtitle pretty much explain it:

"How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit"

T. Miles Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet. 
 

Yes, truth. And the Internet. As the article points out, trust is often built in (or is lacking) in the types of communities depending on it to get the hard facts, the real truth, about things like, oh, history. And with the fractured and anonymous nature of communities and identities online, the entire process of garnering truth and facts from the Internet poses problems; there is a lack of distinct trust.

This is what Reddit, the social news website, does have compared to a website like Wikipedia. Reddit users, with their internal community and forum-based responses and discourse, were able to see the clues and suspicious bits surrounding T. Miles Kelly's students' fabricated experiment in Internet deceivery--an intentional task aimed at exactly this point: who and what is the source of the information you find online?

The Georgia Mason University professor spends a whole semester on this point, in a course he teaches called Lying About the Past. And even though, this time around, Reddit broke open the whole faked case in a matter of hours, the lesson was still there:

The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. "Why would I design a course," Kelly asks on his syllabus, "that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?" Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into "much better consumers of historical information," and at the same time, "to lighten up a little" in contrast to "overly stuffy" approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian's craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

There were certainly people, like the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who are enraged by this kind of flagrant misuse of a website like Wikipedia--where the point is to fabricate on purpose, adding plausible, if slightly far-fetched, tidbits to historical Wikipedia entries and seeing how much they can get away with.

But the whole point is to think more carefully, more deeply, about the source of information. His approach is stunning to me, who until very recently had been a constant student of history courses over the span of two degrees. It is essential to make sure young historians understand these lessons. So I am all for his unorthodox methods. After all, with an online encyclopedia that is built on trust, and especially, on goodwill and a common interest, one can spend a bit of time ruminating on what might occur if someone sought to sabotage such an effort, with tiny and insidious bits of fabricated "history." It is an extreme example of what we know to be existent in many other kinds of sources too, including the heralded Ink-and-Paper-Book.

 

Community. My community.

Atlanta

Tonight Alicia Philipp came to my nonprofits class to speak to us about her thirty-five years working as the President of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Community foundations are organizations where donors who want to donate large sums of money, but don't have $25 million required to start an individual foundation in their name, can place their money in order to help a community they are invested in, or care about immensely. She is currently working on a project to fund a for-profit co-op owned by workers living in an inner-city area who will grow hydroponic lettuce to sell to large institutions like Emory University; they needed to raise $1 million this year to start by January 2013. She spoke with six individuals and among those SIX people, raised $800,000 of it. She has been doing incredible things like this in Atlanta and the 26 counties that make up its Metro area since she became the Foundations' president at age 23. 

Someone asked her why she'd chosen to stay in Atlanta for thirty-five years, and working with the CFGA. Why had she never gone elsewhere?

Well, certainly the offers were there over the years, she said. And there were times she really felt like she needed a change. But she would get an offer and then, an extraordinary new project or opportunity would arise with the Foundation here in Atlanta, and she would know immediately she needed to be in Atlanta to make it happen, to help it succeed. She understood after these moments that it wasn't about working for a Community Foundation anywhere, it was about working for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. It was about this place, these people, this city.

Her words were hitting my straight through the heart. I was near tears (burning throat, watery eyes) several times, as the meaning of what she was saying sunk in. Yes. Atlanta. I want to be here and be a part of this community. I am not ready to leave it behind.  I am invested here.

Is this what it feels like to be vested in a place? To care dearly about its citizens, to wish to see it grow, innovate, improve? To want to make it a better place? Not that I don't want everywhere to be improving, but I have this deeper feeling that I really want to be a part of Atlanta's improvements, history, community.

I remember going to interviews to receive scholarships in high school, and the adult panel members would ask these questions about what I was going to do in college, in life, in career, that would improve Dublin, Georgia, and did I plan on returning to the city after school. I was completely honest -- "nope!" -- and received no scholarships.

But now I see what they were trying to do, for their community. Invest in its future, help it thrive.

Here I am, after six years in Atlanta; I've recently made a commitment to a lease that will keep me here post-graduation, and I could not be more excited about staying here. Alicia's words felt like a giant prophecy, or a reaffirmation I suppose, a reminder that there is a reason I am excited to be here. It is OK, in fact exciting, to reach this point and understand that I care about one particular place.

After all, haven't I been learning about playing with the notion of "place" for over two years in graduate school? One of the themes that keeps reappearing in my own work in public history is that Place plays its own role in the past, present, and future; it is a character all its own, in the human narrative. A place holds special meaning for the people "from" there; and I feel "from" Atlanta. I really do. (And that's quite weird to say, to feel. Michigan-Georgia hybrid with 13 addresses under my belt in 24 years.)

Yes, I see. It is about place. I know the history here. I want to work here and be a part of the community that includes this amazing woman who has dedicated her life to this urban space. To this city I am part of, where I am staying.

I love Atlanta. I love that it's a refuge of blue in a red state (or at least a refuge of dark, dark purple). I love that it's known in the culinary world as a city of great burgers. I love that the NAMES Project Foundation and AIDS Memorial Quilt is here, relocated from San Francisco. I love that we have Emory University, where the Dali Lama is an honorary professor. I love that we have an urban National Park, where the park ranges wear their official park ranger outfits and green hats, but walk on the city streets where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. I love driving on I-285 to work in the morning and watching the Delta planes land right over my head on the runway/highway bridge. I love my scrappy public school, Georgia State. I love that they're building the National Center for Civil and Human Rights next to the World of Coca-Cola, which will be a forum (and living museum) on all things important in modern, international civil rights. I love my quilt and fabric shops. I love that I've found a converted factory space to live right in the center of this place that is distinct, in a city that has arguably cookie-cutter apartments. I love that we have one of the three permanent StoryCorps booths in the whole country--the others are in NYC and San Francisco. We have the Centers for Disease Control and the only CDC museum in the whole country.

Atlanta is my home, and it matters. How could I leave it now, just when I can begin to contribute the most to it? Alicia reminded me that's OK, and it is important, even, to care about a place in the world enough to stay long enough to make a difference. This is a recent realization for me, truly new. Atlanta is my community. There are things I want and need to do here. I'm not done yet--I've barely begun.