Twitter and the Historical Profession

by John Fea

In June 2017, President Donald J. Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a coalition of nations committed to mitigating global warming. Trump’s decision was the impetus for a stimulating Twitter exchange between Joyce E. Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior United States Senator from Texas. Chaplin opposed Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreements. On June 1, 2017 she tweeted, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.”

Cruz, who was horrified by the idea that the “international community” created the United States, responded to Chaplin with a passion-filled tweet of his own: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” He followed this with another tweet: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was ‘created by int’l community.’ No--USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.”

Academic historians—the so-called “#twitterstorians”—rushed to their phones and keyboards to defend Chaplin. Cruz supporters and other political conservatives also took to Twitter to wage another battle in their culture war against the so-called liberal elites. We should not make too much of the Chaplin-Cruz Twitter exchange, but the quick response to this debate from American historians shed light on the role that Twitter now plays in the practice of academic history and our public discourse on matters related to the nation’s past. Every major historical organization in the country is present on Twitter. History conference-goers, especially those who attend larger gatherings like the annual meetings of the American Historical Association or the Organization of American Historians, use Twitter to bring order to the seemingly endless array of panels and sessions. They use hashtags such as #aha18 or #oah17 to report on content for fellow historians who are unable to be physically present. Conference programs often include suggested hashtags and notes on responsible tweeting.

Other historians use Twitter to provide historical context to current events. Twitter historians rose to the occasion during the 2016 presidential campaign, offering thoughts on everything from “America First” and Operation Wetback to “law and order” and “Make America Great Again.” During the presidential debates—both in the primaries and general election—historians used Twitter to correct factual errors and comment on how a candidate’s reference to the past might explain their policy commitments in the present. And it was all done in real time.

The history Twittersphere is alive and well. At a time when history departments at colleges and universities around the country are struggling to enroll undergraduates in their classes and attract new majors, history on Twitter is booming. Academic historians have large followings on this social media platform. Princeton University’s Kevin M. Kruse (73,600 followers), Yale University’s Joanne B. Freeman (20,100 followers), Baylor University’s Thomas S. Kidd (10,400 followers) and Boston College’s Heather Cox Richardson (9,250 followers), have made Twitter a vital part of their professional profiles. Popular historians such as Michael Beschloss, Simon Schama, and Niall Ferguson all have over one hundred thousand followers.

So why should historians consider joining Twitter? Here are four good reasons:

Networking Opportunities

The traditional social hierarchies that we normally associate with the academic profession are less important on Twitter. Senior scholars who employ this platform in their professional lives (as opposed to just having a vanity account that they never use) realize that their tweets will be discussed, retweeted, and analyzed. There is thus an assumption that they are willing to enter the fray—to engage in intellectual tussles with all kinds of people. It is quite common to see exchanges and “conversations” on Twitter in which senior historians, junior faculty members, graduate students, undergraduates, and history buffs all participate. Twitter also has a direct messaging feature in which the conversation can be moved to a private space. I have found that many academic historians are more open to responding to queries via direct message than they are to an e-mail.

Because Twitter fosters this kind of democratic conversation, it provides a wonderful venue for networking. Twitter is a great place to find participants for conference panels or build professional relationships that might result in deeper and richer (beyond 280 characters) conversations and collaborations in the future, including face-to-face meetings at conferences. Twitter is one of many ways for younger historians to advance their careers. Of course, scholars at all levels should take the kind of tweets that they publish seriously. People are watching. Academic reputations are on the line. One would be foolish to believe that history department committees are not checking Twitter as part of their searches for new colleagues.

Twitter’s use of hashtags allows one to network in a more intimate subfield, specialty, or area of interest. As a historian who studies early America and American religion, I regularly check the following hashtags: #vastearlyAmerica (early American history), #amrev (American Revolution), and #amrel (American religious history). Since I teach future high school history teachers, I occasionally see what people are tweeting at #sschat (social studies teachers) and #historyteacher. And my interest in the how history impacts our daily lives as American citizens leads me to hashtags like #whystudyhistory, #everythinghasahistory, #historycomm (history communicators), and #publichistory.

Crowdsourcing Opportunities

I was recently finishing a book on religion and politics and realized that I wanted to say a bit more about what theologians—past and present—had written about the relationship between Christianity and political power. My deadline was fast approaching, and I needed a few standard books on the subject that I could read quickly, incorporate into my manuscript, and use to strengthen a few footnotes. Since my reading in this area was limited, I turned to Twitter. Within a few hours I had a reading list of over two dozen very good books and articles on the subject. Since I had worked hard at building a large twitter community (14,200 followers) that included many scholars with similar interests as mine, I rarely had to think twice about the quality of the material that my followers suggested. Twitterstorians tend to be very generous people when it comes to crowdsourcing. Some want to genuinely help. Others want to show off their knowledge of the literature in this or that subfield. But whatever the motivation, scholars on Twitter can be an immense help when one is stuck on a research or writing project. Those watching this kind of crowdsourcing exchange unfold on Twitter might share similar interests and thus appreciate the opportunity to strengthen their own bibliographies on the given topic. Of course, it is easy to take advantage of such generosity. Twitterstorians tend to be keenly aware of followers and other tweeters who use this kind of crowdsourcing to cut corners in their work.

Platform Building

Not all of us are award-winning history doyens who have publishers waiting in line for our next book. Few of us have e-mail boxes filled with speaking invitations. Most of us don’t have Ivy League degrees or built-in professional networks that we inherited from our academic advisers. Nevertheless, as historians we take pride in our work and think that we have something useful to contribute to the historical profession or the public. Therefore, online platforms are essential. In the social media world, “followers”—whether they be on Twitter, Facebook, or some other site—are key to successful platform building. Twitter allows historians to express their views, share their work, and attract a community of people who find what we have to say to be useful, and want to read more. In today’s publishing world, trade presses and a growing number of university presses will consider a historian’s online platform before offering a book contract. Most presses have limited budgets for advertising, so they expect authors and potential authors to promote their work on their social media platforms.

In developing a platform, Twitter works best when combined with other forms of social media. In 2008, when my first historical monograph appeared at the University of Pennsylvania Press, someone in the press’s public relations department encouraged me to create a website and blog devoted to the book. I took this advice to heart and started “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” (www.thewayofimprovement.com), a blog that has since expanded beyond the original book project to include a variety of musings on American history, politics, religion, and academic life. The blog gets several thousand readers a day, many of whom discover it through my Twitter account. Every post that I write at the blog is automatically linked to Twitter via a tool provided by WordPress, the platform that hosts “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” My blog is the foundation of my social media platform, but most of the traffic to the site now comes through Twitter. I have published five subsequent books since 2008, and my online platform, which has expanded to include public speaking and a podcast, has been an important part of my conversations with all five of the acquisitions editors with whom I have worked.

Public Engagement

Not all academic historians will be interested in Twitter and other social media platforms, but for those of us who want to reach a non-academic audience with our work, it is indispensable. I have come to view my efforts on Twitter (and my blogging) as a form of public history. Historians who use Twitter as part of their professional profile often see themselves as online curators. Many general Twitter users “follow” historians with academic credentials because they view us as professionals—people who they can trust. Twitter offers historians opportunities to challenge our followers to think historically about the world by sharing links to reputable websites, introducing and interpreting primary sources, suggesting pertinent books, and retweeting and commenting on news articles. Sometimes historians will unleash a series of consecutive history-related tweets in response to a current event. Many of these so-called “threads” are shared widely and offer a glimpse, albeit a limited one, of a historical mind in action.

Every historian who practices their craft on Twitter will be quick to say that a social media platform is no replacement for the kind of long-form writing that allows us to make nuanced arguments about the past. Traditional historians who doubt the usefulness of social media have nothing to fear. The practice of history is not going to be reduced to 280-word sound bites anytime in the future. But Twitter has been a boon to historians who want to build their professional profile, connect with like-minded scholars, and bring responsible history to the Internet. In this sense, it is one of many tools in the historian’s toolbox

 

Author

JOHN FEA teaches American History at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. You can follow him @johnfea1.