Viva quien vence... but, still... September 23, 2009 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if we should add a "History" category to Ask Me? I posted this today, and was surprised to find that we don't have this category choice. I wavered between "Grab Bag" and "Society and Culture" and finally went with the latter, though my impression of that category is that it's meant to address quite different, mostly contemporary questions... and checking past questions seems to affirm that it's not a great fit, though probably the best we have.

I did find some similar queries, of course (most recently: this and this), and maybe it does make strict economical sense in terms of trying to keep the categories super condensed and manageable, but, dang - "History" seems like an important/logical/basic classification. I suspect that history questions must be somewhat illogically scattered among various less helpful categories (I briefly considered "clothing, beauty, & fashion" and "home and garden" - and maybe if I were only asking about either the gowns or the rushes, I might have gone with one or the other... but they would have been poor substitutes for a straightforward "History" designation).
posted by taz (staff) to Feature Requests at 6:05 AM (67 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

It would get buried by other categories, especially "society and culture" and "law and government."

Also, is it even feasible to add a new AskMe category? I don't see how it could be applied retroactively.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2009

I would ask a few questions when adding a new category:

1) Are there a large number of mis-categorized questions?
2) Would aggregating those questions under one category create a valuable grouping?
3) Would this introduce ambiguity in the categorization of some current questions?

Using that method, I'm on the fence with "history". There are several history questions I saw that are listed under "society & culture", which is a very broad category, so you could argue they are mis-categorized. Yet I'm not sure that "history" is narrow enough to be valuable improvement. Are there people who are interested in history questions, in general, across all subjects?

My biggest problem would probably be adding ambiguity. I would rather have history questions on a subject listed in the subject category rather than history. IMO, if you are asking about the history of a fashion, that should go in "fashion", not "history".
posted by smackfu at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2009

Those who don't know their MetaTalk history ask questions which got a resounding meh the first time around.
posted by Kattullus at 6:48 AM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Yeah, four years later I still think a history category is a good idea. People put history questions in all kinds of categories. But now we have tags and therefore a different way of categorizing things.
posted by Kattullus at 6:50 AM on September 23, 2009

Thanks, Kattullus. Apparently, I was doomed to repeat it.
posted by taz at 6:54 AM on September 23, 2009 [7 favorites]

That's pretty clearly "society and culture." It just so happens to be historical society and culture, but that's neither here nor there.

There are about 20 million proverbs about how history repeats itself and humanity rarely changes. Quotes from ancient Greeks 3 or 4 millennia back complaining about kids today and how they occupy lawns. History doesn't need to be a category because anything historical is better fit into the category its contemporarily analogous question would fall into.
posted by explosion at 7:19 AM on September 23, 2009

It's not "clearly," since I would think Education would also be a fit.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:27 AM on September 23, 2009

Those who don't know their MetaTalk history ask questions which got a resounding meh the first time around.

Weird, I don't read that link as a meh. To me it reads as mostly in favor.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:29 AM on September 23, 2009

I'm afraid that you have been educated stupid. The cubic nature of time tells us the inculcated belief of "history" is evil. All queries that would fit into this genre can be placed into any other appropriate category once your brain has been freed of its 3D erroneous temporal maths.
posted by Mizu at 7:36 AM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Do people even use categories? How?
posted by iamkimiam at 7:41 AM on September 23, 2009

You can use them in "My Ask".
posted by smackfu at 7:43 AM on September 23, 2009

It would be swell if people would forget about that schizophrenic racist timecube guy. Have you looked at his site recently? It's like you're making a joke using the ravings of a homeless, recently discharged state mental hospital patient who was yelling at you on your way to the office building downtown.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:48 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, cjorgensen - I was just getting ready to ask about "Education." Why does it have a discrete category? Couldn't we just put the different education questions into analogous categories, as explosion suggests for Historical questions? Education about what?! Wanna be a doctor? Put it in Health and Fitness! Wanna be a lawyer? Put it in Law and Government! etc. I don't actually think this is a good idea.

I think there's a big difference between, for example, "When did Homo sapiens first begin to wear what we can recognize as 'clothes'" (I'd put it in Science & Nature), and something like "Besides the typical 'flapper' costumes that we usually see, what did regular women in the 1920s wear?" (I'd put it in Clothing, Beauty & Fashion), and "In the past what colors, fabrics or materials have been restricted to be only used/worn by royalty, or perhaps nobility, and why?"

I wouldn't put that in Law & Government. I could put it in Clothing, Beauty & Fashion, but it's not strictly a Clothing/Fashion question, and not something that people who are interested in fashion are necessarily going to care/know about. It's really a history question.
posted by taz at 8:00 AM on September 23, 2009

Oh boo, Burhanistan. When we're talking about removing temporal preconceptions in order to more cleanly categorize questions in AskMe, it reminds me of timecube. Aw, serves me right to think I can wake up ridiculously early and not be called out for twitlike commenting practices.

Back on topic: who actually uses categories to filter what questions they see?
posted by Mizu at 8:00 AM on September 23, 2009

who actually uses categories to filter what questions they see?

Many people use the "human relations" category because it's really interesting. I'm not aware of anyone using any other categories.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:03 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jaltcoh: "I'm not aware of anyone using any other categories."

I often check the computers+internet section, because I am more likely to know an answer about that than most other subjects. I think there are many of us who check particular categories of interest.
posted by idiopath at 8:10 AM on September 23, 2009

I actually use categories to filter what questions I see, and would include History if it existed (but I don't include Law & Gov't or Society & Culture.)
posted by Zed at 8:15 AM on September 23, 2009

There's a tab called "My Ask" that only loads the categories you are interested in. Also, sometimes I, and maybe others, just check out categories they like. I don't really see how "nobody uses 'em" is a persuasive argument anyway. I think that you're basically saying, "I don't use 'em", so who cares?
posted by taz at 8:18 AM on September 23, 2009

Can we add a "meta" category to AskMe and get rid of MetaTalk?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2009

cjorgensen: Weird, I don't read that link as a meh. To me it reads as mostly in favor.

Yeah, it's true. I was just making a joke. Admittedly it wasn't that funny :)
posted by Kattullus at 8:30 AM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I ask a lot of history questions, but I don't think they need a category. A question about the history of computers should go in computers, etc. Tags have pretty much solved this problem, I think.If I'm looking for questions I can convincingly answer, I use the tags as well as the categories.
posted by The Whelk at 8:36 AM on September 23, 2009

I'm with idiopath.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:55 AM on September 23, 2009

This seems like a nice category to have. I'd use it.
posted by Artw at 9:15 AM on September 23, 2009

The "food & drink" category is useful as well
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:55 AM on September 23, 2009

I've been thinking about asking a question on WWII ration books, so would that be 'Food & Drink" or 'Society & Culture'? Seems like "History" would be a better fit.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:48 AM on September 23, 2009

I think ration books would be "Society and Culture" and I might still say that even if there was a "History" category.

How about a category called "Santayana's Revenge"?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2009

I'm with taz and what's more people should inquire more about history, god-dammit, whether they're interested or not. Maybe force people to learn something about the Treaty of Westphalia first before they can have a follow-up on what to name their cat.
posted by Abiezer at 1:11 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Society and culture, for most incidences - history, after all, is a discipline that is about the study of past society and culture.

Ration books only incidentally about food and drink; they're more about a system of resource allocation arising from a government structure that sought to control the distribution of scarce resources. And their use was controlled by written law. As such I'd put them under "law and government," or perhaps "society and culture" in that certainly, having to manage two currencies rather than one to buy your food affected society and changed the culture of food.

Note that our categories are not perfectly exclusive. "Law and government," "food and drink," - these are really aspects of society and culture, as well. But we immediately begin to encounter classification problems when we want to have top-tier labels get more and more specific.

At some point we have to recognize that the more categories we have, the less useful each is. There's some theoretical sweet spot where all the categories mean something definite, but separate effectively to allow users to disregard large chunks of information they're not interested in.

When you give it some thought, every subject area about which you can ask a question is a subject matter that has a history. So most subject-specific history questions can find a useful home within their subject matter areas, while the more general queries about historical phenomena or events and those about the practice of history itself would fit just fine in 'society and culture.'

I say this as someone who loves history and whose favorite questions are often history questions.
posted by Miko at 1:39 PM on September 23, 2009

Taz should be given whatever she wants.
posted by Cranberry at 2:01 PM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Incidentally, here is where the categories came from, by mathowie:
A cataloging friend scoured a year of archives to come up with the categories to cover every question asked, but yeah they could use some tweaking, which is something I'll do after it runs for a while. If there are too many grab bag questions, those will become new categories. If a category never gets a single post, maybe it'll go away and end up as rarely used grab bag question.
The only tweaking that ever happened was that "health" became "health & fitness". I guess because tags were added and they did a better job.

Also note that complaint about the categories was before they even went live. Ha!
posted by smackfu at 2:36 PM on September 23, 2009

The correct categories would be:

* Identify my Science Fiction book
* Fix my computer
* I am annoying and self absorbed, listen to my drama
* Ridiculously over specific question
* Other
posted by Artw at 2:49 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You want less? I'll give you less. 2 Catagories:

Black & White
(or Gray if you prefer)

Things to do in Denver when you are dead (broke)? Grey
Why does it hurt when I poke myself in the eye? Black & White
Untangle my relationship knot? Grey
Fix my whatjamajigger? Black & White
Name my gerbil-like monkey hamster? Grey
Title of a book from my childhood that I remember vaguely as if in a dream? Black & White
Contribute to a mix tape about gerbil-like monkey hamsters? Grey
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:43 PM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]



And then to categorize everyone discusses whether the asker is asking that question out of love or fear.
posted by qvantamon at 3:56 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

The first category, friends, the category of love. Now watch, and I'll show you the story of life...
posted by Artw at 3:58 PM on September 23, 2009

posted by LarryC at 4:49 PM on September 23, 2009

New extra cynical AskMe categories:
I just did something stupid, how do I avoid blame?
What's a good rationalization for my past or future self destructive life choice in [career/relationship/addiction/should I eat that]?
I'm too poor to afford an expert, what's the best piece of advice that I can ignore?
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

You want less?

Not really, but I'd love fewer.
posted by dersins at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

JokeProphetic categories before categories even existed.
posted by qvantamon at 6:10 PM on September 23, 2009

History is boring though.
posted by Sassyfras at 6:50 PM on September 23, 2009

This is potentially not a bad idea, but maybe what we need (if we need any tweaking at all) is another exhaustive analysis of the sort smackfu cited. Since the last one was done almost five years ago, maybe it's time to revisit the whole thing holistically.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:55 PM on September 23, 2009

Not really, but I'd love fewer.

I knew that Fewer was grammatically correct but went with Less. Why? For one thing it has more zing. Also, I know the subtext is "Do you want fewer choices?" but I was poking fun and writing in response to Miko's statement, "At some point we have to recognize that the more categories we have, the less useful each is." So I decided to give her less.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:05 PM on September 23, 2009

Merriam-Webster's usage notes on less vs. fewer:
The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>.
King Alfred died so that people could use less to modify plural nouns. Why do you hate King Alfred the Great? Do you hate greatness?
posted by Kattullus at 7:26 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I'd love less" is kind of an awkward sentence since "loveless" is a word.
posted by smackfu at 7:28 PM on September 23, 2009

At some point we have to recognize that the more categories we have, the less useful each is.

I totally agree, I just think that this point falls somewhere after the inclusion of History.

When you give it some thought, every subject area about which you can ask a question is a subject matter that has a history.

I actually did give it some thought, and to me, history is still a valid category, especially in terms of how I (and I have to assume I'm not entirely alone) use Ask Me. I look at categories that interest me, which means I never look at "Law & Government," but I would be very interested in, say, a question about feudal systems of justice. I'm not interested in Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion, but I would be very interested in the use of kohl in ancient cosmetics. These sorts of things are fascinating to me, but they are mostly hidden, because we don't have a history category. I can include the "history" tag in My Ask, but tag-use is unreliable. Here's an obvious history question without a history tag, for example.

Also, for answering questions, people who are interested in history are more likely to know of/have access to resources useful for answering questions related to history. Shipwrecked! is an interesting question about shipwrecks throughout history (no history tag, though). In one way, "Travel & Transportation" is a fine category for this, but most questions in this category have to do with either cars/motorcycles, or tourism, so a maritime history buff, for example, wouldn't necessarily be looking at that category. Does the question technically fit the category? Yes! But practically, in terms of drawing the attention of someone who is familiar with the resources that might help answer that question? Not necessarily.

I can understand if the answer is simply that not very many people are interested in history, and we don't get a lot of history questions (though there may be something of a chicken & egg aspect to this), but I'm not really buying the argument that since everything has a history, it doesn't make sense to have History as a category.
posted by taz at 8:16 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would like History as a category.
posted by paduasoy at 12:59 AM on September 24, 2009

I also would like to see history as a category. History suggests the asker wants an answer with the context of past thought and practices. This separates a history question from one about society/culture, which bring to my mind questions about etiquette in foreign cultures or about trends observed at home or abroad. It also gives history nerds a place to share their knowledge, just like the technology category beckons techno-wizards into their natural habitat.

My bias is as a historian of the non-Western world-- Japan, East Asia, World. Even worse, I’m a USian doing my thing in the US. Hardly any history beyond the US, the UK, and Continental Europe registers in the brains of US youth and older people, yet arguably the US is the most important place to teach people the history beyond these comfortable borders. That is my impression formed as a history professor at a big university. (It's also my impression just about any if not all industrialized countries privilege national history, but a defense of perceived US ignorance is a topic for another day.)

But, for whatever wonderful reason, Mefites bring many history questions beyond the minutiae of US and European history to AskMe. That's just my impression, but I bet data back it up. It is so, so, very refreshing to see and learn from these queries.

I’d argue AskMe is one of the most intelligent places online for Q&A about the history of the world beyond "the West." That is a great thing. AskMe history answers generally eschew antiquarian and Orientalist approaches so common in other media. Making history a proper category just accentuates AskMe's greatness in this regard.

If the consensus for the history category turns out to be "meh," I suggest an alternative: "history/anthropology." It would do approximately the same thing: set apart questions about cultures and histories that require more specialized knowledge.

But it would expand ways to answer challenging questions about the past. Anthropologists often have conceptual tools better-suited to prehistory and certain kinds of cultural inquiries. Anthropology and history complement one another well.

Ok, this got long.

In sum, we need history because:

1) Unusual and remarkable in any context, AskMe history questions span beyond North America and Western Europe
2) AskMe history already receive superb answers that avoid the pitfalls of antiquarianism and Orientalism
3) Society/Culture covers primarily practice, not how practice emerged and evolved.

Please excuse length, spelling and grammatical errors.
posted by vincele at 3:56 AM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, History & Anthropology! Better!
posted by taz at 4:24 AM on September 24, 2009

Assuming people know what anthropology is.
posted by smackfu at 6:01 AM on September 24, 2009

Taz should be given whatever she wants.
This both goes without saying and bears repeating.
posted by dg at 6:49 AM on September 24, 2009

In that case, I'd also like some carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, a foot rub, and a Sandra Bullock video. A funny one, not one of those serious ones about rehab, or bigotry or stuff.
posted by taz at 7:41 AM on September 24, 2009

If we had history and anthropology, then I'd vote for using that to replace "society and culture," since they'd now be redundant.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Adding "war & military" would cover a lot of the questions that "history" would cover, but not overlap too badly with the existing categories.

I'm not sure it's a common enough topic, though.
posted by smackfu at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2009

Or perhaps roll it in: "History, society, and culture." That should capture most general history questions.

But I would still expect that people will ask questions that draw on the knowledge of history in the subject-specific categories, as well. When you have to make a choice, you aim for the best fit, and it's reasonable to think that, say, a question about when sarongs became part of Western fashion would still be placed by many askers under the "fashion" category.

Missing questions that might interest you is to some degree a hazard of reading by category.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on September 24, 2009

Miko makes a good point. I skim all of AskMe because I never know which category has questions of interest to me. "War and military" are small but commercially successful subsets of history. I'd rather not see them as categories, because politics seems to cover them already, and so would the proposed history or history/anthro category. Plus war/military seems likely to instigate fightiness.

Anyway, there are my two cents and I'll bow out now.
posted by vincele at 9:15 AM on September 24, 2009

I use categories. I often will check out the "education" category specifically to see what education questions I've missed buried among the big backlog (I never have time to read all of Ask Mefi). I would definitely click on a "history" category, but I'm not interested in most "society & culture" questions.
posted by jb at 9:19 AM on September 24, 2009

History is boring though.

Burn her!
posted by deborah at 11:41 AM on September 24, 2009

Burn her!

...Why does that saying ring a bell?
posted by Miko at 1:31 PM on September 24, 2009

posted by The Whelk at 1:32 PM on September 24, 2009

Are you now, or have you ever been, associated with bell-ringers?
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on September 24, 2009

Let's not make camp analogies with campanology, thank you very much.
posted by Abiezer at 9:45 PM on September 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wow! That's an amazingly obscure joke, Abiezer. I doff my coppe to you.
posted by Kattullus at 5:53 AM on September 25, 2009

This one time, in bell-ringer camp ...
posted by dg at 6:26 AM on September 25, 2009

Okeedokee. I have to assume that no comment from Matt or mods means that this is not going to be considered at all. Or perhaps it's just a particularly bad time for input from you guys because you're really busy now?
posted by taz at 12:34 PM on September 25, 2009

posted by Artw at 1:47 PM on September 25, 2009

I vote against the lumping of history into "war and military". All too often the history of everything is told through the wars of everything. The history of a place or a people includes military history and wars, but there is so much more to it all, and I find the non-military to be far more interesting.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:54 AM on September 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't think anyone was suggesting lumping history into "war and military", just noting that history is maybe too broad a category because it varies from fashion and home decorating (which was the question posted by taz) to military history and many other things, and that people interested in the fashion history would not be interested in the military history and vice versa.

That said, I have at least a lay-person's interest in all branches of history, and would like to be able to easily skim the history questions the way I do the education questions. When skimming the education category, I ignore the questions about kindergartens and cooking school and skip right to those which are relevant to my interests, but without the category option I would find it difficult to find those within the hundreds of other questions each week about harddrives and restaurants in cities I've never been too (all of which are, of course, just as important/interesting to someone else).
posted by jb at 8:38 AM on September 27, 2009

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