No matter how much I read about it, I can’t really grasp the phenomenon that is social media. I wondered years ago if it would be like what Benedict Anderson described in Imagined Communities about the initial development of a robust print culture, the impact of people simultaneously reading the same information. But of course it is both different in scale and impact than reading a newspaper in a coffeehouse at the turn of the nineteenth century. All media technologies, including the financial structures that operate them, have new and unforeseen effects, but even knowing that this form is extraordinary. If Anderson was describing widespread print as a communications revolution that would support democracy, critical analysts have shown us all the ways that social media erodes it. This means I am an active participant in social media as I am also consuming critical analyses of its corrosive, anti-democratic capacity. Which just about sums up being a thinking person in the early twenty-first century.
I appreciate this roundtable that Seth Cotlar and Will Mackintosh put together on historians and social media because I think it’s both important and interesting to reflect on this convergence. There is some interesting data on who uses social media; lots of journalists use Twitter, for example, for reporting phenomena that develops on that platform, something that reflects both the attention economy and the reduction in newsroom budgets (and newsrooms). Historians are generally doing something different. That is, there are always discussions that are happening (often very quickly; 24 hours is a long cycle for Twitter discourse) on social media in which historians are participating. But historians are really doing a lot of historical work on social media—that is, sharing new material, reflecting on research, promoting events and opportunities.
One thing that’s obvious from even the most cursory experience of social media is that everyone enters that space with their personal and professional identity. My social media presence and experience is shaped by being a white cishet woman with a long career and secure academic employment as much as it is by my conscious decision to focus my social media engagement in particular areas: history, and specifically the capacious and dynamic early American field (#VastEarlyAmerica), the practice and public consumption of history, and scholarly communications. While some folks are incredibly fluent in the different platforms, I stick to Twitter (I do have a Facebook page but I only sign in maybe once every other month).
Anyone who follows me knows that I mostly tweet about what I’ve read in those specific areas. Though I also tweet about things I’ve written, mostly I tweet about the books, journal articles, news articles or essays, op-eds, or blogs that I’m reading. I retweet a lot in the same vein, including tweets from the Omohundro Institute, though here I’m expressly speaking to my own use of social media, not the OI’s (and I don’t run the OI’s social media, which benefits from more experienced professionals!). I try to retweet my students and other early-career folks more than more established scholars or accounts, and I used to keep track of that but I haven’t lately. It’s another thing I’d like to get back to—and that also tells you that a key feature of Twitter for me is trying to be intentional.
I tend to use Twitter as a place to write up something brief about what I’m reading or to collect materials. Hashtags are such a potent way to organize and follow information, ideas, and debates, and that’s how I use and follow #VastEarlyAmerica. I go back and forth between using my own blog for longer pieces and writing up Twitter threads. For a while now I’ve been mostly doing Twitter threads, but I’m revising my blog and website because I’ve decided to start doing more there again. I often write something up, whether blog or thread, as a way to think through what I’m reading or as a way to capture my notes. I did some long and regular threads in 2019 on museum exhibits, digital resources, and more (#VastEA2019), and in 2020 on new and old scholarship, one sentence at a time (#VastEA2020), and pre-pandemic I started one for 2021 on #ReadVast2021. For 2022 I’m hoping to get back to a regular thread.
What I don’t do on Twitter is engage explicitly political issues or policies or people unless they’re related to early American history, historical research and scholarship, higher education or scholarly communications. I have loads of opinions, but for one thing I’m not an effective quick responder. I literally never have a hot take. That also means that I often wait a while to comment on any of the many political issues that involve areas where I think I might have something to say. But I also think it’s important to speak from an area of expertise. I have huge admiration for historians who are striking that balance, commenting on politics from their own research and offering deeper context (like Seth’s threads on U.S. conservative movements, Joanne Freeman making connections with founding-era politics, and Martha Jones on the history of racist law, and obviously many more).
But the primary way I use Twitter is for listening and learning. I know what a terrible space it can be in a whole variety of contexts, but I find it an invaluable educational resource. I mostly follow people who are working in research and scholarship in academia and elsewhere. I follow some institutional accounts (mostly libraries and professional organizations) and I keep track of specific hashtags (for conferences, especially those I want to learn more about, and for ongoing discussions like #slaveryarchive, #shakerace, various archives hashtags including the monthly archives hashtag party). I only explicitly follow a few journalists, namely those who write about history and/or write historically minded journalism. But between the people I follow, and the people they follow, every day I read more than I can digest about new approaches and new concerns around issues in the knowledge and information economy. I am particularly interested in the ways that early-career and Black, Native American, Latinx, and AAPI folks describe their experiences as well as their research interests and communications and the links they share. I click a lot of links! Someone commented once that my “like”-to-tweet ratio is awfully high and it made me a little self-conscious, but I am for sure an enthusiastic liker.
In its best iteration, then, what I think of as the Open Twitterversity is a great space for sharing ideas and information. Among all the concerns about how social media can aggregate disinformation and hostility (and worse), we also worry about whether it encourages too much shallow information capture. We’re all learning a very little about a lot, and perhaps that phenomenon can discourage deep reading and exacerbate the disregard for expertise. I wonder if that was similar to the circulation of news that Anderson imagined. Anyone who has read a late-eighteenth-century news story will know that these were not hard-hitting investigative journalism, nor were they necessarily in-depth reports (though some could be). In other words, it’s always been easy to know a little about a lot, and that little was produced by a small number of content creators. As with everything digital, with social media the pattern has grown geometrically.
I think the volume of things I learn even a little about is well worth the risk of shallow knowledge. Contrary to lots of analysis about how are our interests are funneling us to more like-minded content, I feel regularly challenged by what I learn on Twitter. I read lots of things in depth (I confess that I print and read anything more than a paragraph because I am a mark-up-the-margins reader) that I see referenced and discussed that I likely wouldn’t run across otherwise. I hear concerns that might not come to me directly otherwise. And I think about ways that in my work or otherwise, the OI or I can find new ways of supporting especially early-career folks. I tend to sign off Twitter when I’m on vacation or when I need to focus on projects for a few weeks, and almost always I sign off for the month of August. But I can’t imagine staying away for long.
23 August 2021
About the Author
Karin Wulf is Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.