This Is What God Wrought: Doing History on Social Media

Seth Cotlar

Richard Caton Woodville, Sr., War News from Mexico (1848). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“What hath God Wrought.” All historians of the pre-Civil War era are familiar with that first sentence that traveled along Samuel Morse’s telegraph wires on May 24, 1844. Those words often pop into my mind when I’m on Twitter—like on a morning when I open the app to discover that a 280-character thought I’d had while brushing my teeth had gone viral overnight and been seen by a few million strangers while I slept; or when Bruce Bartlett, a Reagan Administration official I’ve never met, politely corrects me on some detail about 1980s politics I’d gotten wrong; or when a tweet about the history of American conservatism elicits swarms of far-right trolls who’d been summoned like flying monkeys to my timeline by some right-wing Twitter celebrity boosting their angry online brand by feeding me, their “far-left Communist brainwashing libtard Professor” du jour, to the MAGA lions for clicks. Just as Morse’s invention did in the 1850s, Twitter has sped up political time and connected geographically dispersed people in new and exciting ways; and it’s also widened and inflamed existing political divisions, making glaringly apparent the extent to which Americans today are alienated from and angry at one another. Twitter is, of course, just the latest in a centuries-long string of socially and politically disruptive innovations in the area of communication technology, but it has transformed my life, as both a historian and a citizen, more than any other technological transformation I’ve lived through in my 50+ years.

Until August of 2018 when a thread I wrote on the History of American Conservatism went viral, my experience of Twitter was far different—and in many ways more pleasurable—than it has become since then. Until that moment of sudden virality, I had about 1,000 Twitter followers—mostly professional colleagues, friends, and former students. I had begun tweeting with some regularity during the 2016 primaries. I used Twitter as a sort of public journal where I noted what I was reading and what I was thinking in the midst of what felt like a historically significant, if increasingly surreal, time in American political history. As a professional historian, I felt called to keep a record of my day-to-day reactions to events that I thought might, in hindsight, come to be seen as significant. I was writing mostly for the future, not the present. I imagined myself as a modest, twenty-first-century version of figures like Harbottle Dorr or Victor Klemperer, ordinary people who lived through interesting times and left behind what we’ve now come to see as invaluable records of what those historical eras looked and felt like from the perspective of a single, unexceptional person. At best, I thought maybe some future historian of the 2010s (or one of my descendants) might find my musings mildly interesting.

In that form, Twitter was just a fun hobby, and occasionally also a place where I found myself having rewarding and informative conversations about history, politics, music, sports, and a myriad of other topics with a small circle of online acquaintances. I thought of my contributions to the platform as both a primary source where I produced a running memoir of my thoughts on current events in real time for posterity, and also a secondary source where I would occasionally put on my “teacher” hat and try to place current events in a broader historical perspective for the small group of friends and colleagues who followed me. This was a new kind of writing for me, and it felt liberating. I felt less constrained by the rules of citation and argumentation that we professional historians follow, though I still strove to be accurate and to never intentionally mislead. I did, however, feel freed up to offer lines of interpretation that felt right to me at the time, but which were works in progress.

To put this slightly differently, on Twitter I often found myself speaking in a voice that blended my citizen self and my historian self. Those two identities are inextricably interwoven, of course, because my understanding of what citizenship means has been profoundly shaped by my study of U.S. history, but they are still distinct. There are many pronouncements “citizen me” felt comfortable making on Twitter that “historian me” would not have made, at least yet, in print. After all, every professional historian recognizes that our insight into events in the receding past will ripen, sharpen, and sometimes change dramatically with the passage of time. It is a given that any forceful pronouncement about the events of the day (as one tends to make on Twitter) will likely come to look misguided, even foolish, in hindsight and as more relevant evidence is uncovered. So “historian me” always sits on one shoulder saying “you should wait to say something, I’m sure it’s more complicated.” Meanwhile “citizen me” sits on the other shoulder screaming “OMG (today’s latest political outrage) IS TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE AND HISTORY WILL JUDGE YOU IF YOU DON’T USE THE PLATFORM YOU HAVE AVAILABLE TO YOU TO SPEAK OUT NOW!” It’s been rewarding to see hundreds of other historians who have also put their expertise to use over these past few years to help put the daily chaotic churn of thudding bullshit into historical context for a public that seems more interested than ever in what professional historians have to say.

Even though Twitter itself can often be a demoralizing cesspool of interpersonal awfulness, I think it’s ultimately a good sign that “outspoken historian Twitter” has blossomed during the Trump Administration. The growth of “historian twitter,” I’d venture to speculate, has much to do with our role as keepers and tellers of the nation’s foundational stories about itself. One way to understand Trumpism is as a concerted assault on a host of long-cherished stories about the United States—stories about a nation of immigrants, about the ongoing process of democratization at home and in the world, about progress made toward building a racially and religiously diverse society.
 To be clear, all of these mythic stories are neither entirely false nor entirely true, and a large part of our job as historians is to question and/or complicate such self-congratulatory myths. But national myths don’t only obscure or deceive; they also frequently function as aspirational bets on a future that draw, selectively but (when done well) accurately, on the past to substantiate them and inspire others to embrace and act upon them. They are political myths we tell ourselves as citizens of a shared polity that finds its grounding and its legitimizing stories in the past. 
Stories about “us,” stories about “America,” that have the power to move “us” will be stories that build a compelling bridge from the past, into our present, and out into some imagined future toward which we, in our own small ways, are each working.
 So it’s no wonder then, at a moment when that sense of “us-ness” feels as weak and unachievable as it has in living memory, that people turn to historians to help them understand who “we” have been and who “we” might be in the future. Historians have played that role for centuries, but Twitter has made it possible for them to do that work with an unprecedented immediacy and reach.

In this forum we will hear from a number of historians of the early republic who have integrated social media technology into their professional lives in a variety of ways. Some have utilized it as a pedagogical tool, others have used it to build and sustain professional and scholarly networks, while others have waded more directly into the scrum of contemporary political debate. Whether you are a seasoned Twitterstorian, someone considering whether to utilize social media in your professional life, or a committed social media refusenik, we hope that these historians’ reflections on these relatively new communications media will offer some practical suggestions that you might find helpful, as well as some historically informed insights into the current, highly mediated state of our profession, our country, and the world.

15 February 2021

About the Author

Seth Cotlar is professor of history at Willamette University.

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