The Tropics of Meta Decade

Almost exactly ten years ago, we started Tropics of Meta. This was our first post, which says it all.

The world of digital scholarship and academic publishing has changed dramatically in the intervening period, and — as our writers and editors have said many times — we really had only the dimmest of idea of what we set out to do when we started.

Ten years ago, Ryan Reft and I were at the AHA annual meeting in San Diego; I was interviewing for a job at Georgia State, RR was working on his PhD at UCSD, and Romeo Guzmán was chilling at a cookout. I felt like I had completely, thoroughly, spectacularly bombed in the GSU interview, and was so depressed that I went out immediately and bought a pack of cigarettes in a spree of nihilism (I had managed to quit smoking by this point). But pretty soon after that we got down to work.

RR and I had been talking about starting some kind of publication or online forum that would include our friends and fellow historians. At first, it seemed like this would mostly be an arena for discussion and sharing of works-in-progress among us, without much thought given to a broader audience. Planning to do a publication that would have a serious presence in the world was not what we specifically had in mind.

So it began with RR, Joel Suarez, Amy Heishman, Adam Gallagher, Ben Coates, and other writers in the first six months or so of the blog. We started on Blogspot/Blogger, before moving over to WordPress in 2012. Our graphic design was terrible. At a certain point, RR started paying attention to our Site Statistics, which I didn’t even know about, and we realized people were reading our stuff; we began to get a sense of what people read, what linked to us, what people clicked through, which topics or posts garnered the most interest.

We were never super-concerned about maximizing the audience, though of course we were glad went a piece resonated with readers. We generally felt that the difference between 5,000 or 50,000 or 500,000 hits really didn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of life. We wanted to do in-depth writing that would be useful to those students and other scholars who cared about it the most, without worrying a great deal about molding and targeting the work in order to generate traffic — which was particularly easy given the fact that there were no ads, no subscriptions, no Amazon partnerships or sponsored content to generate revenue in any case.

We’ve published over a thousand posts in the last ten years; with the exception of Aneurysms, the series of semi-weekly news round-up posts and somewhat bitchy columns that we started in 2018, almost all of these have been substantial, long-form essays. We’ve presented at multiple conferences about the experience of running ToM as part of the new wave of online scholarly discourse, alongside Black Perspectives, Nursing Clio, Age of Revolutions and others.

Over the years, both the readership and the authorship grew, and we got to publish work by many of the most exciting and creative writers of the younger generation: Ansley Erickson, Stacy Fahrenthold, Julia Gaffield, Joanna Dee Das, Keri Leigh Merritt, Amy Starecheski, Stan Thangaraj, Katherine Marino, Jael Vizcarra, Casey Baskin, H. Robert Baker, R. Mike Burr, Jason Tebbe, Kevin Baker, Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Miyako Martinez, Merlin Chowkanyun, John Legg, J.T. Roane, Jude Webre, Keith Orejel, and many, many more, encompassing original research, historiographical essays, book excerpts, reviews, interviews, and roundtable discussions. Our East of East project brought in an extraordinary panoply of gifted historians, creative writers, journalists, artists, poets, and activists to contribute, ultimately leading to the Rutgers University Press book that will be published next month.

Ryan Reft moved on from the blog in 2016, to focus on work at the Library of Congress and the Urban History Association’s Metropole blog. Romeo came on as an associate editor the same year and launched a wide range of new features; more recently, Will Greer became our digital content coordinator in 2017, and the art historian Courtney Rawlings of Emory University joined as a contributing editor in 2019.

Over the same time, our people have accomplished a great deal. My first book, Democracy of Sound, came out in 2013, and a second, Brain Magnet, will be published soon. Romeo got a job at Fresno State, and he and Carribean Fragoza recently took the helm at the Boom journal of California studies. Cari has a book coming out from City Lights. East of East is forthcoming from Rutgers. RR and others published in top journals such as the Journal of Urban History. Joel began and completed a PhD at Princeton and is soon on to greater things. ToM alums such as Lauren MacIvor Thompson have helped start other successful blogs (e.g. Nursing Clio), written for the New York Times, and scored book contracts with prestigious presses. Our work at ToM has been widely republished and translated in a variety of print and electronic platforms.

Some of us have even started teaching digital humanities, which really wasn’t a thing when we started. Tropics of Meta has been part of the conversation about online scholarship and publishing in books (such as University of Michigan Press’s 2012 Writing History in the Digital Age), conferences, and so on. It’s a whole new world as far as means of distributing historical work are concerned. As Stephen Malkmus once said, “It’s a brand new era, it feels great; it’s a brand new era, but it came too late.”

It has been an extraordinary and unique learning experience for me over the years, as well as, I hope, for our many contributors and readers. Curiosity is one of the core elements of a life worth living, and for me getting to engage with so many people’s wonderful work in such a sustained and varied way has been a true privilege. I hope we can continue with our commitment to long-form writing, deeply grounded historical scholarship, trenchant commentary, good humor, and a willingness to pursue all the rabbit holes and shaggy dog stories there are, wherever they lead.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed and read all these years!

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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