Some Thoughts About Civil War Historians and Social Media

In response to my last post a reader inquired into a point I made in passing:

Also, can you clarify what you mean by your statement that “we need to think about the ways in which social media is shaping the organization of relatively small conferences like the SCWH”?

Let me respond by taking a step back.

A few weeks ago an academic journal asked me to review a new book about Civil War veterans. I don’t get many requests to review for journals so I usually jump at the opportunity, but in this case I declined. I am “friends” with the author on Facebook and while we do not have a particularly close relationship offline we have interacted enough online that I didn’t feel as if I could give the book an objective review. On the other hand, I am currently writing a book review for an online magazine whose author is also a Facebook friend. Our paths cross occasionally at conferences and we chat directly online only rarely. I also considered whether it was appropriate for me to review this book, but decided that perhaps I didn’t need to worry as much given where the review is to be published. Even in this case I am not entirely comfortable.

Again, I do not have a particularly close relationship with the either of the authors apart from social media, but I see their personal status updates, photographs of their families, and their interactions with other members of my online community of Civil War historians. In the last few years I’ve noticed more and more academic journal reviews, where the reviewers and the authors are connected via Facebook, Twitter, etc. In some cases these social media connections are strong. Does this impact the review? I can’t know for sure, but I also can’t help but think that it does.

Is it a problem? I will leave that for you to discuss in the comments section, but it does seem to me to be one place where social media has shaped how the relatively small community of Civil War historians interacts with .

The passing comment above ought to be read as an extension of this musing. I meant it more as a question for consideration. How has social media impacted the way in which small conferences like the SCWH are organized? Do historians who are connected (and active) via social media to the larger community of Civil War historians enjoy any advantages? I ask this as someone who has benefited immensely by maintaining an active online presence through blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, so I don’t mean to cast a dark shadow on it.

I am simply wondering about how social media has shaped the boundary between the professional and personal relationships of members of this small community and the field.

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9 comments… add one
  • David Silkenat Dec 12, 2014

    The problem of small communities in academia predates social media. Historians, especially in fields like Civil War history, have always worked in small social groups in which everyone knows everyone else. This is particularly true with blind reviewing of manuscripts — I can usually guess who is reviewing my work and I’d imagine that the same is true when I’m doing the reviewing. You just try to be as objective as you can, even if it means potentially alienating a friend.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2014

      Hi David,

      No doubt, but I wonder whether social media exacerbates the situation in certain ways that can be both beneficial and detrimental.

  • Paul Taylor Dec 12, 2014

    In reading this post, I was reminded of a year-old NY Times column commenting on how one prominent website had announced that they will no longer publish negative book reviews. Considering how social media has made small communities even smaller, I can’t help but wonder if the “no negative reviews” mindset has crept into the ACW publishing world? Either officially, or perhaps more likely, unofficially…

  • Megan Kate Nelson Dec 12, 2014

    As David notes, academic communities have always been small — and personal connections and networking have always been vital elements of their creation and sustenance. I think social media is enabling this while expanding networks at the same time. It also creates opportunities for those who usually don’t have much power (grad students, adjuncts) to meet and connect with those who do, which is useful and productive for everyone.

    As for objectivity — each scholar judges for her/himself where the line is, and when one should or should not cross it. I don’t think this has resulted in the current practice of tepid book reviewing, though. It may just be part of a genre shift, as scholars have moved away from acerbic and aggressive criticism and toward a more civil discourse.

    .

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2014

      I am not necessarily in disagreement with anything stated here. At the same time I believe that there is a larger story to consider.

  • Heather Richardson Dec 12, 2014

    I think social media has been terrific at building new communities and new connections that challenge the traditional professional circles. To me that is a great strength. Connections were always there; it’s just that the majority of historians were outside that magic academic clique. What that academic clique translated to was history within its own echo chamber, and it took some very problematic intellectual turns that had a devastating impact on society (I’m working on a theoretical piece on this right now.)

    So while we face some issues with the new media, I’ll take it over the old any day.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 12, 2014

      In total agreement with you, Heather.

      So while we face some issues with the new media, I’ll take it over the old any day.

      Indeed. Much of my own success is impossible to imagine without it.

  • Meg Thompson Dec 12, 2014

    Seems like all I have written today is HUZZAH! So here’s another one–Huzzah!
    I know most of you work with adults, but this topic came up at a Middle School department meeting yesterday as well. Online communities are the norm for the digital natives we teach. There will always be those who misuse the internet, but mostly that group chooses to misuse things in general. The vast majority of our kids (12-14) are much more involved in the world as a whole, and see themselves as a viable part of that community, than ever before. And most of them want to do good things as members of this wider world. It has empowered our best and brightest, and it has empowered those who might need some help seeking a positive direction. For those of you in upper academia, I can hardly wait until you get this group of students. In fact, they have been getting better every year. Now let’s get them moving in a good direction . . .

  • Ray Dec 12, 2014

    I believe its taking the whole social connections to a new level. One professor while in grad school gave a passing warning on doing reviews to “watch what you say because you never know who is a friend of a friend.” Fast forward ten years am I am reviewing a work on a rather famous Air Force general and the work, in my opinion, did not meet the standards of a half-way biography. I wrote what I felt was a fair assessment of the work but pointed out many of the flaws. The day that I was getting ready to send it out a friend asked what I was reading at the time and I explained it and he goes “that’s a good friend and the best friend at my wedding!” Needless to say, I rewrote and toned down the review. That author and I are now Facebook “friends” and have passed various information/sources back-and-forth over the last few years that helped each other out.

    I agree with reviewing works of direct individuals you know but with a caveat, how well do you know them and how strong is that relationship. Would it matter if they “unfriended” you because of something you said in a review? Could the two of you rationally discuss the shortfalls after the review? Would there be bad feelings from the author if you said something negative about their work?

    Ray

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