Existing Research: Historical Significance and the Attention Economy

Researchers of historical significance and the attention economy share common concerns and goals. Writers in each field query what students and content users pay attention to and why. Both fields are also concerned with the sociocultural forces that condition attention habits and the agency of content consumers in the face of these forces. Yet researchers have not tended to communicate across fields. In order to explore how each body of research productively informs the other, this section places historical significance and the attention economy in conversation by reviewing the preoccupations and goals of each field.

Historical Significance

The complicated nature of historical significance debates leaves historians and educators in a bind. How do we teach students to define historical significance without perpetuating ideological arguments about what content counts as significant? In response to these debates, scholars of historical significance typically advocate a focus on skills rather than particular content (with the caveat that these two categories are never quite as far apart as they seem). The goal is to establish methods and criteria that help students weigh multiple definitions of historical significance. Ideally, students gradually learn to exercise discernment as they navigate the pluralistic landscape of historical narratives in the classroom and beyond.

Sociocultural Influences in Perceptions of Historical Significance

To determine how best to teach discernment, many researchers begin by asking how students perceive significance when they first enter a classroom or research space. Much of the recent work on this question explores the impact of sociocultural influences such as race, religion, nationality, family narratives, political climate, and ethnic-linguistic identity impact students’ perceptions of significance. As noted in the Literature Review to “Hashtag History,” numerous scholars highlight the effects of identity, family, and nation primarily in European and North American contexts, though some work also touches on sociocultural frameworks in Australia, New Zealand, and Ghana.

In the Singapore context, two recent dissertations investigate Singaporean students’ understandings of historical significance. Delia Foo and Angeline Yeo parse the influence of the Ministry of Education (MOE), a quasi-official history (colloquially known as “the Singapore Story”), and civic education on students’ conceptions of historically significant elements of Singapore’s history. In addition, Yeo teases out the intersections of official narratives with students’ identities, especially their ethnic-linguistic identities, in multiple contexts. The diverse contexts of school, home, and public spaces, she found, impacted which part of a students’ identity rose to the surface as the student interacted with historical content and questions about significance.

Criteria for Historical Significance

Individual identity and cultural context have complicated effects on what students perceive as significant and how they explain their perceptions. “Cultural assumptions,” Bruce VanSledright posits, “saturate the interpretations of the historical thinker” and create a position from which students begin their considerations. While not all scholars explicitly acknowledge the impact of sociocultural influences, most acknowledge that definitions of historical significance are bound to the context produced by these influences. Researchers therefore present proposed criteria for defining historical significance as guidelines rather than comprehensive lists.

Robert Phillips and Christine Counsell, for instance, constructed their definitions of historical significance to assist students’ investigation of a specific topic (the Great War and Josephine Butler, respectively). Their goal was to create memorable, varied definitions in order to grow students’ abilities to consider multiple definitions of significance. Both authors built their criteria from an earlier list proposed by George Partington (included in Table 3), but Phillips notes that Partington’s definitions did not always aid his students’ consideration of different aspects of World War I. His acknowledgment that Partington’s criteria are not universally applicable implies that conceptions of historical significance are contextual rather than comprehensive.

Table 3. Criteria for historical significance from Partington, Phillips, and Counsell.

Partington (1980)Phillips (2002): “GREAT”Counsell (2004): “5 R’s”
ProfundityRemembered by allRemembered
QuantityEvents that were far-reachingResonant
DurabilityAffected the futureResulting in change

The contextual nature of definitions of historical significance is central to the “guideposts” Peter Seixas and Thomas Morton propose as well. Echoing Counsell, they include two criteria for significance—resulted in change and revealing. However, their third and fourth guideposts emphasize the process of determining significance instead of proposing a more extensive definition of historical significance. Whereas Phillips’ work only suggested that definitions of historical significance are bound to a time and place, Seixas and Morton state this idea explicitly: concepts of significance “[vary] over time and from group to group.” Historical significance is ultimatelya flexible relationship between ourselves (historians, teachers, and students) and the past.”

The Attention Economy

The contextual nature of historical significance is the result of a complex web of personal and communal influences, including age, race, ethnicity, language, gender, and national narratives. Although a few scholars (notably Sam Wineburg, Keith Barton, and Linda Levstik) address the role of visual media in shaping students’ perspectives, no scholar of historical significance explicitly mentions social media. Despite the absence of social media in the historical thinking literature, research about historical significance closely parallels the arguments forwarded by attention economy and viral media experts. Like concepts of historical significance, the attention habits of individuals and groups are conditioned by personal values and social context.

Sociocultural Influences & Criteria for Viral Content in the Attention Economy

What draws people’s attention — or to what do they choose to give their attention? To what extent are we reacting to marketers’ efforts to capture attention and to what extent are we conscious, willing participants in those efforts? In a 2017 TED Talk, BuzzFeed curator Dao Nguyen outlines some of the social media giant’s observations about readers’ attention habits.

Rather than tagging content by topic (like “cat videos” or “Game of Thrones”), BuzzFeed sorts content based on the purposes articles or videos serve. Not all categories are public, but Nguyen outlines five of the most prominent motivations for viewers’ engagement with BuzzFeed content:

  1. Makes me laugh (humor)
  2. This is me (identity)
  3. This is us (helps me connect)
  4. Helps me (learn something, do something)
  5. Makes me feel (faith restored, happiness, curiosity, sadness)

Nguyen’s criteria primarily address individual motivations for engaging with content, but Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends, suggests patterns that address the social nature of the attention economy. He argues videos do go viral because of individual experiences of unexpectedness, but tastemakers and communities of participation play a central role in what reaches web users in the first place.

A meme or video can lie dormant for years on the web, but if a well-followed social media user shares the video, it can go viral. Someone with influence — a tastemaker, in Allocca’s terminology — can define what is attention-worthy. Ditto to communities of participation. A video or meme might not be widely shared across the web, but can circulate within a community of participation (such as a sub-Reddit or a Twitter hashtag) if it meets the interests of that community. Allocca’s analysis echoes that of historical scholars: Attention, like significance, depends on individual choices but is also framed by external, social influences.

Agency in the Attention Economy

The mutual influence of tastemakers and communities of participation encapsulates the difficulties of determining agency within the attention economy. On the one hand, tastemakers indicate content consumers’ lack of agency. While tastemakers themselves exercise a great deal of influence, their followers possess less freedom of choice regarding what they read, watch, or share. If web users only encounter a tiny portion of available content and what we do see is primarily the result of what others have shared, there appears to be little choice involved in what we give our attention to.

On the other hand, communities of participation suggest greater agency for web users. Users exercise choice when they decide who to pay attention to and where to consume or share content online. Content consumers can also become tastemakers in online spaces populated by people who share their interests. In communities of participation, agency is more robust. The boundaries between producers and consumers are blurry at best and mutual influence abounds.

The ambiguity of agency in the attention economy disturbs many cultural critics. James Williams, a former strategist for Google, worries the attention economy “privileges our impulses over our intentions” because it “incentivizes the design of technologies that grab our attention.” Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, expresses similar concerns about social media atmospheres that are expertly constructed to distract us. For Harris, creators of a design and the design itself possess agency (“it schedules”), but social media and app users do not:

If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into.

Tristan Harris, How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day, TEDTalk, 2017.

Alice Marwick and danah boyd approach the attention economy with less trepidation. They argue that users have more power than Williams and Harris perceive because individuals are rarely only consumers. In a 2010 study of Twitter users, Marwick and boyd observed that tweeters crafted their content to appeal to specific audiences. Participants in the study, like authors of traditional print media, made conscious decisions about what to tweet based on their audience’s perceived interest in their content. Though Marwick and boyd do not explicitly mention the attention economy, their study implies individuals are not merely subject to efforts to capture their attention. As creators, individuals appropriate and utilize the attention economy to their own purposes too.


  1. Christine Counsell, “Historical Knowledge and Historical Skills: A Distracting Dichotomy,” in James Arthur and Robert Phillips, eds., Issues in History Teaching, London: Routledge, 1999.

  2. Stéphane Lévesque, “Teaching Second-Order Concepts in Canadian History: The Importance of ‘Historical Significance,'” Canadian Social Studies 39, no. 2 (2005), http://www.educ.ualberta.ca/css/Css_39_2/ARLevesque_second-order_concepts.htm.

  3. There is also a rich, albeit small, body of research concerning how instructors perceive historical significance and how their perceptions influence pedagogical choices. I’m not dealing with this argument in the sections that follow, but can recommend: Suhaimi Mohamed Afandi, “Conceptions about the Nature of Accounts in History: An Exploratory Study of Students’ Ideas and Teachers’ Assumptions about Students’ Understandings in Singapore” (Ph.D., University of London Institute of Education, 2012), http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/10020665/; S. G. Grant, “It’s Just the Facts, or Is It? An Exploration of the Relationship between Teachers’ Practices and Students’ Understandings of History,” 1999, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED436466; Daisy A. Martin, “Teaching for Historical Thinking: Teacher Conceptions, Practices, and Constraints” (Ph.D., Stanford University, 2005), https://search.proquest.com/docview/305442266/abstract/5465CA84E1F3449FPQ/1.

  4. See Terrie Epstein, “Sociocultural Approaches to Young People’s Historical Understanding,” Social Education 61, no. 1 (January 1997): 28–31 for a review of sociocultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

  5. See Literature Review: Sociocultural Influences on Historical Thinking.

  6. Keith C. Barton, “Historical Understanding among Elementary Children” (D.Ed., University of Kentucky, 1994), https://search.proquest.com/docview/304128747/abstract/5794124B34F6494BPQ/1; Keith C. Barton, “‘You’d Be Wanting to Know About the Past’: Social Contexts of Children’s Historical Understanding” (Paper, 1998), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED426042.pdf; Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, “‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History’: National Identity and Students’ Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record 99, no. 3 (March 1, 1998): 478–513; Linda S. Levstik, “Articulating the Silences: Teachers’ and Adolescents’ Conceptions of Historical Significance,” in Peter N. Stearns, Peter C. Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (NYU Press, 2000); L.S. Levstik, “Crossing the empty spaces: perspective taking in New Zealand adolescents’ understanding of national history” in O. L. Davis, Elizabeth Anne Yeager, and Stuart J. Foster, eds., Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good, Kindle Edition (Mahwah, N.J: Routledge, 2004); Linda S. Levstik and Jeanette Groth, “‘Ruled by Our Own People’: Ghanaian Adolescents’ Conceptions of Citizenship,” Teachers College Record 107, no. 4 (April 1, 2005): 563–86; Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle School, 4. ed (London: Routledge, 2011); Lis Cercadillo, “Significance in History: Students’ Ideas in England and Spain,” in Raising Standards in History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, and Peter Lee (London; Portland, OR: Woburn Press, 2001), 116–45; Lis Cercadillo, “‘Maybe They Haven’t Decided yet What Is Right:’ English and Spanish Perspectives on Teaching Historical Significance,” Teaching History, no. 125 (2006): 6–9, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43260148; Peter Seixas, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance,” Theory & Research in Social Education 22, no. 3 (June 1, 1994): 281–304, https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.1994.10505726; Terrie Epstein, “Deconstructing Differences in African-American and European-American Adolescents’ Perspectives on U. S. History,” Curriculum Inquiry 28, no. 4 (1998): 397–423, http://www.jstor.org.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/stable/1179982; Sevan G. Terzian and Elizabeth Anne Yeager, “‘That’s When We Became a Nation’: Urban Latino Adolescents and the Designation of Historical Significance,” Urban Education 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 52–81, https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085906294027.

  7. See “The Singapore Story & National Education” in Singapore: Politics, Education & Historical Thinking in the Literature Review.

  8. Delia Wen Xian Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance – a Singapore Case Study” (University of British Columbia, 2014), https://doi.org/10.14288/1.0165901; Angeline Jude Enk Sung Yeo, “Students’ Judgments of Historical Significance in Singapore Schools: Positionalities and Narratives” (University of Washington, 2015), http://search.proquest.com/docview/1760975263/abstract/DEB3605EE9C5413EPQ/1.

  9. Yeo, “Students’ Judgments of Historical Significance in Singapore Schools,” 36.

  10. Bruce VanSledright, “On the Importance of Historical Positionality to Thinking about and Teaching History,” International Journal of Social Education 12, no. 2 (October 15, 1997): 1–18. See section, “Synthesizing Work on Historical Thinking” in html version; http://search.ebscohost.com.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eue&AN=507597404&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

  11. See Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance – a Singapore Case Study,” 155 for a helpful list of the proposed criteria from Partington, Phillips, and Counsell as well as Ian Dawson and Mike Denos and Roland Case. For full explanations of Phillips and Counsell’s criteria, see respectively, Christine Counsell, “Looking through a Josephine-Butler-Shaped Window: Focusing Pupils’ Thinking on Historical Significance,” Teaching History, no. 114 (2004): 30–33 and Robert Philips, “Historical Significance – the Forgotten ‘Key Element’?,” Teaching History, no. 106 (2002): 14–19. Lis Cercadillo also offers criteria for historical significance in “Significance in History: Students’ Ideas in England and Spain,” in Raising Standards in History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, and Peter Lee (London; Portland, OR: Woburn Press, 2001), 116–45.

  12. Philips, “Historical Significance – the Forgotten ‘Key Element,’?,” 15.

  13. Source: Adapted from Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance – a Singapore Case Study,” 155.

  14. Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts (Nelson Education, 2013), 12.

  15. Seixas and Morton, The Big Six, 17.

  16. Sam Wineburg et al., “Common Belief and the Cultural Curriculum: An Intergenerational Study of Historical Consciousness,” American Educational Research Journal 44, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 66, https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831206298677; Barton and Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good, 497. Other scholars of historical thinking are certainly interested in the impact of social media on historical thinking, as noted in the Literature Review: Historical Thinking in the Digital Age. However, social media is not one of the sociocultural influences considered by writers who address historical significance specifically.

  17. The full schema of categories is currently only available internally to BuzzFeed employees: Swati Vauthrin, “BuzzFeed Tech’s 2017 Year in Review,” BuzzFeed Tech, Dec 28, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20190414103140/https://tech.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeed-techs-2017-year-in-review-6c2955c7efec?gi=492fcb336dd9.

  18. Dao Nguyen, What Makes Something Go Viral?, 2017, https://www.ted.com/talks/dao_nguyen_what_makes_something_go_viral. View saved version of What Makes Something Go Viral? on the Internet Archive.

  19. Kevin Allocca, Why Videos Go Viral, 2011, https://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_allocca_why_videos_go_viral. View saved version of “Why Videos Go Viral” on the Internet Archive. The lattermost category is also represented in BuzzFeed’s cultural cartography in the visible categories “mind blown” and “WTF.” See again, “BuzzFeed Tech’s 2017 Year in Review,” https://web.archive.org/web/20190414103140/https://tech.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeed-techs-2017-year-in-review-6c2955c7efec?gi=492fcb336dd9.

  20. Quoted in Paul Lewis, “‘Our Minds Can Be Hijacked’: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia,” The Guardian, October 6, 2017, sec. Technology, https://web.archive.org/web/20190414101731/https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia, accessed Apr 14, 2019.

  21. Tristan Harris, How a Handful of Tech Companies Control Billions of Minds Every Day, 2017, https://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_the_manipulative_tricks_tech_companies_use_to_capture_your_attention. View saved version of How a Handful of Tech Companies on the Internet Archive.

  22. Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” New Media & Society 13, no. 1 (February 1, 2011): 114–33, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444810365313.