Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig only briefly mention the idea that the internet has potential as a source of historical data. I think this is a topic which begs for more consideration. So many people have access to the internet nowadays, and so many websites give them the ability to “talk” (or should I say, type) about themselves, their lives, and the world around them. The internet could, in theory, be a reservoir of data on everything from popular opinions and reactions to monumental political events, such as the enacting of a new law, to race, or to a high-grossing film.
I recently came across this blog entry which discussed an online newspaper that came up with the idea to add “annotations” to individual paragraphs in its articles. This way ordinary people can discuss their own thoughts or experiences in accordance with specifics discussed in the article. Imagine then, that we are reading an article that discusses the career of a politician running for election. Each segment of the article, discussing a different event in the person’s career, could be commented on by the readers, who might respond with contempt, anger, approval, intrigue, etc. This could be used to pinpoint various attitudes that affect the outcome of the election. It adds a qualitative aspect to measuring values and opinions of the public.
Searching the internet for source material is also beset by difficulties, however. Not everybody chooses to post a response online. Furthermore, the internet is highly anonymous. We don’t know if it’s a certain kind of person that’s posting. And generalizing about the general public is more difficult. It’s easier to generalize, for example, about the values of Republicans, who represent a specific portion of the voting population, when we have a central figure speaking at a national convention to quote. When we’re dealing with commentary on the internet, however, we don’t know if the people who are commenting are outliers and we don’t always have access to other social variables such as income or party affiliation; in short, it’s difficult to quantify the data and state what it means for the larger population or determine what group of people it represents.
It is difficult to tell how reliable the use of common internet discussions and comments are for historical analysis. Perhaps for this reason the internet has not been thoroughly discussed as a potential for source material. Although comments and “posts” on the internet have questionable merit as data, they do illuminate to some degree the lives of ordinary people. A suitable next step might be to ask how the production of such material could be channeled to make its interpretation less problematic for the historian.