Friday, September 27, 2013

Should Historians Use Twitter? Part 1

Heather Cox Richardson


But since I still have more than 136 characters left, here’s my take on the Twitter question:

I have had many conversations lately with historians based in America about whether or not they should use Twitter. There are three complaints about it. First of all, there is a general impression that Twitter users are narcissists who feel obliged to inform the world every time they eat a bagel. Second, there is a sense that it is a waste of valuable time.  Third, younger scholars are concerned that presence on social media might hurt them on the job market.

These are valid concerns, but they are, to my mind, vastly outweighed by the advantages of Twitter both for individual historians and for the profession.

Let’s start with the profession. Yes, there are plenty of people who use Twitter to issue a play-by-play recap of their most mundane activities. But there is no law that says that’s the only way to use the medium. Twitter works best for historians when participants use it to direct followers to content. This works in two ways. Tweets can mention a new archive or recently discovered source or the significance of a date. They can also be used to call attention to a longer blog post or article—or even a book—on a historical topic. Imbedded links make the longer format instantly available.

It is striking how few established historians in America use Twitter this way. Historians in Canada and the UK are all over Twitter, claiming history for professionals either within or outside the academy, while established historians in America are simply not claiming any territory. There are exceptions, of course. William Cronon posts great links.  So do Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; David Armitage; Tera Hunter; Kevin Levin; and certainly many others I’ve missed. But their heroic ranks can’t compare to the sheer numbers of Twitter users based in Canada and the UK.

If American-based historians don’t take up more oxygen in public spaces, their expertise will continue to be ignored, and the importance of their work discounted. A good way to combat that denigration is simply to show up.

A second benefit to the profession is that Twitter offers a place where people on both sides of the tenure divide can exchange ideas. Another thing I have found shocking about Twitter is how many junior people are active there, and how few senior people are. Following as many junior scholars as I have found suggests to me that they have a completely different set of concerns and skills than people safely ensconced in the academy.  Early career historians are all over digital technologies and new archives. They are terribly worried about the rise of adjuncts and MOOCS. And they have no idea how they will find permanent employment in academia . . . or even if they want it. In my experience, these are not conversations that happen often among tenured folks. We worry much more about research, narrative techniques, and dealing with administrators. People on both sides of this divide have a great deal to offer each other; indeed, it seems to me fatal to the rapidly-changing historical profession NOT to be talking.

Finally, Twitter offers to historians outside perspectives. It’s an opportunity to stand in the same virtual world as a whole bunch of really smart people and hear what they think is important. Aside from the posts I saw yesterday about the problems of transnational history, teaching American history in a diverse classroom, Bruce Bartlett pointed me toward Bloomberg’s recap of the five years of America’s financial crisis, and NPR announced that Alan Lomax’s archive is now on-line. All of this information will inform my teaching and scholarship, and none of it would have come to my attention if it hadn’t flitted across my Twitter feed.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

It seems like scholarship has always been enriched by being able to keep in touch with other scholars in both formal and informal ways. I don't use Twitter because I still can't figure out how, but it seems like it is another way to do what scholars have long tried to do: share our work and ideas, hear from others and occasionally benefit from serendipity. And it could be a way to practice "public" history, couldn't it? Translating ideas/significance of our work for a more general audience?

Dan Allosso said...

Tweeted "If American-based historians don’t take up more oxygen in public spaces, their expertise will continued to be ignored." One advantage is that people travel in different circles. Tweeting to followers, and they having them retweet or favorite can expose your ideas to exponentially vast numbers of people you'd never reach otherwise. Of course, that makes Heather's point very germane about the different goals ind interests of different historians.

Anonymous said...

I'll be looking for a follow @sassyprof

Anonymous said...

P.S. I notice that in this blog post about Twitter there is a)no link to Twitter in the post; and b)no Twitter link to tweet the post.

Katrina said...

I have not noticed the same geographic breakdown you observe. (and I've been cataloguing historians on twitter from practically the get-go). There are many historians in the UK using it, but a high proportion of those are students or in alt-ac jobs - not many university faculty are doing it.
Conversely, I find I know a lot of American historians (including those in tenure track positions) who are on board.

stein said...

using @lawhistory, my twitter account, I try to send out links to interesting articles, scholarly or otherwise, and engage others in law and history in the twittersphere.