Can Historians Disentangle Reality From Myth on Twitter?
Jason Steinhauer thinks so. In a brief op-ed published at CNN Steinhauer calls on academic historians to take up arms behind their keyboards and “interject their expertise into contested exchanges about the past” on twitter. He sees historians such Heather Cox Richardson, Kevin Kruse, and Joanne Freeman as models of such engagement.
It should come as no surprise that I agree with the spirit of Steinhauer’s argument, but where I part company with him is with his assumption that academic historians enjoy an uncontested authority in the world of social media. They do not and it isn’t clear to me at all how one would go about establishing such authority.
But even if we ignore the realm of social media for a second, the idea that historians can “disentangle reality from myth” based on some notion of authority ignores what Tom Nichols rightfully calls “the death of expertise.”
The most salient difference between the world of academia and social media is that there are no gatekeepers. Nor should there be. That point couldn’t be more obvious as I approach twelve years of blogging here at Civil War Memory. As I have said before, my embrace of social media early on opened up numerous avenues to engage the general public through academic and popular publications as well as a wide range of speaking opportunities.
Am I an authority on certain issues as a result? Perhaps to a select group of people, but that isn’t what drives me to continue to find ways to leverage social media, including twitter. And it shouldn’t be what motivates an academic historian to use twitter and other social media platforms.
Historians should use social media to build an audience and interact with people that they wouldn’t normally reach through more traditional academic publications. There is a need for thoughtful history written by professional historians. But don’t get carried away. You are not establishing any significant authority. The first tweet from Jay-Zee or one of the Kardashians that intrudes into your area of expertise will set you straight.
My advice: Establish your presence. Share your knowledge. Offer advice. Listen.
People will find you. Nothing more, nothing less.