Last Wednesday I gave a talk to the English and Creative Writing seminar at the University of Northampton, about how historians use social media and blogs. As I tend to do, I put a quick announcement on Twitter.
Jessica Meyer, a historian from Leeds University, asked if I was going to podcast the talk and I replied that I would probably write a blog instead. So here it is.
Some of the talk was about the range of things that we as a department do online – much of it can be viewed on or via this revamped blog site, so I won’t go into that here. But one issue I touched on was why history as a discipline has really taken to Twitter. This is something that I have been thinking about for a while, so I thought I might develop it here.
The impression I get from using social media is that historians use Twitter more than many disciplines. Clearly we aren’t the only ones – my colleague Jeff Ollerton tells me that it is huge in the biological sciences, for example – but we do seem to use it more than our adjacent subjects in the humanities. We had an entertaining discussion at the seminar about the possible reasons why it has not been taken up to quite the same extent in literature. Poets often use it, since their craft lends itself to Twitter’s enforced brevity of expression (although the recent shift from 140 to 280 characters takes some of the pressure off in this respect). Colleagues in the audience who work on novels joked about whether the same was true for them!
Lots of historians are on Twitter: the ones at Northampton alone are listed at the bottom of this post. The field as a whole even has its own hashtag, #twitterstorians, which is a great way to reach large numbers of us, working on many diverse areas.
But why is Twitter so popular among historians? My theory is that we tend to work on our own but we like talking to people. Historians usually conform to the ‘lone scholar’ model, and even those working in research teams or on joint projects tend to do their own thing from day to day. But we like sharing stuff: history is all about discovery and debate, and Twitter’s format lends itself to sharing snippets of information and punchy opinions.
The immediacy of the format lends itself to topical comment. Historians like to connect the past to the present, and microblogging is a great way to make quick points about parallels or precedents. The popularity of ‘on this day in history’ twitter accounts relates to this. The format also encourages ‘hot takes’ about contemporary events and many historians like doing this – much in the way they might drop a throwaway comment or joke into a lecture.
The openness of Twitter (as opposed to closed platforms like Facebook) also fits the historian, since sharing information about the past is what we do. We are usually a generous lot. Requests for help, such as palaeography quandries, quickly get responses. I know from my work on soldiers that it was a great way to get information about factual details or individuals, especially from the historical reenactor community who are hugely knowledgeable about issues like military materiel. The fact that history is a ‘crossover’ discipline that is accessible and interesting to the general public is a good fit for a platform that knows no barriers.
Finally, the format of the blog or microblog is arguably a liberating one for historians. As with all disciplines, historians have a very particular genre of writing. Whereas scholars in the sciences and social sciences tend to reflect on their research experiences in their published work, this is generally excised from historical writing, which hides the author and aims for narrative closure. Many journals now have an accompanying blog, where writers can publish a piece parallel to their new article in the journal itself. So the ‘historical’ writing goes in the article and the reflection goes in the blog. I wrote one recently, where I reflected on the experience of working on the material culture of shoes for an article in Social History. More regularly, it is fascinating to see glimpses into other historians’ work processes in their daily grumbles, pleas for help and ‘eureka!’ moments on Twitter.
So that’s my theory. Others will no doubt disagree or will have other suggestions – but that’s what Twitter is for, isn’t it?
Northampton historians on Twitter
@historyatnmpton – Tweets from the history corridor, managed by Drew Gray
@SearchltArchive – Tweets from the Searchlight Archive, managed by Daniel Jones
@JECSjournal – Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies
@pnjackson101 – Paul Jackson
@historymatt – Matthew McCormack
@C_L_Nielsen – Caroline Nielsen
@mroth61 – Mark Rothery