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Make History Accessible: The Case for YouTube

Crash Course is a Youtube Channel that covers historical events

History is in trouble. 

This is not a new observation. Benjamin M. Schmidt wrote a fantastic piece detailing the severe decline of history majors since the Great Recession. From 2011 to 2017, the total number of history majors awarded has dropped nearly 33%. Moreover, it does not take a lot of effort to notice this decade’s persistent focus on supporting STEM related ventures at the expense of the humanities. The unfortunate perception is that history is not a valuable undergraduate degree and history departments can do little to fight back because of their limited resources. This is a crisis. 

So how can we, as historically-minded people, alleviate this crisis? Part of the answer could come from the widely popular video-sharing service YouTube. It presents a great opportunity for both professional history educators and amateurs to enhance the public’s interest in history. 

YouTube’s Strengths 

YouTube might seem like an odd choice. It’s not a service exclusively built for history and has received bad press recently that has hurt the business. But, these issues do not take away from YouTube’s four strengths: design, reach, lack of restrictions, and community-building.  

1. Design: History requires a medium that encourages long-form communication and YouTube encourages just that. A simple way to understand this relationship is: the longer the video is, the more likely it is to have ads, creating more advertisement revenue for the creators, their partners, and YouTube itself. Even YouTube’s “recommended” algorithm has been suggesting longer videos to its users when compared with the user’s starting video. This intentional design is one of the reasons why YouTube is so popular and provides such a lucrative educational opportunity. There are only benefits in uploading history lectures to YouTube, and its design can enable information to spread like wildfire. 

2. Reach: On a given day, more than a billion people visit YouTube—and that number is only growing. If you are an internet user, chances are you will visit YouTube no matter your age. But, the most impressive statistic is that almost a third of those people are dedicated users who watch multiple channels and spend a vast amount of time using the service. So not only is the reach vast, but also it can be concentrated to particular users. This reach and active user base allows for niche histories to thrive that otherwise could not have without a global audience. It is personalized mass media and that is an important educational opportunity. 

3. Lack of Restrictions: While a potential weakness, this is also YouTube’s greatest strength: its lack of restrictions. Theoretically, one can start a multi-million dollar business with just a video camera and editing software—and it has been done many times over resulting in the phenomenon of the “YouTube Celebrity.” In contrast to undemocratic and centralized cable companies, YouTube is far more democratic and decentralized which creates a more conducive atmosphere for its users and creators. While cable companies spend enormous amounts of resources garnering millions upon millions of views, YouTube creators spend only time and few material resources to create a smaller but similar impact. If a history professor wanted to share their course online, then they would simply need a camera and some editing software to reach millions worldwide. 

4. Community-Building:One reason why YouTube is so dominant is because of its already-existing communities. YouTube is so ingrained that adopting a new service requires that service to be far better than YouTube for creators and users to even consider switching. Luckily, there is already a healthy amateur history presence on it. Notable examples include the channel “The Great War” (173,372,564 views and 1,030,696 subscribers) and Crash Course’s World History course (54,542,220 views). Moreover, YouTube could also serve as a community “video-library” of sorts storing everything from historical archive footage to “pop history”. One popular case includes the Iowa State University Archives, which in 2008 transitioned to using YouTube and has experienced considerable success. 

These factors, even when combined, do not make YouTube unique. But, currently it is a great forum for historical discussion, appreciation, and education. Granted it is no substitute for an undergraduate study in history, but it is both a great complement and an introduction. Moreover, using YouTube as an educational tool is not a new idea; in fact, it is a successful idea. Historian Joe Coohill argued that incorporating images and videos into his lectures had a positive impact and Alan Marcus makes a similar case but with film and secondary education. 

There are a whole list of problems using YouTube, but they all fall under three general categories: misinformation, disinformation, and the “scarcity or abundance” problem proposed by the late Roy Rosenzweig. But, only the last problem is unique to the internet—the other two problems are amplified by the internet, but are not new issues. 

If YouTube is not your cup of tea and you prefer Coursera, Khan Academy or a university open source initiative, then the point still stands. YouTube is one suggestion, but the overall point is one of accessibility. Accessibility is central to education and we should adapt and ensure that more people have access to serious history. As a history student, I encourage historians to use YouTube for it is their duty to ensure that people know and appreciate the past. This can include uploading lectures onto YouTube, partnering up with services like Coursera, consulting with popular history creators or even starting their own podcasts. The important takeaway is that adapting to new communication technologies is imperative and historians should feel free to experiment.