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?