“It caused the Arab Spring, you know.”
“It’s nothing but Justin Bieber fans writing gobbledygook.”
“I saw someone do a wonderful live-tweet of a conference last week.”
“I hate when people livetweet conferences.”
What good is Twitter, anyway? And why should you use it? Inspired by the defense of academic blogging offered in this space last month by Ken Owen, I want to offer a few thoughts on using Twitter as a professional historian. Over the past few months, I’ve had several discussions, both in-person and online, in which I’ve been called on to defend Twitter (it seems that others see me as either an effective or at least irrepressible user). After over three years on the service (@jmadelman, if you’re curious), I’ve certainly developed a theory of Twitter for myself. I would not offer it as universal, but I do think it’s important to highlight what’s good about it, and perhaps one or two things that I don’t like.
First of all, Twitter is a really useful way to keep up with what’s going on in the academic world. The most important thing it does for me is allow me to keep track of who’s discussing major issues not only in my field(s), but also in the humanities, digital humanities, and the academy. I still use Google Reader (though like everybody else I’m switching), but some of the most interesting things I’ve found online come through Twitter. It acts, as many have noted before me, as a filter.
I’ve also found it enormously useful to discuss both research and teaching. Sometimes that takes a serious turn, as when I was developing a syllabus on Native American history for this semester. I was able through the historians’ community there to develop several useful leads, particularly in Latin American native history, where my prior reading was less thorough. Would I have assigned Caroline Dodds Pennock’s (@carolinepennock) article on gender and space in the Aztec city if I didn’t follow her on Twitter? Almost certainly not, but I’m glad I did. I’ve also been able to track down research leads, and of course to do exactly the same for others. It’s not an exclusive source, of course, and I wouldn’t suggest you use it without any other source of enrichment. We all still have colleagues, mentors, and friends who can also provide opportunities for conversation about research, pedagogy, and other professional matters. For more on this topic, Kathleen Fitzpatrick (@kfitz), the MLA’s Director of Scholarly Communications, has shared a talk she gave on “Networking the Field” at this past year’s MLA conference.
Sometimes, of course, it’s just nice to have Twitter on in the background as I work. It’s one more way to have some company while working, to share silly stories about life, the occasional comments about putting together a lesson plan or a paper, and so on.
On the other hand, I like to think of myself as relatively clear on some of the drawbacks of Twitter. First of all, it takes time. We all get exactly 168 hours a week, unless you’ve figured out some sort of wormhole thing that you haven’t shared with the rest of us. Time on Twitter is time you are not doing something else. And yes, it’s not the place for nuance—at least once a month I end up in a conversation that goes off in a silly/bad direction because it’s hard to get one’s point across in a sophisticated way in 140 characters. It has also in the past year or so (at least on my feed) seemed to become a bit more of a closed loop. That is, it’s become a bit harder to my mind to offer unorthodox opinions. I still find it an enormously useful service, but lately I’ve found it somewhat less welcoming. I don’t think it reflects well on the humanities, nor does it bode well for the possibilities of the service. But that may be a topic for another post.
The service can also very quickly devolve into a proverbial fire hose. At this point I follow nearly 600 people, which is not an effective way to see conversations or keep track of my closest friends (or “Twitter friends”). For that purpose the list function is indispensable—I keep one for historians, one for people in journalism and media, one each for various institutions I’ve been associated with. I don’t read all of them regularly, but if I’m curious about what’s going on in Boston, say, I have a place to go. Even so, at times it’s a bit much.
You’d be surprised how many historians lose sight of the fact that Twitter is a platform, and quickly launch themselves into arguments that rely on technological determinism, one way or the other. One of the primary reasons I joined was because as a media historian, I’m interested in learning about processes of historical change occasioned by what I would casually describe as ruptures in media technology. It’s just technology, though. People use it in many different ways, to different ends. Yes, some people tweet about what they eat for breakfast (though our own @Raherrmann has somehow managed to turn that into a lucrative research topic). If there’s anything about the debates over Twitter that bother me, it’s the sense that Twitter itself has magical powers to turn everyone into free-communicating network nodes or, conversely, into idiots. Or, to put it more succinctly, Twitter lacks agency.
By way of conclusion, I want to be clear that I don’t think you need to join Twitter. It takes time to master, both on a day-to-day basis of keeping up with feeds (though you can decide how much to do that), and over the long-term as you develop a network and cultivate a set of followers and lists that allow you to customize the experience. But I do think you’ll find it useful.
If you’re curious about Twitter but have never used it, do take a look at the “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics” offered by Katrina Gulliver (@katrinagulliver) last year in the Chronicle. She provides some helpful hints on how to get started, how to use hashtags (including the ever-popular #twitterstorians), and other advice. If you’re interested in more of a how-to guide (with commentary on the benefits of Twitter, Liz Covart has published a three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on the academic use of Twitter. And, of course, you can follow the blog @thejuntoblog on Twitter, and check out our list of Junto tweeters.