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How to be a #socialmediahistorian: plug in and plog on

2013 January 31
by lucinda matthews-jones

By Naomi Lloyd-Jones (King’s College London)

Twitter hashtag symbolThe proliferation of that previously innocuous little symbol, the dear sweet hashtag, raises a big question for today’s historians. How do we build our networks and communicate with others in our profession, while simultaneously disseminating our research to a wider audience, in a world increasingly dominated by the use of social media? Seeking to answer this conundrum opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box and forces us to think about how far we are willing to embrace the non-academic. This is not, of course, to dismiss the relevance of the more traditional options such as seminars, conferences and journals, but rather to acknowledge that our community is no longer an ‘old boys’ network’, it is a social network.

It was with this dilemma in mind that I attended a workshop organised by the Institute of Historical Research and Social Media Knowledge Exchange on the use of social media by historians (or, to give the event its popular Twitter moniker, #smkehistory). Headed up by the IHR’s own Twitter maestro, Head of Publications and IHR Digital Jane Winters, #smkehistory saw presentations from Laura Cowdrey of the National Archives, the British Library’s Julian Harrison and Isabel Holowaty of the Bodleian History Library, followed by breakout group discussions and a feedback session. Each of these institutions is building a considerable social media presence and the aim of the panel session was to share experiences and pass on wisdom.

Of particular interest were Julian Harrison’s ‘seven golden rules of blogging’, which quickly did the rounds on Twitter. They are as follows:

  1. Post on a frequent basis
  2. Be informative
  3. Write in a lively manner
  4. Include pictures
  5. Include links
  6. Know your audience
  7. Don’t be afraid to ‘plog’ (meaning to plug your blog – a glorious new word that I hope gains parlance)

These simple but straight to the point recommendations tapped into the broader issue of social media etiquette, a hot topic that came up continually throughout the day. Laura Cowdrey revealed that the National Archives provides its contributors with a ‘tone of voice’ document, which instructs staff on how to use social media in the house style. The National Archives, it transpires, ‘does not LOL’. Being more than just a faceless information bureau is of mounting importance for institutions, especially when using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to self-publicise. The advice was overwhelmingly to think about your audience and how you are presenting yourself or your institution to them. This in turn allows you to tailor content, and to schedule important releases, posts, and generally ‘plog’ at times when you are likely to have the most impact.

So what can individual researchers take from this? The breakout group sessions brought the discussion back largely to the use of social media by individual historians, and to its utility for us. Each of the four groups was tasked with answering five questions – questions, it became increasingly apparent, that it is vital we ask of ourselves when taking the plunge on social media. They were:

  1. Why do researchers need to develop a social media presence?
  2. How can you balance the personal and professional online?
  3. What are the best ways to build relationships/community online?
  4. How do you deal with negative feedback/interaction?
  5. What are the best social media platforms for communicating historical research, and why?

Two words kept coming up, both in the group discussion I participated in, and in the reporting back which took place afterwards: Twitter and blogging. Personally, I avoided Twitter for a good long while, convinced that it was the place where celebrities documented their marriage breakdowns and displayed their latest holiday snaps. Likewise, there was clear hesitancy among my fellow group members. But as the #twitterstorian hashtag in particular has shown, the online history community is growing fast. You can easily construct a Twitter feed that offers you pithy insights into the lives of PhD students, ECRs and academics, which provides you with rapid information on the latest conferences and publications, and connects you to academics, departments and institutions around the world. Your own Tweets can be used to break the ice with academics and editors, and, crucially, to construct the networks that seem ever more vital for both disseminating research and for future employment prospects. Twitter is now the place to plog (sorry, Facebook), and to be plogged. The concept of ‘public engagement’ is emerging as a focus in History departments, as they seek to justify their ‘impact’ under the government-imposed Research Excellence Framework. And, as Jane Winters pointed out, there is now a school of thought that believes that those without a social media presence will find it that bit trickier to secure an academic post in a mere five years time. While this time-scale (and concept) is open to debate, a shift is nonetheless taking place – the organisation of this very workshop is surely a testament to that.

But, as our celebrity ‘friends’ have shown us, Twitter can all too often tip over into the all too personal. Again, this comes down to the question of audience. Does a renowned scholar really want to know what I ate for lunch today? I’m guessing not. So does that mean that we need to have separate Twitter accounts for our personal and professional lives? Not necessarily, according to #smkehistory participants. Facebook emerged as the preferred means for conducting personal relationships, and Twitter for professional ones. Yet this still lays Twitter open to the charge of being rather vacuous – after all, how much can you really say about your research in 140 characters? Furthermore, as the panel pointed out, when you take into account the relevant hashtags and @s needed to get your tweet noticed, there’s even less room in which to squeeze the results of those mammoth archive sessions. This is where blogging comes in – it is what lies behind the tweets. Undoubtedly far more time consuming than a quick-fire blast, a blog still remains the choice medium for delivering one’s research to a popular audience. You can lay out your findings and arguments in a way a shorter form of media simply does not facilitate.

Concerns were however raised about the danger of putting research into the public domain, and the attendant problems of it being pilfered by others or damaging the chances of having the work published in an academic format. The rebuttal was that a blog can in a sense ‘time stamp’ your ideas, and clearly mark them out as your own, before anyone else gets there first. Further, as one participant noted, a tweet can be fleeting and quickly disappear into a feed, whereas a blog post will withstand the Google test. The style of a blog will also invariably be different from that of a thesis or article, and will allow you to demonstrate that you can write in an accessible manner. And for those who do not see their path as being that of the traditional academic, a blog can be instrumental in bringing the kind of attention needed to forge ahead with a more media-focused career. My friend Fern Riddell, who serves as the Journal of Victorian Culture’s online film editor, maintains that her use of blogging and Twitter has been invaluable in securing work on both television and radio. Blogging can breed blogging, and the guest blog can both help you build a relationship with a journal, publisher of institution, and open your ideas up to a new audience. Image sharing websites, favoured by the National Archives in particular, can add an extra dimension to your social media presence (although beware of copyright pitfalls!), as can communities such as and The Women’s Room. Just as Isabel Holowaty described the ‘plugging in’ of the Bodleian History Faculty Library’s feeds into several other media outlets, it seems that individual historians too must plug in and plog on.

Leaving #smkehistory with a head brimming full of ideas, I typically took to Twitter to record my thoughts on the afternoon, and others did the same. Discussion could therefore continue, and I could network with the panel experts and fellow attendees. As I sat there tweeting away, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we need to expand our horizons beyond identifying as #twitterstorians, and start thinking of ourselves as #socialmediahistorians. And, as if in testament to this theory, Lucie Matthews-Jones, editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture online, then popped up on Twitter asking if I’d like to contribute a piece on the event. Being a #twitterstorian is a brilliant springboard for wider work as a #socialmediahistorian. And, in an era when ‘presence’ is about far more than just attendance at conferences, being a #socialmediahistorian is becoming increasingly vital in constructing a well-rounded persona, and visibility, for oneself. I see no conflict of interest in defining myself both as an Academic Historian and a #socialmediahistorian. Indeed, in the future, both may just come under the remit of ‘Historian’. But for now, #smkehistory has emboldened me to take that leap, and to do so in the knowledge that I’ll be standing side by side with my peers.

Naomi Lloyd-Jones is a second year PhD student at King’s College London and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is researching a four nations history of the Irish Home Rule crisis, c.1885-1914, looking at reactions to proposals for Irish self-government in each part of the British Isles, and at the parallel devolution movements that emerged as a result. Naomi also teaches on the Politics and Society undergraduate module at King’s and is due to give the ‘Ireland in British Politics’ lecture as part of the course in February. She has guest blogged for History & Policy, I.B. Tauris and the BBC History Magazine online. A new blog is in the works, but must remain top secret until the official launch. You can find her on Twitter @beingahistorian.

17 Responses leave one →
  1. January 31, 2013

    Interesting post. As an academic (early American historian in History & Classics at Swansea University) and bit of a tweeter and blogger myself, I’d add the following. It doesn’t have to be just about promoting your own research or learning about that of others. I do that, of course, but I also tweet about non-historical issues and blog widely as well. Not usually about what I ate for lunch, although I did once tweet: “Mashed potato sandwich. Your move, Heston Blumenthal.” So, I do stupid jokes. And I tweet political opinions. The same with blogging: sometimes I blog about the Glorious Revolution, other times about how David Cameron has a face like an arse. Sometimes my jokes aren’t found funny, and people may disagree with my blog posts. But that’s fine. The point is, we are and should be more than our research profiles—we are all people. One of the great joys of going to conferences is not just the papers but getting to know fellow academics as fully-rounded personalities in all their human diversity, or at least as much as they’re happy to display. And it works the same, with us as teachers. I don’t follow students on Twitter unless they follow me (so as not to cramp styles) but if they do follow me then I follow back (and anything said by them on Twitter I consider inadmissible evidence). And of course any student can read my blog. I think my relationships with many students have improved as a result of them seeing me as a more rounded person than I could otherwise show myself as being—and it’s much better than turning up at their pubs etc as that is just weird—in other words, you can be a “person” as well as a lecturer, but at a safe distance for them and for us. Obviously, tweeting stupid and sometimes sweary jokes and writing sometimes scabrous blog posts is much less risky for an in-post academic than for a post-grad who needs to work the job market, but I think showing a bit of the person, as well as the academic can work anyway, if not perhaps as much as I sometimes do.

  2. January 31, 2013

    This advice is poor because it assumes that historians can or should only write for solo blogs.

    Like all other academics, historians would do best to write for multi-author blogs (or to set htem up where they don’t exist). See

  3. Naomi Lloyd-Jones permalink
    February 1, 2013

    Thank you both for your comments. I’ll reply to each in kind.

    In Patrick’s case, I would like to clarify that my points are largely based on the discussions which emerged during the workshop and on my personal experiences. The piece was not intended to suggest that any other forms of social media are invalid, and indeed, the idea was that we should explore our options – hence the #socialmediahistorians hashtag. This is of course an ongoing debate, and the piece was designed to add to that, and should therefore not be dismissed.
    I would also like to note that the vast majority of academic pieces written by historians (i.e. journal articles, chapters in edited collections and monographs) are solo works. This is where solo blogging can be of real use.
    Nonetheless, when the opportunity to compose a collaborative piece arises, having worked on multi-authour blogs will also have been helpful in forming experiences and working practices.
    So, to return to my central point, the idea is that being a #socialmediahistorian is of increasing importance – the types of social media used will depend on the individual’s research interests and focus, and on how they perceive their work best disseminated and their audience engaged.

  4. Naomi Lloyd-Jones permalink
    February 1, 2013

    Turning to Steve, the idea of showing off your personality certainly came up in discussion. And the concept is of clear importance when considering your audience (a point that was made by each of the panel speakers, and in the breakout groups). You want people to know who you are as a person, because this will encourage interaction and give them a more well-rounded sense of the academic you are. That said, I should note the hesitancy expressed by some of the attendees about the extent to which you put yourself out there, and there was ultimately no overall agreement on how to manage the professional/personal. As with my above comments to Patrick, it’s ultimately a choice for the individual – like you said, sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about testing the waters and going from there.
    I loved your ideas about how social media is helping you engage with your students. I have considered allowing students to live tweet in my forthcoming lecture, but am unsure what the results would be. I also like that blogs can enable students to get an idea of your own research, and broaden their understanding beyond the perametres of their courses.

    A quick nod to both commentators – this is a very exciting time for historians and I’m really glad you both read the post.

  5. February 1, 2013

    Thanks for a really informative and interesting post, Naomi.

    I think what’s interesting about Twitter, especially, is that it serves such different functions for different people, even within the academic community. For some, it’s a gateway to blogs, and an aggregator for other material on the web; for others, it’s a forum for debate; and yet others use it more for light relief and chat. (And Twitter sceptics tend to see it merely in terms of the last category.) I guess the challenge for all of us is to come up with a mixture of the above that we are personally comfortable with. I can’t be the only person who wishes somebody would issue me with a ‘tone of voice’ document!

    I’m also interested in Twitter as an alternative to blogs – simply because I can’t see myself ever having the time to regularly post. (I suppose Patrick’s group blogs are one solution to this.) But of course, as you say, 140 characters is very limiting indeed. Did you talk about microblogging at the workshop?

  6. February 1, 2013

    Naomi, Absolutely–it ultimately has to be limited by whatever individuals feel comfortable with, and indeed perhaps we all to consider that many academics will never feel comfortable with social networking in any way at all, and those people shouldn’t somehow be left out of the general loop or made to feel they’re not doing something they should be doing. It is all and indeed and should be just a choice.

    Patrick, I don’t whether you thought the original post gave “poor advice” or whether you thought mine did. I didn’t read the original post as being prescriptive or proscriptive in any way, merely suggestive of one possible way, as indeed Naomi has clarified. My advice was intended in the same way–mere suggestion one possibility or set of possibilities based on personal experience and preference. Indeed, I’d say it was intended as suggestion and not as advice, and I identified the drawbacks that others might see in my way of doing things. I am actually a member of a group blog as well as having my own individual one. People can do all sorts. Again, it’s a matter of preference for the individual, but we all can benefit from both and other approaches. Also, while we all have different senses of propriety and different sensitivities, I always think that courtesy is as important on-line as it is in face-to-face situations.

  7. Dave Andress permalink
    February 1, 2013

    I think what Patrick, rather curtly, means is that one can achieve greater profile if one collaborates with others to provide regular material for a collective blog. Certainly this is the case in more general fields, where the teams at, e.g. Crooked Timber or Lawyers, Guns & Money provide a wide variety of comment on contemporary affairs.

    The issue for such group blogs is that of achieving a ‘distinctive’ voice to attract people, and thus avoiding becoming just a sort of online appointments-diary for a research-group.

  8. February 2, 2013

    Hi Naomi,

    This was a fantastic post. It’s definitely a fine balance. We have professional Twitter accounts for our history sites and personal ones as well. In my case, if readers find me on my personal Twitter account, I tend to follow back but I’ve made it clear that all bets are off *so to speak*, and it’s not the “academic me”.

    I like that you touched on the “tone” or “voice” used. I agree that you have to be relatable and yourself – people want to know who is behind the blog. I’m willing to share some personal tid-bits with our readers to let them put a face to the name and see that we’re just people too. I’m always thinking: “should I? shouldn’t I? is this too much?”. I never post anything without some thought (unless it’s to my personal account). We’ve been at it for 4+ years now so we’ve gotten a handle on who our audience is and what they respond to but we are still constantly learning as new social media, i.e., Pinterest, Tumblr, Stumbleupon, crops up. We are always trying to keep up and stay ahead while producing solid content. It’s a new and tricky world to navigate.

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks for posting it – a lot of people new to the social media world who want to know how to mix history and social media could glean a lot from it.


    -Sandra Alvarez

  9. February 2, 2013

    Great conversation.

    I think it’s important to remember that Twitter is more public than, say, Facebook. You can protect your tweets, which means that only your followers will be able to see what you tweet. Also, when you respond to someone, only those people who follow the both of you will see that conversation. This is one of the reasons why I include a dot before the name (ex: “.@twittername”) when I want to mention someone but have it appear publicly.

    Having said that, I agree with what other posters have said, in that Twitter allows you to get to know someone online before you have to meet them publicly. Somewhat personal tweets that include exercise regimens, discussions of television shows, what you ate for breakfast, cat pictures, etc., can actually show other scholars what kind of person you are and make it easier for you to engage in smalltalk at conferences. I talk about this whenever I bring up Twitter with a scholar and the reaction is “I don’t want to know what people had for breakfast!” My response is, well, I talk about those seemingly unimportant topics with my friends all the time, and in fact everyday stuff like that is what builds communities.

    So, while obviously there are things I won’t share on Twitter (just like there are things I wouldn’t share with casual friends), I do try to give my followers a glimpse into my everyday life. I just feel like it makes me more of a person, and it has the effect of making me more approachable.

  10. February 2, 2013

    Sorry to disturb the flow of comments, but I thought I’d do a bit of “pl-articling” (and I do hope “plog” catches on…)

    Rohan Maitzen and I have recently published reflective pieces in JVC on Twitter and blogging as academics.

    Rohan’s article is on blogging as an academic practice:

    And my article is on ECR social media use:

    These might help add to the discussion, albeit I think we both concentrate on individual rather than collaborative blogs.

    One further point to consider about creating and running an individual blog (rather than a collaborative blog) is the issue of stability. This is particularly important for PGRs and ECRs. Collaborating blogging can help with the issue of visibility and building an online academic network, but an individual blog can function as your “home page” — it can provide a stable online presence which you control. Many ECRs move frequently between HEIs — and sometimes work at more than one HEI simultaneously — so it’s useful to have a place online that remains constant and where people can always find you. I think this issue is particularly acute for PGRs and ECRs, many of whom can fall through the virtual gap online. Many PGRs have little or no institutional presence on HEI websites. And so too for part-time, multiple-jobbing ECRs…

    Thanks for your post Naomi!

  11. February 3, 2013

    As a non-academic, but someone who has a huge interest in all things history and keeps his own blog (admittedly nothing to do with history), I think social media gives huge benefits to a non-academic such as myself and to the historians of the future – our children.

    It allows me to learn and delve beyond the skimming that is often done on television programs, to ask questions of those whom are the experts and finally, and most importantly, shows that historians these days are not the historians of those old 70s OU programs with their long beards and horn-rimmed glasses, but vibrant, interesting, full of passion, knowledgable people. In return, this last point keeps history interesting for the youth of today, which in my opinion, is essential to maintain an understanding of our heritage.

    I’m very proud of my own 16 year old daughter who is currently studying for her A level English and likes to read through my discarded copies of a history magazine I subscribe to. She is a twitter user, and I often see her looking up historical things on twitter inbetween pictures of funny cats! Where would she go to find her history inspiration, Google? If she follows a trusted, qualified person on twitter, who frequently communicates to other qualified people, surely she can be more assured that what she is reading is not some flim-flam written by some imposter.

    In conclusion, i believe that any method that communicates history in a manner which the youth of today understand can only be applauded.

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