Wednesday 6 May 2015

Extra History and the GOOD side of the internet

The internet is a shitty, shitty place at times. Just this week controversy over a character beat in Avengers: Age Of Ultron somehow snowballed over social media into Joss Whedon receiving death threats and shutting down his Twitter account. That controversy is certainly worth discussing because that discussion could take in a lot of larger issues of female representation in film and also works as a good case study in why we shouldn't put creators on a political pedestal that they'll inevitably fall from because they're human and unable to consider every socio-political angle of their work.

But, of course, this is the internet and so a section of this debate gave in to the human tendency towards extremism and starting screaming threats. This, however, is a discussion for another day, in my case preferably a day when Whedon has released more details about what was said to him and when I've viewed the scene in question more than once.

Today I want to cheer myself up by talking about something good on the internet, something educational that gives me faith that the average person on the net isn't just there to make themselves feel big by screaming their views at the top of their capslocks with zero critical thought applied to themselves.

I want to talk about a little Youtube series called Extra History.

I've written in the past that I believe strongly in populist history. Not dumbed down history, not inaccurate history (though small inaccuracies are sometimes a necessary evil which we'll get to later) but presenting history in an accessible way.

I love history but the history I love isn't the history I was ever taught at school. History at school was very dry, a list of facts that create a very clean and ordered narrative leading from A to B to, about 70% of the time, a World War. The other 30% of the time we were doing the later Tudor monarchs. We didn't get much context outside of the big facts we'd need to know for the exam.

So that's why I love populist history series like The Mark Steel Lectures and the series we're talking today: Extra History.

Let's take one of the subjects I allegedly “learnt” about at school: the outbreak of the First World War. As far as my teachers and, sadly, I was concerned how it went was Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was shot in a way presented as a sort of dress rehearsal for Dallas 1963 and a few weeks later the war began. We were given no context, no details of the politics that led to the assassination. All we were told, all we were judged to need, was that Ferdinand's death was categorically the spark that ignited the war. I don't even think it was a whole lesson.

A couple days ago Youtube threw Extra History at me in my recommendations and they had a series of five videos called World War I: The Seminal Tragedy. Two things were important about these videos. The first was that it covered the assassination of Ferdinand and the other events leading into the Great War in greater detail than I'd ever heard. They presented the story as grand tragedy, which it obviously is but which school failed to fully clue me in on. The players are presented briefly but concisely and I was startled by the fact that several attempts to kill Ferdinand that day failed and how he eventually died only through a startling coincidence.

The second thing that was good about the series was the final video, subtitled simply “Lies” in which the series writer James Portnow corrects some artistic mistakes (anachronistic flags), common mistakes he made (saying “Moscow” instead of “St. Petersburg” in reference to the Russian capital of the day), confessing that some incidents in the video were based on common readings of events rather than absolute facts and offering some extra context that couldn't fit in the previous episodes due to time considerations. Portnow gains great respect from me for then saying “don't trust us […] don't trust any one source”, which is one of the most important things to learnt about history.

I actually took the fact about Britain's national debt in yesterday's post from the Extra History series on the South Sea Bubble, something I'd heard the name of but had absolutely no idea what it was even though it continues to affect our country's economy. I did make sure to do a little reading before citing it and, though some details were glossed over in the video, the fact was sound enough to use as the basis of a post.

I guess this brings us to the “necessary evil” of small inaccuracies, which Portnow admits to in that one episode. First off these videos are made by a staff of three people and he's the sole writer so there are going to be things he misses. Second is, as he says, its good practice to check you've been told the truth or if there are other interpretations, which the day before a general election I think is a lesson worth teaching for a lot of other aspects of our lives.

But why does this restore a little of my faith in humanity after the Whedon thing? Because Extra History started off as a marketing thing: a series on the Punic Wars paid for by the makers of Rome: Total War but now its paid for, and the subjects voted for, by Extra Credits' Patreon backers. Those backers voted for the South Sea Bubble over the campaigns of Julius Ceasar. They chose an obscure event over one they would have known to be flashy and exciting. Its a decision that was considered and driven in the majority of cases by a genuine desire to be educated. That version of the internet, a tool for education used by people who want to be educated, is one I wish I had more examples to crow about.

[Extra History is hosted on the Extra Credits Youtube channel here.]

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