A Historian In Cyberspace

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To most people, even to some of its inhabitants, the world of the Net seemed overwhelming and uncertain. Bleak visions of the society that might accompany Cyberspace proliferated in the eighties. Neuromancer was not alone. Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash presented a world where business franchises and viruses attached themselves to weakened hosts in both Cyberspace and the material world. Young people imagined themselves as “cyberpunks” marrying a facility with the new networks to the anarchic sensibility of, say, the Sex Pistols. They and their allies waged battles, both legal and illicit, to keep Cyberspace beyond the grasp of government and corporate capitalism, to create a libertarian paradise of hackers.

Other people pursued an opposite vision, one of strengthened community and responsibility. One of the most successful efforts grew from an experiment called the Well, founded in 1985. The creation of San Francisco—area countercultural leaders, the Well sought to provide a place for sustained communal conversation. It attracted thousands of participants and for many people came to stand as the embodiment of what an online community could be. As Howard Rheingold, an active member of the Well and a pioneering writer on community in Cyberspace, later put it, “hundreds of thousands of people rely on their virtual communities as a real lifeline—people whose illness or disability prevents normal communication, people who are caregivers or who suffer from any one of hundreds of diseases, people who live in isolated areas, the only gay teenager in a small town, people trying to escape abusive relationships.” Rheingold had personally served online “sitting by the deathbed of a woman who would have died alone if it were not for the real-life presence of a virtual community.”

To our surprise, people said our Civil War Web project touched them more deeply than any history they’d ever experienced.

AROUND THIS TIME, IN A MUCH MORE PROSAIC way, I became entangled in the world of the Internet. I had recently conceived of trying to get at the larger issues surrounding the American Civil War through a linked study of a Northern community and a Southern community, done the old-fashioned way, with note cards and text. Through a series of coincidences and collaborations, however, I ended up in 1991 beginning to build the archive for such a study in a computerized format. I could not imagine how to distribute this digital archive in any form other than by putting it on a tape and mailing it to a few other institutions. We set to work digitizing newspapers, censuses, diaries, letters, and maps with just this purpose in mind. The Internet let us transfer some files and let us collaborate from our offices, but our project remained isolated.

One day in 1993, however, one of my computer science associates e-mailed me to say that I must come to his office as soon as I could. There he showed me Mosaic, the key tool for something called the World Wide Web. The Web, an overlay of linked text and image, redefined the experience of being online. Mosaic, the predecessor of Netscape, had been designed for scientific collaboration! We confronted Mosaic on a high-end Unix operating system, but versions of this browser software—polished and promoted by Americans—soon appeared for desktop computers. Overnight, Cyberspace became a far more populated place.

It was immediately apparent that everything had changed, including the Civil War community project. Now we could construct an archive online; our material need not wait years to be disseminated but could be shared even as we gathered it. The archive could go anywhere in the world people could tie into the network, a network expanding exponentially. We threw ourselves into building a Web site devoted to this slice of history. We called it the Valley of the Shadow Project, for our two communities lay in the Great Valley of the eastern United States and had been visited by death and devastation in the war. The archive grew until it contained thousands of sources, detailing, week by week, the fate of a Virginia county and a Pennsylvania county from 1859 to 1869. The archive housed civilians as well as soldiers, women as well as men, enslaved as well as free.

The Web offered a challenge to many of the conventions of the historian’s craft. Long, linear prose did not work on the Web, yet we did not know how to write in any other way. The Web loved images, but we knew words best. The Web depended on instant interactivity, but we were used to laying out our arguments in a fixed form. No one has yet discovered how to write for this new medium, how to tell a historical story in scrolled or interactive text. Some worry, in fact, that the short attention spans and fixation on the future supposedly bred in Cyberspace will erode historical thinking. On the other hand, the new medium may be especially well suited to conveying the complexity and depth of history. Only trying will tell.

History has traditionally been a solitary craft, the product of one person thinking about something for a long time, but the Web demands collaboration. As it turned out, the collaboration proved a delightful innovation, all the more satisfying for being absolutely necessary. Dozens of students and allies were pulled into the project as the archive steadily grew. We held one another accountable and found our authority in combined effort.