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.

9 comments… add one
  • any informed voices added to the discussion is a good thing. Even if only some listen. Carrie Nation used to perform on Vaudeville, giving her anti-liquor talk. A friend asked her why she did it when most of the audience just jeered. Nation replied that while most jeered, some listened and took it to heart.

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  • Yes, because we haven’t heard enough from Yale, Princeton, Boston College and the political left.

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    • With all due respect, this is a silly comment.

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  • It was a flip remark on my part, but with a point. When I read the comments I looked up the three historians named and, without being familiar with them, guessed they would turn out to be from a small subset of northeastern schools and share a common political perspective. It would have been a surprise to see someone from Alcorn State, Texas A&M, Utah, or Fresno State or for there to have been a stray conservative along the way.

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    • It would be interesting to compare affiliations among academic historians that are currently using twitter.

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      • That’s a good point. There is probably more engagement by more different academics in a variety of institutions than we are aware of, which is a positive.

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  • Twitter has been an excellent resource when used as a calling card. It has led me to what are now some of my favourite blogs. I am alerted when any one of my favourite historians has put up a new post, written a new book, or perhaps have made a recorded appearance.
    However Twitter is not the venue if one seeks to enlighten/educate those who wish not to be, as it is far easier be crude/insult in 140 characters than it is to be substantive. The idiots will always have the advantage when the ability to elucidate is limited. They substitute their inability to explicate with abuse.

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  • To answer the question, I believe that as historians are currently using Twitter, they can’t take on myth. Aaron Richards over on SSF has made a good post about the power of memes on social media in the context of fighting Holocaust denial: http://www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php?p=588026#p588026

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    • Thanks for the link.

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