Why Historyproef Had to Die

Until recently, you would have been reading this at historyproef.org. And you probably would have mispronounced it, but that’s not the reason for the new name.

In case you didn’t know, the previous title of my blog, historyproef, blatantly bastardized the Dutch word letterproef (sounds like letter proof), a sheet of type specimens once produced by printers. Type sheets were standard fare, but some Dutch examples I found in a catalog of stylistic exemplars immediately resonated with me because of their refined and elegant aesthetic and practical function. The form mattered as much as the content.

The name reflected my interest, especially as a historian, in combining creative design and expert production. Just as the specimen sheets served not only as a proof-of-concept for type faces and printing devices, they also served as proof of superior craftsmanship and originality in design. It’s unfortunate that historians too often feel that design must take a back seat to content, when the aesthetics of our work can be as intellectually engaging and as useful as the prose itself—and in fact can take advantage of representational freedom beyond words on a page can do.

So that was the hope. Here is why that hope evaporated, and why it proved an interesting experiment in online identity.

But why expose my warped logic and machinations about a trivial domain name that is often referenced and obscured by a shorted URL anyway? Some friends recently asked me about how they should choose a domain name for themselves, and I was forced to rationalize my embrace of an abstraction instead of something like the more obvious and now current domain name. I confessed—which they found helpful for their own thinking—that the safety net of abstraction had become annoying, if not a hindrance.

Some drawbacks I considered early on but dismissed. For example, it is not obvious that the historyproef URL that shows up on search results pages refers to me, if that’s what people are looking for. Yes, people found their way. But it’s unclear from abbreviated search result listings what exactly what the site is, anyway. Why add the extra step of cognition?

Other conflicts, which were more in my mind than online, were not as easily anticipated. But these, too, became evident over time. For reasons that I could never get entirely clear about, I wanted abstraction from my website. After all, it was a professional website (whatever that is), and I didn’t want it to be mistaken for the much more wholesome me, who wants you to think I do lots of interesting things that are not related to my job. (Do I really? Well, that’s not the point right now.) Even in professional terms, I wanted to uphold the illusion that my website is only a selection of what I’m working on. In other words, the website was not me.

I decided against the eponymous URL also because of how it emphasized that the grubby, practical realities of academics involve quite enough shameless self-promotion, thank you. I hardly needed to fan the flames with my own domain name. Maybe having arbitrary letters in the URL was a sneaky way of trumpeting my own achievements with looking like a braggadocio. Besides, wouldn’t it obligate me to post more? And not just professional work, but perhaps <shudder> personal tidbits as well? But I don’t want an incomplete online me!

I realize that the above two points are largely contradictory, which I can now use to help justify my previous confusion about what to do. I should emphasize, though, that I do not equate having an eponymous domain name with being an indulgent narcissist, and it does not seem the least bit weird to me when other people do it. But it seemed weird for me to do it.

Yet at the same time that I wanted to undercut a personal connection to myself, I wanted to aggrandize the site and its content. I wanted it to be something larger than myself (and not just by characterizing my online presence as an organization). I really can’t say why. Was it an unconscious way of artificially inflating my shriveled and immature ideas? Was it to foster an illusion of objectivity? I had a new job and was trying work my way into a new field. Maybe I was scared. Maybe the head fake of an obscure domain name perfectly exemplified my academic insecurity. (Even if you think so, don’t think that my move away from it signals a triumph over such anxiety.)

If you think that I was overthinking this whole thing, you’re right. I knew it didn’t matter. At the very minimum, I figured that any domain name would become what I made of it. Corporate brands like Starbucks and Intel are not successful simply because of a catchy name (through diligent research with focus groups, of course). At the same time, my domain name couldn’t have been more important. It would be the new me! For those that I have interacted with only in a professional capacity, is there any real difference between the real me and what you see on this website? If there is, does it matter? You could say that I had an existential virtual crisis. If you are confused by what that means, then you know how I felt.

The topic of online versus real identity has grown old quickly. Readings about it have proliferated like flies on a perpetual dung heap, but there’s no need for a literature review here. What stands out to me, though, is how I became fascinated if not obsessed by my own delusion that, at least in everyone else’s mind, I was whatever was online. Except that I began to think that I in fact wasn’t online; historyproef was. And everyone was pronouncing it wrong (no, it’s not history prof). It was obvious that whatever abstraction goals I had for the website–however it was meant to convey some kind of meaning or identity by its own carefully chosen name and agenda, or better yet, make an argument–largely failed. Perhaps this was a marketing failure on my part, but I think I grew dissatisfied with it for more substantial reasons.

As an advocate for the importance of design in communication, regardless of media, I’m convinced that all aspects and details of a website reflect some underlying reality, whether through intention or neglect, including any abstraction from the author. In a way, it mimics the way our relationships are increasingly mediated by various technologies. Perhaps one posts content less for friends as much as for how one’s friends will expect via their content delivery mechanism. Perhaps my posts became more of an expression of a generic digital humanities blog than of myself. Obviously, this would defeat the point of the blog. Even a professional one.

So perhaps less abstraction is a good thing after all. Even digital humanists, a label that I suspect describes most of my readers, probably identify more with authors of texts than with websites that host their ideas. Don’t correct me if I’m wrong. Perhaps I drank too much of the DH Kool-Aid, and all my subsequent evangelism for openness created sufficient internal dissonance to make an impersonal virtual place less compelling and ultimately less effective than something more semantically connected to my real self.

There was no final straw, but the camel eventually just wandered off after reflecting on these concerns and tiring of having to repeat or spell out some obscure domain name too often. When people ask to learn more about something I’ve worked on, I often refer them to my website. It’s where everything is and will be, so they should know about it, right? But despite the careful deliberating over its incarnation, I never got comfortable with its foreignness. People don’t want to write down a URL; they want to write down a name. Spelling out some obscure .org domain name doesn’t facilitate the personal exchange that really is one of the most gratifying aspects of scholarly exchange. And of course neither does hiding behind obscure domain name, even if readily pronounceable. And ultimately, the website is (the professional) me in many crucial and functional respects. Pretending otherwise simply obscures a fact of modern day life.

Even if the legitimate reasons for the abstraction of historyproef proved less useful than I anticipated, the larger goals that motivated its creation live on. When I finally get around to combining historical research and innovative graphic design (I just need to finish writing a book on medieval poison real quick first), it will be here. And it will be me.