By Evan Meehan
Twitter and podcasts represent opposite ends of the digital spectrum and so dealing with them collectively is somewhat misleading. However, despite Twitter relaying short, written snippets of information and podcasts delivering long, in-depth audio information my feelings towards both as mediums for delivering history are the same. While they are different than the classic monograph or scholarly journal, neither is particularly satisfying, and both lack the academic tools I expect from history.
Perhaps its unfair of me to be tasked with analyzing Twitter. When it came out it was popular with my peers, it was never a service I used. Fast forward eleven years and I still do not use Twitter, and remain skeptical about its practicality.
And my Luddite views are not formed in a vacuum either. After reading Alexander S. Collie’s interview with Katrina Gulliver (of #twitterstorian fame) I was left even less impressed with twitter as a tool for historians.
First, the concept that a tag is successful if it becomes viral is puzzling. It implies a random element detached from traditional measures of success.
Second, Gulliver believes it is “impossible…to say” what impact the twitterstorian hashtag has had for historians on Twitter. This is frustrating as it shows that little meta-analysis of historian’s discussions on twitter is taking place.
Finally, Gulliver is not aware of any “consequential” tweets. Taken narrowly one can conclude that no tweet has been consequential for Gulliver, and slightly more broadly, that no tweet has been transformative for anyone in her immediate social group. In either case, one wonders if the time spent on twitter seeking some revelatory insight could be better spent elsewhere.
To be fair, Gulliver’s definition of success on Twitter is to find friends and colleagues she would not have otherwise found. On this metric she may be wildly successful. However if the metric were transmission of historical information to the broader public or acquisition of new ideas for research, one wonders how much success has occurred or is even possible via Twitter.
Where the usefulness of twitter may be unclear, podcasts have a more easily delineated purpose. That purpose of course is entertainment, much like other mediums like television, movies, and non-academic books.
If one were to ask if podcasts could be used for conveying a broader understanding of history to its listeners, I would reply “Certainly.” But, I would hedge my statement by adding, “inasmuch as TV, movies, and non-academic books can do so too.”
Based on the assigned podcasts, its clear to me that podcasts are excellent at delivering what Geertz would describe as “thick description.” In doing so, the listener not only appreciates the behaviors being described, but the context in which the behaviors were conducted. However, history is not just thick description, but includes theses, and historiography, and evidence; podcasts typically lack these elements.
The most jarring element of history that podcasts lack is a thesis. Rarely if ever do podcasts lay out a central thesis and then spend the rest of the episode reinforcing it. Instead, they meander around a central point, occasionally flipping perspectives or changing scope without necessarily explicitly identifying how this relates to the unidentified thesis.
Further, history does not exist in a void, but is the systematic development and reinterpretation of previous works. As such, its perplexing to see history delivered as a finished product in podcasts with no mention of changing historical methodologies. Accordingly its hard to take podcasts seriously, since their attempt to maintain a broad level of appeal results in their omission of vital elements of academic history.
Finally, podcasts rarely cite sources in a fashion that enables listeners to check their facts or employ those facts in their own work. In 99% Invisible’s podcast on water fountains the citations are listed as:
“Producer Katie Mingle interviewed Scott Francisco from Pilot Projects; Philip Davies, author of Troughs & Drinking Fountains; Peter Gleick, an expert on water related issues at the Pacific Institute; and Marta Gutman, author of A City For Children: Women, Architecture and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland. A talk that Gutman gave on her book inspired this story.”
While this reveals where the information as a whole was gathered from, there is no distinction made within the podcast or its transcript about which source is being employed. This makes the job of any would-be historian far more difficult.
Ultimately, podcasts are a great way to tell or hear a story, but stripped of its academic trappings history is just a story. Stories are nice, but history is important.