Walking the Plank: The Perils of Online Scholarship

Jamie L. H. Goodall

Sailing Ship off Coast of Maine, William E. Norton (1876), Smithsonian Collection.

Content Warning: Violence, suicide, rape, abortion

I’ve spent the better part of 10 years on Twitter, but it was only recently that I began to amass quite a following. And with that following comes both positive and negative experiences. On a positive note, Twitter allows me, as a historian, to share my expertise with a wider world. I’m the creator of #SwashbucklinStoryTime in which I regale my followers with tales of the most infamous pirates, and I generally use my account to share historical articles, discuss politics, and describe the more mundane parts of my life. I have had the great pleasure of engaging with people from all parts of the world, and I firmly believe my presence on Twitter has helped generate more interest in my recently published book than I would have received were I not on Twitter. I’ve made great friends, and I’ve been able to network with other scholars in a wide array of disciplines. These connections have brought me onto podcasts, gotten me invited to give talks to various types of audiences (ranging from the Chesapeake Yacht Club to the Daughters of the American Revolution), and even allowed me to write a piece on the “sea & me” for JERPano! I’ve been invited to be on conference panels, to participate in edited collections, and share my knowledge. All of these have been tremendous blessings.

But with the good comes the bad. Of course I’ve had the routine troll who questions my credentials and intelligence or mocks my womanhood. But it wasn’t until the publication of my recent op-ed in the Washington Post that I was bombarded with hate-filled messages, emails, and tweets. I had never experienced anything like it, and being self-taught in the realm of social media, I had no mechanisms through which to manage the mob attacking me. What was my crime? Had I written about politics or feminism or any of the other topics that routinely garner such misogynistic attacks? No. I had dared to write critically about sports, and I was a woman on the Internet. Most of the men who contacted me hadn’t even read my piece and, based on the title alone, accused me of using “cancel culture” to malign their beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Scholars are often at odds with the social media culture of bullying because they offer critical reflections and reexaminations of some of the nation’s most beloved cultural myths. Scholars are often viewed as being out of touch in their ivory towers but their clear and unapologetic presence on social media contradicts that narrative; some people just can’t handle the truth, so they resort to online harassment of the person who deflated their overarching sense of “patriotism.”

Many of my fellow historians and scholars on Twitter immediately came to my defense, handling the negative tweets for me so that I could focus my efforts on blocking offenders and locking down all my social media accounts. But what they couldn’t help me with was managing my inbox and comments on my personal website. I had (mostly) men I didn’t know telling me to go kill myself, telling me how stupid or ignorant I was, saying that my mom should have aborted me, telling me to get back in the kitchen, and wishing gang rape upon me. It was unreal. All of this for the mere crime of offering historical context on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ mascot on the eve of the biggest sporting event in America: the Super Bowl. I dared suggest that pirates were murderous thieves who pillaged and raped their way through the West Indies and the Americas and that maybe we should take a moment to consider why it is we romanticize these cutthroats. That was enough to unleash a torrent of abuse. My place of employment was in no position to do anything but offer their support for me privately. And while one of the editors apologized to me privately, the main op-ed account on Twitter failed to come to my defense. The editors used a dubious headline and left me to fend for myself. Had it not been for the tremendous support from my friends and followers, I would have been left to wade through the storm alone.

Scholars looking to engage with the wider public through social media should absolutely do so. It’s a great way to network, share your research, and engage with multiple communities at once. But scholars should also be aware of the dangers and risks that come with social media usage. I’m certainly not alone in terms of receiving harassment online. Another Twitterstorian, as Twitter historians are called, has been the target of harassment as she exercised her First Amendment rights. Her tweets, which were hardly controversial, caused one politician to push for her firing. And rather than support this scholar, her place of employment fed her to the wolves, leaving her to fight for her First Amendment rights on her own.

  1. One thing to look into is your place of employment’s social media guidelines, should they have any. Will they come to your aid if you’re being harassed? Or will they distance themselves from you? Do they separate your personal use of Twitter with your professional use of it?
  2. Always declare that views are your own and do not represent the views of your employer.
  3. Know when to lock down your account and be careful of who you allow to follow you. There’s a whisper network of women who share suspicious accounts with each other, usually men who have no tweets and who are following only high-profile and/or scholarly women. These types of accounts are typically designed to harass women on Twitter.
  4. Freely use the block button.
  5. Find Twitter users who you can count on to step up and support you in times of distress. This is usually easier for more established scholars, and more often it is easier for men to shut down Twitter trolls. Contingent scholars face their own risks.
  6. And be very deliberate about what you post. Know your “why.” Why am I online? Curate your feed in a way that best suits you. Does that mean sharing only professional tweets and retweets? Is it a mixture of personal and professional? Do you want Twitter to be purely personal? These are questions only you can answer. And how you answer will determine how you approach Twitter.

My experience with harassment didn’t drive me off Twitter, but it has pushed some scholars off of social media altogether. I’m simply more conscious of what I post, who follows me, and where I choose to submit op-eds. Twitter has connected me with thousands of individuals whose experiences, qualifications, and beliefs are different than my own. Engaging them has enriched my scholarship, challenged me, and brought wonderful people into my life online and offline. Just know your “why” and understand the potential risks.

19 April 2021

About the Author

Jamie L. H. Goodall, PhD, is a historian and author of Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: From the Colonial Era to the Oyster Wars (Charleston, SC, 2020).

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