Becoming a Twitterstorian: Social Media, Scholarly Communication, and Professional Practice

To Tweet or not to Tweet

When a recent article in The Chronicle argued that early career scholars should spend little to no time writing for platforms that do not lead to tenure, many historians took to Twitter to express their outrage.  Some questioned the assumption that public-facing scholarship was not relevant by professional standards–“other scholars should want to cite it, assign it in class, or, at the very least, read it.” As historian Aparna Nair wrote, “I assign blog posts in @nursingclio, @ladyxscience, and @ExploreWellcome EVERY semester. These pub. formats HAVE relevance, reach, & value. They matter.” At the root of this debate is a question about the purpose of scholarly work and the relevance of research. As many scholars noted in response to The Chronicle article, this is also a question about institutional standards for tenure. How do we strike the right balance, making sure we set early career scholars up for success in tenure track positions while still remaining open to the possibility that those tenure standards themselves can and should be questioned and revised.

While the article focused specifically on platforms like blogs, the conversation quickly spread to other forms of public engagement, including social media. Like the response to several other recent critiques of academia, including from prominent popular historian Jill Lepore, historians using social media platforms as a venue for scholarly communication rankled at what they considered outdated notions of the academic/public binary and chastised journalists and colleagues for perpetuating public myths about the “ivory tower” while ignoring the real work happening to translate and communicate scholarly research for public audiences.

Despite the debate, the importance of social media–and Twitter in particular–seems difficult to deny. Publishers increasingly require authors to establish Twitter accounts and cultivate followers as part of marketing efforts–plans that include interconnected blog and social media posts, as well as popular press features. As many have noted, there are “a myriad of knock-on effects” of public engagement. Twitterstorians—historians who have embraced the social media platform as a form of scholarly communication—have cultivated reputations as new public intellectuals, intervening directly in public debates and conversations (see Martha S. Jones, among others), engaging politicians and pundits (look out for Kevin Kruse), and actively shape social and cultural movements (see #charlestonsyllabus as an example). Twitterstorians use the platform to build research networks, hunt down sources, share teaching strategies, build bibliographies, capture the attention of journalists, and cultivate professional networks. And many Twitterstorians find that their social media engagement and other scholarly communication work often leads to other opportunities that fulfill traditional tenure expectations—conference presentations, keynote lectures, editorships, professional service, and peer-reviewed publishing opportunities.

coffee smartphone twitter application
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Finding Your “Why” on Social Media: What Motivates You as a Scholar?

Among the many responses across the Twittersphere, a few, I think, really crystallize the key issues at stake and point to a more productive and concrete understanding of social media as a tool for scholarly communication. As I teach courses and conduct workshops in scholarly communication (or, more precisely, History Communication), I often encourage people to reflect on a few key questions as they think about how and why to engage platforms like Twitter.

In defining your approach to scholarly communication, it might be important to think first about how you define your professional responsibilities. Law professor Heidi Matthews argues that “if you work at a publicly-funded university, you should likely consider yourself under a special fiduciary responsibility to civil society & your political community to share your work and create important conversations. Professors, esp [sic] those at public schools, don’t work only for themselves; they work for the public in its interest.”

In casting professors as public servants, Matthews echoes the sentiments of many of the most active Twitterstorians and others dedicated to public engagement and applied humanities work. For others, however, Twitter is an important tool for modern researchers, essential in disseminating traditional scholarly publications to a network of other academics and institutions in the service of building your reputation and advancing your research agenda. For still others, Twitter is an important venue through which they translate their scholarly work into various kinds of activism. These approaches are complimentary, of course, and for many scholars like myself and Matthews, they overlap in shaping our approach to scholarly communication and social media.

How to Become a Twitterstorian

Defining your scholarly purpose helps you think through why you want to use social media platforms like Twitter.  But, as with everything else, you also need to ask the other elemental questions – who, what, where, when, and how.  Twitter, like any other piece of technology, is a tool that can be used strategically.  Thinking through these questions helps frame your engagement in an intentional way, ensuring that your actions reflect your purpose.  Doing so at the outset can also help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by the technology, setting acceptable boundaries of meaningful engagement, identifying expectations, outcomes, and other markers of “success” or effectiveness.  These questions, however, are just a way to think about getting started–they are not intended to cover all issues.  Likewise, your answers to these questions may change over time and it is useful to revisit them regularly.

How do you want to use the platform?

There are many valuable critiques of social media floating around, and there are many reasons for us to be skeptical about the effects that technologies organized through algorithms have on social organization and cultural practice. But, as Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars would tell you, technology also has no inherent meaning–we give it meaning through the ways that we use it. This applies just as much to social media platforms as it does to railways or robots.

Twitter, in other words, doesn’t have to mean the same thing to you that it does to other people. If, like me, you are unconvinced of the utility of Twitter as a personal social media platform (I said, “I’m not witty enough to make anyone care what I would say in 120 characters” many times), this doesn’t necessarily foreclose engagement in a professional capacity. Engagement with social media can—and perhaps in light of what we’re learning about social media, should–be used in highly strategic ways.

Historians are, in many ways, ideally suited to engage and understand what happens on a social media platform like Twitter. The same skills that we bring to primary source analysis can help historians more effectively navigate the Twittersphere, interpreting and analyzing the content produced by other Twitterstorians and members of the general public. Bring those same questions we drill with students in primary source analysis to bear on the tweets that you read and use them to help frame the tweets you compose:

  • Who is the author?
  • What is their purpose?
  • Who is their audience?
  • What is the context of the tweet?

Who do you want to connect with?

Thinking about the communities, individuals, and institutions with whom you wish to connect is critical to getting started, and, while your response to that question may change over time, it shapes who appears on your feed and the way that you interact with the platform.

Get Going

Once you’ve answered these basic questions, you pick a Twitter handle and get started. I often recommend that people approach Twitter in stages:

Stage 1:  Build your network

Identify and follow existing accounts that you know and which are relevant to your purpose. This might include:

  • Department colleagues
  • University colleagues
  • Other professional colleagues outside of your university
  • Professional associations
  • Research institutes
  • Journalists
  • Major news sites
  • Funding agencies
  • Departments
  • University offices

Then take a look at who those people follow. You may wish to create lists within Twitter to keep track of different communities or to organize your contacts.

Stage 2:  Build your following

Like with anything new, it’s best to begin by observing and building on the work of people already familiar with the scene. In other words, begin by amplifying the work of active Twitterstorians. This can include:

  • Retweeting others (pay attention to the #twitterstorians hashtag and look for other prominent hashtags in use within your network)
  • Retweeting and commenting on the posts of others
  • Amplifying the work of others through congratulatory notices or sharing information about events and achievements
  • Advertising events, CFPs, job opportunities, etc. that are relevant to your field
  • Sharing your own work and accomplishments—post links to new blog entries, announcements about new publications, photos from research and teaching, etc.
  • Acknowledging and expressing gratitude for the contributions of collaborators and supporters

While you may have a well-established voice in personal social media accounts, it’s important to consider what your professional voice might be. Just as with other forms of scholarly writing, this takes time and practice to develop and will inevitably change over time. Engaging and amplifying the work of others, I would argue, is an effective way to practice and think through your own strategies. As you engage with other members of the Twitterverse, you might consider:

  • Who do you admire on Twitter and why?
  • How do you want to be known?
  • What kinds of content do you want to provide and why?
  • How is all of this connected to your scholarly identity and purpose?

As with all things, sometimes you learn best who you want to be through negative examples. But Twitter is full of wonderful historians and other public-facing scholars, engaging a wide range of strategies, representing a variety of scholarly and ethical commitments. There’s no one right way to use Twitter.

Stage 3:  Use social media to enhance and compliment your other professional work

Use social media platforms for professional development

Social media platforms like Twitter are tools that, when used strategically, can play an important role in professional development. If you use Twitter as a way to communicate your research, you might (again with credit to Heidi Matthews):

  • Build networks of scholars doing related work, through which you can create new opportunities for presentations, publications, and research collaborations.
  • Connect with journalists who might need experts to provide context for current affairs.
  • Solicit feedback on ideas, collect suggestions for bibliographies, conduct surveys and polls around research questions.
  • Engage the communities most connected to your research by sharing your own research or other resources
  • Speak out on policy issues or other kinds of political conversations that are directly related to your research.
  • Work out complex ideas that later form the basis for larger peer-reviewed pieces.
  • Publicize other public-facing work that you might do on blogs, podcasts, op-eds, etc.

Engage your students or generate conversations about teaching

If you use Twitter as a way to engage your students and generate conversations about teaching, you might:

  • Share pedagogical exercises and talk about how they worked in the classroom.
  • Share student work (that you have permission to share because it’s anonymous, you were given explicit permission, or students produced their own public-facing work).
  • Engage other thoughtful teachers in conversations on ethics and pedagogy (e.g. Jesse Stommel, Cate Denial, Trevor Getz, and many others) or mentoring (e.g. Beronda Montgomery).
  • Share materials (books, articles, etc.) that are useful in the classroom.
  • Recognize the work of excellent teachers that you know on campus.
  • Produce and share material intended for instruction of the general public (e.g. #charlestonsyllabus).
  • Ask for feedback on syllabi or solicit suggestions for readings.
  • Connect with your campus Office of Teaching and Learning and other professional organizations.

Stage 4:  Be a good citizen

Building this scholarly identity and network from the beginning is important, but you should approach any social media platform (or other form of public-facing scholarship) aware of the risks. At this point, those risks are increasingly well-known, but they bear repeating.

Social media platforms can lead to blurred boundaries between the personal and the professional. Speaking in a professional capacity comes with additional risks, and several of these cases have been well-covered in higher-education circles. You might check out the personal website of Steven Salaita—one of the early victims of what some have labeled the “outrage machine”—where he discusses his journey through and beyond the controversy surrounding his own tweets in 2014.

Political commentary, institutional critique, and personal attacks—which, I recognize are not (necessarily) analogous categories—bring increased attention and, sometimes, criticism. Speaking in public means that conflict, disagreement, condemnation, and retribution can also be public and have real consequences for your life. I would never say that you should avoid these things—you should make your own choices—and I would never say that the consequences in these situations are deserved. But you should be aware of the institutional, political, cultural, and professional realities and constraints, entering the conversation aware of the risks associated with your choices. It also bears mention that some people are more protected through the privilege of tenure than others, but, of course, tenure itself is also no guarantee of protection.

Just as in your other scholarly work, you should, however, strive to be ethical.  Give credit when its due, cite others, use the platform for good, be collegial. And avoid using Twitter (or any form of social media) to complain about students and colleagues. This is not just a question of good behavior. Some of these things can have legal implications—sharing student information can be a FERPA violation, and some professional disputes are supposed to go through pre-established HR processes. Talking about these things in public means that your complaints are seen by a much wider audience. And, if social media can help build your reputation and professional networks, it can also be the mechanism through which reputation and networks are destroyed. Ultimately, you need to define for yourself what it means to “be a good citizen.” Or, to put it another way, what are your social media ethics?

A Note on Social Media for Institutions

If you’re in charge of a departmental or other institutional account, the process is similar, I would argue. There are, however, some obvious differences—your personal opinions and commitments are less important; the institutional priorities should shape the purpose and strategy pursued through the account; you must cultivate a broader network of followers; and you must make sure that tone and coverage are both fair and appropriate given the responsibilities and status of the institution or organization represented.

Integrated Scholarship

Social media like Twitter, in other words, takes work.  While I resisted Twitter for a long time – what could I possibly say in 120 (now 240) characters that other people in the world would be interested in reading? – it’s now an important part of my professional identity as a scholar and teacher.  It has raised the profile of my work, put me in conversation with a vast network of scholars within and outside of my discipline, created new scholarly opportunities, and connected me to new publics in the US and around the world.

Importantly, it has also reinforced, rather than displaced, my more traditional scholarly work.  My scholarly identity today is multifaceted, interdisciplinary, and public-facing in a way that is productive and exciting (for me at least). It draws together social media, blogging, artistic collaborations, digital humanities work, policy interventions, pedagogical and curricular development, professional service, and scholarly publishing in ways that are generative.  Historian Amanda Seligman notes that creating public-facing scholarship “is not so time-consuming that it displaces academic work. Think of writing for the public as an extension of an academic publication rather than the displacement of another project.” This works for me. Twitter conversations and Facebook posts turn into blog entries, which generate new ideas for conference papers, articles, and book chapters. But we all know our own limits. Keep an eye on yours because, I repeat, Twitter and other social media platforms are what you make of them. Their elasticity and flexibility mean that there is room for many different forms of engagement.

Of course, you can also always opt out. Just note that, in a social media age, opting out of the platform doesn’t mean that you and your work won’t still be the subject of conversations on Twitter.

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