The American Historian

The New Social History: Finding the Time for Social Media and Blogging

Heather Cox Richardson

Historians are increasingly recognizing the importance of online media in their professional lives, but how on earth can anyone incorporate blogging, tweeting, and Facebook into workdays that are already stretched tight? Participating in social media can seem like just one more annoying demand to be avoided as long as possible.

That sense of frustration comes from a misunderstanding of the purpose of an online presence. Many historians, sometimes pushed by their editors to start splashing in online pools, make the mistake of seeing social media and blogging primarily as new advertising tools. Suddenly, in addition to being scholars, they are supposed to turn into publicists, a new job requiring time and energy that they would much rather devote to their scholarship and teaching. They think they have no time for it, and they’re right. So long as we conceive of creating an online presence as an add-on to what we are already doing, it’s impossible.

In fact, conceived a different way, social media and blogs are simply new tools to make it easier to do what historians have always done. The whole point of historical scholarship is to participate in a larger discussion about the way societies function: what creates change, what doesn’t. Twitter, Facebook, blogging, open-access digital projects, and other Internet-based media are not add-ons to traditional professional demands. They simply enable scholars to engage more effectively in that conversation.

What does that mean, practically? First, it’s important to remember that there is nothing that says every historian has to jump onto the Internet to participate in society’s debate about what creates change. There will always be ample room for those scholars whose careful articles and monographs add to the foundation of human knowledge, and whose teaching inspires students. Their work may not reach beyond the academy, but it will continue to shape the way we view the world. That sort of scholarship has always been crucial, and it will continue to be.

But engaging with a wider online community offers scholars a chance to discuss their field with people from a wide variety of backgrounds interested in the same thing. It allows participants to get feedback on new material, and it introduces to them new ideas that might otherwise bypass the halls of academic departments. It also lets historians inject their interpretations and arguments into places and spaces they might never otherwise go.

The easiest way to engage in a public conversation is with Twitter, which takes the least time of any social media and fits most naturally into an academic day. Twitter has rhythms, with different users frequenting it at distinct times, and long quiet periods, generally at night. You can check it at the times your crowd is active, or once in the morning and once at night, or when you have more time to engage with an interesting conversation for several hours during the day. Most people use Twitter on their smartphones, but you can also simply check it on a computer whenever you need a break from working: much easier on older eyes (and older fingers) than viewing and typing with a smartphone.

On Twitter you can field questions about archives, readings, and teaching, while following links can show you the most interesting articles the day has to offer on a given topic. An hour every morning spent on Twitter, with glances throughout the rest of the day, will yield far more ideas from a far wider range of sources than a day spent reading on your own in traditional media. You are essentially crowdsourcing knowledge filtered according to your own interests.

At the same time, Twitter lets you share your latest ideas. While self-advertising should never be more than about a third of what you tweet, you will frequently engage in discussions with smart people interested in the same things you are, which allows you to put forward your voice in a public conversation. You can even set up Twitter chats with colleagues in which you toss around ideas to start new discussions. In addition to engaging with other people, you can—and should—use Twitter to point followers toward blog posts, open-access articles, and books that contribute to the conversation, including, of course, your own.

It’s not just Twitter. Any online media platform that puts you in conversations with other people interested in history has the potential to broaden your ideas and your reach. Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and LibraryThing can all provide places for historians to exchange ideas. Their great beauty is that these media do not have to be used in real time, the way Twitter does. Conversations can take place over days, with a variety of people chiming in at whatever times are convenient for them. There, too, the key concept is sharing ideas, not advertising.

Blogging takes significantly more time from a historian’s day job than social media, but it offers payoffs that make it worthwhile. A December 2013 study of academic blogging by The Guardian revealed that most bloggers are not, in fact, reaching out to a nonacademic audience. Historians who blog are trying out new ideas, making connections, and critiquing the academy in what The Guardian researchers called a “giant, global virtual common room.” Blogging, then, essentially expands the advantages of Twitter beyond 140 characters into nuanced conversations.

But blogging also offers a medium for historians to hone their skills. Bloggers develop a voice as they write for a virtual community in which they must find and hold on to an audience solely with their ideas and writing style, rather than with their professional credentials. Blogging can provide immediate feedback, often surprising feedback, about what topics and styles readers find interesting. This has the odd effect of pushing scholars in unexpected but productive directions—such as when a throwaway paragraph sparks an unexpected debate or a seemingly forgettable post goes viral.

Like any kind of writing, blogging becomes a habit. A post can take as little as a few minutes—if you’re giving your opinion on a specific issue—or as much as an entire day if you are writing a deeply researched piece on a historical event. Since a post should never be more than six hundred words, you should generally figure that writing a blog post will take no more than two hours. Posts can also be written and scheduled in advance.

Recently, historians have begun to blur the line between blogging and books. To make the entire historical enterprise transparent, from the ideas to the research to the crafting to the polishing of a book, they are posting their evolving work online. This method allows historians to get feedback at an early stage of the research and writing process—and it also makes the production of historical scholarship more transparent and less mysterious. It is still too early to tell whether or not those experiments will pay off, but it is significant that historians have launched them on Twitter and Facebook.

Not all that long ago, tenured professors were gatekeepers whose ideas dominated historical debates. Today, that elite, gated world has shrunk dramatically while the Internet has opened the study of history to all comers. That openness offers enormous opportunities for cross-pollination between the academy and nonacademic historians. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how rising scholars can operate without developing an Internet presence.

At the same time, though, the free-for-all nature of the Internet increases, rather than decreases, the value of traditional academic voices there. Those voices are imperative to ask questions, demand standards of evidence, and promote narrative writing skills. While not every established scholar must adjust to an online world, unless more make that effort, the modern historical profession will take shape without input from past masters.

That would be ironic, indeed.