How extensive should my online presence be?

Establishing this domain name is perhaps my most deliberate attempt to develop a more permanent online presence.  I agree with Miriam Posner’s assertion that “being visible on the Internet can benefit your scholarship, pedagogy, and even service.” Yet I have found myself advancing cautiously into this realm, quite possibly because my primary online experience for the last 25 years has been through the Army’s information-technology prism. The message the Army has beaten relentlessly into us Soldiers (and former Soldiers still serving the Army as civilians) is that the Web is a dangerous place prone to cyber attacks and the pilfering of personally identifiable information, the loss of which might jeopardize our safety and the safety of our families.

But I have steadily begun to recognize that those of us in the Army are no more and no less vulnerable than the average purveyor of the Web. However, for published historians like me, the risk of making myself available online seems worth it based on the benefits gained: collaboration with other scholars, constructive assessments of my work, and the ability to hear from people deeply affected by the military history I write.

When I Google myself, the primary links that come up are directly related to the two World War II books I published in 1996 and 2010 respectively. The fact that very little comes up about my background as an Army infantry officer testifies to my reticence during my active-duty days to plumb the Web’s depths and leave a more visible  thumbprint.  But the online presence I developed through my two books demonstrated clearly to me the necessity and benefit of a solid online presence.

Despite excellent reviews, my first book suffered from a lukewarm marketing campaign, principally because the publisher (an academic one at that) was more interested in selling library copies than individual copies to an interested public. But things changed dramatically with my next book. My publisher, the Naval Institute Press (an academic press like my first publisher), marketed the book widely on the Web.  They even convinced me to engage for the first time in social media by establishing a Facebook page so that readers could reach out to me directly.  Thanks to the Army’s overly cautionary propaganda, I hesitated at first but finally succumbed. My subsequent Facebook page was (and still is) a very “bare bones” sketch of my personal background with about a dozen “friends.” But in spite of this minor presence, some amazing things happened. Numerous people contacted me directly via Facebook about my new book and provided me with incredible feedback, including veterans of the battle whom I had not known earlier.  Most of all, my presence on Facebook, on (I still don’t have an author’s profile there!), and on CSPAN’s Web site (they posted a 15-minute video clip of me from their BookTV feature) all breathed new life into my first book, resulting in another publisher picking it up and re-publishing it in softcover. The sales exploded — and continue to outpace my second work. Amazing.

The most rewarding aspect of my online presence, though, is that I have been able to provide answers for several family members of men who fought and died in the two battles about which I wrote. In short, we were able to find out what happened to their loved ones. The World War II Army’s manual (and laborious) administrative machine  often provided very sketchy details about a Soldier’s death to his family, inadvertently leaving questions unresolved and old wounds unhealed. In one case, a Facebook request from a lady whose father died before she was born sent me back into my  primary sources to seek out some information for her. Remarkably, I was able to tell her precisely when, where, and under what circumstances her father died. The entire process was highly emotional for everyone involved. But without the ability to reach me directly online, I doubt this woman would have bothered to go through the publisher to seek me out.  The knowledge I provided to that lady and to her family helped heal  some long-standing wounds and provided me with a great sense of personal satisfaction.

My larger point, like Miriam Posner’s, is that we — as historians — have to overcome our fear of the Web and establish an online presence that will work for us. For me, Facebook opened up new possibilities very quickly, but I think other mediums, such as Twitter and our own personal Web pages, have great promise. In fact, I have longed to develop a Web site for my two books that will allow me to post photographs and maps that never made it into the published versions. Additionally,  I want to create a function on the site’s main page where the public may submit questions directly to me about my work. I would also like to scan and post some of the more interesting primary sources to give the reading public a sense of my qualitative approach to the material.  The only thing stopping me has been one simple fact: I don’t know how to build a flipping Web site! My experience so far with Word Press and Reclaim Hosting  has been very positive and user-friendly. My suspicion is that other tools out there for Web-site development are just as easy to use, and I look forward to diving in.

Steve Rusiecki

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