February 17, 2014

The Makings of a Twitterstorian

Reading Leigh Wright’s informative Web Writing piece on employing Twitter in the journalism classroom encouraged me to consider some of the ways historians and graduate students are or should be using the micro blogging service in both their academic pursuits and everyday lives. Off hand, I can think of several uses of Twitter that are uniquely suited for doing history and expand on the author’s excellent example of a Storify “digital term paper.” I would consider that form of “making” history, what Shannon Christine Mattern calls,”multimodal work,” because it is informed by theory, based on original research, and results in something quite different from the traditional five page essay.

Extending the scholarly dialogue/networking – Perhaps the most obvious use of the social networking service is to communicate with other people online in a public space. Thousands of historians use Twitter to discuss the past, debate best practices in the field, or share new information within a communal setting. Some have even created Twitter groups centered on specific fields of inquiry. In fact, many of the most active historical Twitter users are digital humanists, or members of the alternative academic (alt-ac) community. Of course, not every conversation on Twitter needs to be formal or necessarily academic. Its simply a great place to build community, disseminate new information, and ask questions. It is a social network after all! So, why not use Twitter to meet other scholars in your field or learn about job opportunities or pose questions to potential employers, graduate departments, or publishing agencies?

Live-tweeting – Twitter is a fantastic tool for staying updated on academic conference proceedings and other professional networking events – particularly the ones you are unable to attend. The more historians are micro-blogging at conferences, the more outside Twitter users can follow along and engage in the scholarly (or not so scholarly) dialogue taking place around the event. Some brave panelists have even made it a point to feature their session’s Twitter back channel as they speak. Because not all conference participants can make it to every panel on site, Twitter helps them stay engaged and updated as concurrent panels take place (assuming the audience is Tweeting along).

Crowd sourcing – With proper #hashtag usage, historians can crowd-source new ideas, content, and services quickly and efficiently. For example, maybe you are looking for a recent oral history guide to use as you embark on a new community-based study. You could send out a tweet to your (hopefully) many followers and other Twitter users that asks, “What oral history guidelines are people using today?” Add #oralhistory somewhere in your tweet and you might find yourself participating in a larger conversation about that subject, depending on how many other people have used that hashtag before as they tweet about that specific topic. Ideally, you would hear back from someone with a relevant guide, like maybe this one from UNC: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/oral-history/ Just think of the crowd sourcing potential for museums and archives looking to collect, identify, and exhibit specific artifacts and records.

First Person Historical Interpretation – Others have taken to Twitter to communicate the ideas or works of notable historical figures. For instance, I follow the Twitter profile “Walt Whitman,” or @TweetsOfGrass. This anonymous user tweets a line or two of Whitman prose 4-6 times per day. Despite important questions about historical authenticity, Twitter is being used in this sense to impart knowledge and further our understanding of a seminal literary mind. Occasionally, the person performing the digital reenacting doubles as a historical interpreter in real life, such as “Thomas Jefferson,” or @Thos_Jefferson. Not only does he tweet as Jefferson, while reminding his followers of important dates in the second president’s life, but he also makes announcements about upcoming appearances and National Park Service events. Of course, the flip side to this is that anyone can sign up for a Twitter account and conceivably use the service to misinform the public through the guise of a historical figure.

As a teaching aid – Using a course hash-tags to order and catalog specific class conversations, announcements, and various other types of content, as we do in UWM History 717, signifies a fifth historical use of Twitter. Like conferences, Twitter course discussions can be followed from afar or by people who are unable to register for the physical course. If their university possesses the requisite technology, instructors can also establish a lively Twitter back channel that’s monitored in the class room and enables them to field questions on the spot from outside users. Twitter is also a wonderful tool for sharing online projects, scholarship, and other documents in real time.

These are only a handful of the ways historians are using Twitter in their work on a regular basis. And, there are plenty of other, more professional uses. For instance, the service is great for branding oneself on the open web and cultivating a digital public identity. You should at the very least use Twitter to broadcast recent blog posts, make project announcements, and share new online content. If you hashtag properly, you’re bound to get positive feedback (and, maybe some negative too). Twitter is also a helpful tool for public historians looking to practice concise writing. Maybe you draft exhibit labels and you want to test new ideas in a public space. Of course, none of these proposed applications of Twitter even mentions the fact that “tweets” represent primary historical documents in and of themselves. In all likelihood, future historians looking to make sense of the 2000s and 2010s will turn to the Library of Congress’ Twitter archive, or the service itself, to gauge the public discourse at a given moment.

What other historical uses can you think of for Twitter?

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7 responses to “The Makings of a Twitterstorian”

  1. It seems to me that it takes a while to get the hang of what counts as “proper” use of Twitter, especially when tweeting from a conference event. I know that I’ve overtweeted in my first zealous attempts to learn how it works–essentially broadcasting notes rather than, say, particularly insightful observations from the speaker. What would you recommend as guidelines for how you decide what to tweet from a speaker?

    • If I am tweeting a speaker’s talk, I would probably ask myself a few things before I tweet: A) Is this information I’m sharing in public thought-provoking? B) Am I linking to useful content elsewhere on the web? C) Am I staying true to the speaker’s intent?

      I would also argue, Amanda, that sometimes it is okay to broadcast “notes” or over-tweet. Some of your followers may desire that repetition and it should give them a fuller sense of the speaker’s argument. If I am following a conference from afar, I want all of the relevant information from the talk I can get. That being said, a tweet with some sort of analysis is probably going to spark more engagement within the online community.

  2. Ruth Jones says:

    I appreciate your enthusiasm for this tool. It rather perplexes me – as I wrote about in my blog. I keep wondering who has time to be checking all these tweets all the time? How do you manage your account so that you see the tweets you want and they aren’t coming in hundreds per day? How do people learn about new or relevant hashtags? Is Twitter the best tool for networking with other historians? I see value in checking out discussion at conference proceedings, when you are following a particular topic. I also thought about it’s value for learning to write concise labels for museums. I’m still trying to figure out why I would want to use it, but I expect some of that comes with time and experience.

    • So many great questions, Ruth! I definitely do not have time to check every Tweet that comes through my feed (and its probably in the thousands). I recommend Tweetdeck for organizing your Twitter content. Twitter is a digital tool that I check in with irregularly and use for specific purposes. I do check my feed at certain points throughout the day to get my news. For instance, I follow the Journal-Sentinel, Washington Post, and BBC on Twitter. I’ll often actually go to their Twitter pages, where they have Tweeted out links to particular news stories.

      Maybe its a better idea to think about Twitter as a gateway into an array of online content. Some will be useful, some will not. But, you are in control of “curating” your own Twitter feed. The possibilities are really up to you as the user. If you want to know what people are using for specific hashtags, or want to find other historians using the service, or want to follow conferences, its up to you to search and find them. We as historians are uniquely suited to twitter in this respect, I would argue, because we know how to comb the (digital) archives, so to speak, and find relevant content quickly and efficiently. Again, let’s talk more about this in class.

  3. Leif Mogren says:

    One particular aspect of twitter that we as historians should not neglect is twitter as history itself. You make some excellent points about how we can use it as a tool to help us disseminate history and communicate with colleagues, but twitter is being used to track events as they unfold. One hundred years from now, historians not unlike ourselves will, hopefully, have access to twitter feeds that will help them understand and illuminate the past. People are making and recording their own history with twitter and may not even realize it. More and more, I’ve noticed it being used to track and describe events as they happen, especially in world hotspots. I suspect that twitter’s brief character count and ability to reach thousands or more easily is what attracts, say, journalist. Or revolutionaries.

    Take this article, for example.
    Ukraine is on fire, but all manner of experts and on-the-spot people are taking the time to keep the world updated using twitter. They do it, most likely, because it reaches people. If its on twitter, individuals who might have no idea about the unfolding conflicts will see it and become more aware. And we, as historians, should take note of such journalism and recording. We may not have extensive journals or paper correspondence for this generation in history, but we will have e-mails, blogs and in this case most importantly, Twitter.

  4. Your point is well taken, Leif. I had tucked that very important use of Twitter you mention – as a primary historical source – into the last sentence of the post. Perhaps it belongs near the top of my list. Surely, it will be in coming years as historians begin to reflect on the new millennium more and more.

  5. Ruth Jones says:

    Thank you Will for such a thoughtful and complete answer to my questions. Thanks also to Leif for his additional comments. I have decided to demonstrate Twitter and Tweetdeck in class today. Investigating and demonstrating this tool provides an excellent opportunity to learn the tool myself. Hopefully, I can also make it less intimidating for classmates, like me, who have avoided the tool up to now.

By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license


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