Digital Histories’ Greatest Hits

Greatest hits albums are a prickly genre. The format is simple enough: a compilation of an artist’s most popular singles, sometimes with a few rare or unreleased tracks thrown in to sweeten the deal. Many of these albums are just a cheap cash grab for big studios, an opportunity to sell the same song twice. The invention of the mixtape provided the first challenge to this model. In the age of iTunes and Google Music, why not just build your own playlist? There is also something profoundly offensive about reducing an entire career to a handful of catchy tracks. How would one create a greatest hits album for Beethoven? Or Neal Morse, for that matter? Some of his best songs are half an hour long. Would Danzig’s greatest hits be his entire discography?

Danzig’s Greatest Hit?

On the other hand, if it is done well, a “best of” album can offer an entry point into a broader musical world. Neil Young’s Decade and Queen’s Greatest Hits are often ranked among the best albums of the twentieth century. If artists are given the opportunity to remaster or remix old material, the result can be fresh and enlightening. Although it is rare, academic historians sometimes publish career retrospectives of their work. No one will compare them to the genius of Freddie Mercury. But they have their moments. Jill Lepore’s The Story of America and Marcus Rediker’s Outlaws of the Atlantic are good recent examples. Bloggers sometimes include a “best of” category to help introduce readers to their oeuvre. And, as I wind down my work on this site and begin the transition to a new phase in my career, I thought I might do the same for Digital Histories.

Over the past five years, I have published several dozen articles on this site, from historical and pedagogical essays to website reviews and technical guides. Printed together as a single document, they add up to about 130 pages. I was a little late adding Google Analytics into the mix, but I still have a pretty decent picture of what articles readers find most useful. So I compiled a “Top Ten” list as a separate page. I also added a link to the page at the top level of the site, where new visitors can easily find it. These are not necessarily the most important articles on the site, or even the most representative, but simply the ones that have attracted the highest number of unique page views according to Google.

Surprisingly, articles cross-posted on other blogs did not top the list. Some articles with inbound links from other websites did not even make the top ten. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media only account for about 10% of inbound traffic. Simple keyword searches (called “organic searches” in SEO lingo) make up most of the rest. So articles with popular search terms, such as “derrida” or “course management” or “slavery footprint,” tend to rank higher on the list. The posts on WordPress as a course management system and Elihu Yale as a slave trader were breakout hits. But others I consider significant did not even rate. My essay on teaching with runaway advertisements, which was included on HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project and generated some interesting conversations, did not make the top ten. Perhaps that is because most folks are reading it on HASTAC. As a rule, newer posts tend to have more page views than older ones, which may indicate that I have improved my blogging skills over the past several years. Or maybe it means that nobody clicks on older stuff. Readers of online content tend to follow the shiny penny and then quickly move on to something else.

What are some of your favorite “greatest hits” compilations? Is this a worthwhile subject for digital scholarship? How do we curate the best work? Should we even care which of our projects attract the most hits or have the most likes? Is not trying weird or unpopular things an important part of our mission? We simply do not know what will be important or impactful five or ten or twenty years from now. If we focus only on what is trending this minute, do we lose sight of what might be useful in the future?

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and RunawayCT.

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