More Than Just a Pretty Space: History on Instagram

Zara Anishanslin

Selfie of the author with wool fabric that is the Instagram profile pic for @thing.for.things. Fabric woven by Rabbit Goody (her actual amazing name) of Thistle Hill Weavers (both on Instagram). Rabbit wove this using an eighteenth-century silk design by Anna Maria Garthwaite, and gifted it to me after reading Portrait of a Woman in Silk.

Everyone knows SHEARites who are social media virtuosos on Twitter. Among these virtuosos are #twitterstorians of the early republic like SHEAR’s President, Joanne Freeman, and my fellow contributors to this series. Study their tweets and you’ll see they have something in common beyond a fondness for early American history. They are, each and every one, whizzes with words. And Twitter is a place that awards a way with words. The pithier and the punchier the better.

But what if you’re a scholar of the early republic who wants to highlight images as well as words? What if you want to reach people interested in material culture? What if you want to collaborate with museums and historic sites and art historians? Twitter might not be the only, or even the best, place on social media for you. You might also want to consider finding a scholarly place on Instagram. In part, that’s because of how posts look on Twitter versus Instagram. On Twitter, images never truly shine. The image always trails below the words. Images themselves can be awkwardly truncated, like a sad afterthought. Whereas on Instagram, the image is the star. You see the visual before the words, and the image shows up in its entirety. It’s a seemingly small matter of presentation, but an important one, if you’re trying to foreground images or objects. Anyone who finds it nearly impossible to give a talk without a PowerPoint or images will know what I mean.

More importantly, there’s a whole community of people—both scholars and the general public—who are interested in material culture, the humanities, and public history but are more active on Instagram than on Twitter. Pretty much all art historians, to start, as well as historians who love using visuals to get their point across; people who work on material or visual culture; those who work outside the academy at cultural institutions like museums and historic sites; independent scholars whose primary output is exhibitions, performance, historical interpretation, art, or video—they all shine on Instagram.

Which brings me to a benefit of scholarly production on Instagram that transcends the visual. And that is diversity and inclusion. This past year saw SHEAR make new efforts to increase the diversity and inclusion of our membership after deserved criticism of the organization’s failures on both counts. I had the honor and pleasure of co-chairing SHEAR’s Nominating Committee (along with the fabulous Caitlin Fitz, who offers another perspective for this Panorama series—that of an influential scholar who remains off social media entirely!). Nothing animated our committee’s work to put together a ballot of officers for election more than a desire to further diversity and inclusion. Among other things, we wanted to ensure that the ballot didn’t just represent tenured and tenure-track faculty employed full-time in the American academy. We wanted to include scholars who live and work outside the U.S., who work in cultural institutions and history jobs beyond academia, and who know what it’s like to be contingent. We lucked out by getting an amazing group of candidates to agree to run (if you haven’t seen the ballot and don’t know what I’m talking about, go renew your membership so you can vote!). And this year’s efforts are only the beginning.

Which gets me back to Instagram, which is a popular platform among all of the scholars I’ve listed above. I know this might sound like a contradiction, but Instagram can be just as much a scholarly (and an activist) place as Twitter. Really, it can! Go check out accounts like @amrevmuseum and @notyourmommashistory as proof. Instagram can be more than a pretty place to show off your cute families, fashion, and pets, and extracurricular skills at things like cooking, knitting, gardening, and hiking. I have a personal Instagram account under my own name that posts about all these things (except the knitting—despite my fascination for the politics of knitting from les tricoteuses to pussy hats, I know I would be awful at it). But since I’ve come to believe that one of the keys to enjoying social media is to keep boundaries between the personal and the professional, blurry though those might sometimes be, that account is private. So, I’ve just recently starting doing historian work on Instagram under the name @thing.for.things. I still use Twitter, of course, and will continue to—nothing beats the #twitterstorian community for #history conversations about everything from new book releases to deciphering illegible eighteenth-century handwriting. But I’m also branching out to the brave new world (for me) of historian Instagram, and so far it’s been unexpectedly fun and rewarding. It’s smaller than the Twitterverse, when it comes to history, yes. But it’s a different world in many ways—just go search #historiansofinstagram on the former versus #twitterstorians on the latter and you’ll see what I mean. And it’s worth noting that the graduate students with whom I work seem to be far more active on Instagram than on Twitter. Perhaps it’s not just a brave new world, but the world of the future, too?

We can’t predict the future for historians on social media, but we can choose how we engage with other historians in the present. As we SHEARites strive for more diversity and inclusion, why not mix up where and how—and with whom—we share history on social media? Just remember to post a selfie like the one that started this post if you give Instagram a go; its algorithms prefer them.

10 August 2021

About the Author

Zara Anishanslin is associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware.

Share this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *