Tweeting History

Much like the Ents, the ancient race of sapient trees in Lord of the Rings, historians are reluctant to say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say. So an application like Twitter, which thrives on brevity, tends to clash with our sensibility. On the other hand, historians lament the plague of “bad history”, the simplistic, misconceived notions that pass for “conventional wisdom” regarding the past. Twitter, however, offers a good way to combat this and some historians, like Katrina Gulliver of University of New South Wales, are searching for ways that this famously curt social media outlet can advance the discipline.

Dr. Gulliver has created #twitterstorians as a way to find other historians on Twitter. As result, she now has over 4,000 followers, arguably the largest social media presence for a historian today. “Twitter is a great way to not only share ideas,” says Dr. Gulliver, “but also keep up with discussions both within and outside academe.” Social media tends to stay abreast of news events more quickly than traditional media, and Gulliver sees a huge advantage here.

Type #twitterstorians into Twitter’s search field and you get a long list of history-related tweets, including a recent newspaper article on Dublin Ireland’s Rotunda Hospital and a Ph.D. candidate’s glee over a Leap Day sale at Oxford University Press. As conceived, #twitterstorians connects historians to one another. Dr. Gulliver has developed a number of fruitful professional relationships, some of whom have offered her good leads on research. Elisabeth Grant, who blogs for the American Historical Association, encourages similar kinds of networking, Grant also observes that Twitter is a good way for historians to look for jobs or stay abreast of archival collections.

It is important for historians to communicate with one another, but it is just as vital for historians to find ways to engage the public, and Twitter offers an outlet for this endeavor. A look at two different feeds, Michael Beschloss and RealTimeWWI, shows the potential uses and pratfalls of tweeting history.

Michael Beschloss is a popular historian (probably a little too popular for the tastes of some of his colleagues) who has authored nine books. His feed tends to focus on the history of the American Presidency, and he tweets several times a day. One tweet shows a photo of FDR’s return from Yalta on the anniversary of said event. Another, without specific reference, shows a photograph of Richard Nixon leaping. Beschloss relies a lot on photographs, and to good effect. His Twitter feed doesn’t do a lot to combat misconceptions or facile assumptions about the past, he does present it as something of interest to those outside academia.

RealTimeWWI sets out to tell the story of World War I via Twitter feed, and it also frequently employs photos and other graphics. Each tweet corresponds to something that happened on the date in question. For example, a tweet on November 11 would talk about the Armistice. It is a good idea, but unfortunately comes across as stilted and devoid of context. A recent tweet reads, “UK annexes South Pacific #Tokelau atolls, based on ‘desire expressed by the Native govmnt’.” While one doesn’t need to know much about American history to enjoy Beschloss’ feed, it is unlikely that RealTimeWWI has much meaning to people without at least a passing knowledge of World War I.

Dr. Gulliver has successfully encouraged historians to communicate via Twitter, and Michael Beschloss uses Twitter to make history appealing to non-academic audiences. Both are valuable, but neither are unique to the discipline. Brevity is a key characteristic of Twitter and, while plenty of historians value concision, a quality historical argument needs more than 140 characters. Still, Twitter could be useful for gathering information. Who’s to say what today’s current social media holds for future historians. The relationship between Twitter and history has just begun.


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