but this place is just right.
Some people cruise through Wikipedia links like a community car wash, letting the always-churning trivia brushes scrub their worries away, but I want my brain powerwashed by AskHistorians. AskHistorians is a subreddit run by a strict community of historians that don’t tolerate your internet nonsense. You make jokes? You don’t cite your sources? You’re history.
Anecdotes and Wikipedia plagiarism get deleted. Profanity and slurs get banned. It’s the one place where civil facts can be handed down by experts without any of the drawbacks of a platform with similar accessibility, like Twitter. It’s professionally-minded, painstakingly moderated, and provides its own fact-checking. After a day spent checking between what the President said, what Fox News said that he said, and what actually happened with the thing he was talking about, my brain is exhausted and my trust is long dead. But I know I have somewhere to go where accuracy isn’t the end goal, it’s the barrier for entry. AskHistorians may look backwards, but it provides an oasis of truth in a world that seems to be constantly renegotiating it.
Anyone can ask a question and find a well-read historian raring to go with a bibliography. You can learn about anything as long as it happened over 20 years ago: The prevalence of cocaine in the 1880s; why exactly the Chinese were solving complex polynomials in 1303; and the relationship between dolls and “the uncanny.” Unlike regular history education, the information isn’t dictated by a curriculum or department, but people bumping into questions in their reading, their TV, or their imaginations.
It’s an intellectually inviting space with no strings attached. The motives are pure. People are excited to give out their knowledge and I’m excited to receive it. It’s comforting to slip back into the role of student, reading people with academic authority and a familiarly pedagogical tone explain definitely-happened and might-have-happened scenarios that feel more like riveting documentary than McGraw-Hill. Say a Viking got a cut in battle and then developed MRSA (a Staph infection). Would contemporary medicine be able to save him? Not only does an Early Medieval Europe and Anglo-Saxon England specialist have answers from Bald's Leechbook, a medical/magical textbook from the late 9th Century, but a medical professional chimes in to note that the Viking in question couldn’t have gotten MRSA in the first place — the antibiotics that developed the drug-resistant bacteria wouldn’t be invented for a millennium.
Experts also help askers get the questions right, which is key to giving airtight answers. If you ask whether the rebellious teen music of the 1910s was ragtime, you would learn that it was a style that did cross over to white youth but also that “teens” weren’t really a thing until the ‘30s.
I’ve covered blind spots I didn’t know I had through answers that didn’t have anything to do with them. Bobby Kennedy’s appointment as Attorney General wasn’t just a case of nepotism (though it was certainly a factor), but also a matter of who wouldn’t balk in the face of enforcing civil rights legislation in a South still sympathetic to the KKK. It’s made me remember what it’s like to learn things rather than simply know them. I’m not reading numbered lists of dangling facts which, to quote Pete Holmes, “feels exactly like not knowing.” I’m getting a lesson from someone that’s dedicated a huge chunk of their life to this specific corner of humanity. Googling “Were there gay bars during the Roaring ‘20s?” will let you win an argument; reading AskHistorians will tell you the story.
What makes the stories that unfold special are the questions that remain unanswerable. There are plenty of incredible posts on the subreddit that have no remaining answers listed among the mod-deleted comment graveyard; either the experts didn’t know or nobody’s specialized in that area yet. Some posts with a ton of upvotes indicating a lot of people are curious about an answer, like ones asking if we should reconsider how we think about shrunken heads or when exactly that dramatic “Dun dun dunnnnnn” sting originated, continue to go unanswered rather than provide readers with “unfounded speculation, shallowness, and of course, inaccuracy,” as one moderator put it.
After I’ve been on Twitter all day, it’s like a hot shower. I can throw open 10 tabs throughout my work shift and know that the only things waiting for me within are either serene certainty or the quiet wonder of nothing at all. It reinstates the lost ability to be satisfied with not knowing, because the not-knowing isn’t cluttered with guesses, lies, or propaganda. It’s just beautiful, empty possibility.