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The Historian’s Toolkit: Social Media and Social Networking

2013 June 12

Naomi Lloyd-Jones

In January, I wrote a piece for this journal on how to be a #socialmediahistorian. Reflecting on an event organised by the Institute of Historical Research and the Social Media Knowledge Exchange, I concluded that the academic community is now less an ‘old boy’s network’, and is instead fast becoming a social network.

So when it came to brainstorming potential keynote speakers for the then upcoming University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and King’s College London Workshop on Transatlantic Historical Approaches (catchiest title if there ever was), it seemed natural to myself and the mistress of ceremonies, Amy Kavanagh, to approach an expert on the changing ways in which we can practise history. Jane Winters, Head of Publications and Digital at the IHR, very kindly agreed to get involved, and in the spirit of things I engaged in a rather mammoth live-tweetathon.

It was perhaps unsurprising that, given how we intended the workshop to conclude, the whole two-day event became increasingly accessible from a social media point of view. Using the hashtag #transatlanticapproaches, we made extensive use of Twitter for both publicity and communication purposes, and Amy kept Facebookers abreast of the latest developments. The fantastic thing about conducting an event in this fashion is that it allows those unable to attend to get a sense of what is happening and can help establish a broader awareness of participants’ research. As Jane later pointed out, it is increasingly expected that if you cannot physically be there, you should at least be able to follow online. Events now have an extended online afterlife.

It was by commenting on this issue of research dissemination that Jane opened her keynote. While you may be able to count your PhD thesis audience on both hands (and feet, if you’re lucky), your research itself may be of interest to wider, overlapping groups. And, if your research is especially relevant to contemporary events, those outside of academia may well want a slice of the pie. The question is, how do you access them? Traditionally, this could be done through conferences, seminars and journal publications, and, according to Jane, the monograph remains the medium of choice for historians in particular.

Yet historians also have considerable power to be influential in public life. Our opinions are frequently cited in the press, and a glance at television and radio schedules reveals that they are filled with historical context. While our airwaves may be somewhat dominated by established, high profile historians, Jane believes that history itself is rapidly becoming the real star of the show. Her advice is that public interest in, and knowledge of, history can and should be exploited by researchers. The key is effective communication.

Jane stressed that the development of an effective strategy for managing your public presence is paramount. Social media should fit into this wider presence and help you make yourself known beyond the traditional parameters of academia. You should aim at creating an effective shop window, and attempt to control how much information is shared.

The sheer range of platforms can of course appear daunting at first. As Jane wisely put it, do not attempt to use everything that is available – if you are a PhD student, the chances are you will never submit it on time if you go hell for leather. Identifying one or two outlets that will work for you is a great first step. Think about the tools you like using – if you force yourself into something you have little enthusiasm for, the audience will simply not buy it. And, don’t forget, a neglected social media presence is worse than no presence at all.

Narrowing it down, Jane suggested that communicating serious research via Facebook – to many the social network – is tricky. It offers too personal a space, while, by contrast, something like Academia.edu affords a better professional arena for connecting with other academics. Likewise, research networks can aid dissemination, and the ORCID identifier tool provides personal identification associated with any research output, from websites to articles. Online activity need not always have a specifically textual grounding, either. The British Library’s use of Pinterest and the University of Cambridge’s PhDcasts are good examples of alternate means for presenting fascinating snippets of information. Even conference papers themselves are being uploaded in podcast form, while the IHR is at the forefront of releasing enhanced digital content for its journal readers, putting out two dedicated virtual editions a year. This very journal was cited by Jane as a good example of how having an online profile can help build a community around a publication and reach beyond its core audience. And that stalwart of academia, the monograph, is no longer simply published on the quiet – authors are now expected to contribute to the publicity trail, and the IHR is considering releasing highlights online from its new books on launch day, as a way of stimulating interest. Jane thinks that this will make a big difference to book sales, with new media able to supplement and develop an older style of work.

Similarly, there is an element of tradition in terms of the online platforms individual historians choose to take advantage of. That grand old dame of self-narration, the blog, is generally the medium of choice. Blogs can help you find your voice and develop a distinctive style of writing. In the interests of protecting your intellectual property, you can use a blog to simply present thought-provoking things that are not directly related to your work, or give an insight into the academic process. Collaborative blogs, such as King’s College London’s Arts and Humanities Life blog, lend authority and suggest an element of institutional backing. They can also help you to avoid lengthy periods of inactivity, and keep your audience engaged. In addition, look out for guest blogging opportunities – they help to ever more broaden your audience and your network.

It therefore seems only natural that we progress from blogging to microblogging, which is, after all, what Twitter was originally created for. To use a favourite word of mine, created by the British Library’s Julian Harrison, Twitter is a brilliant forum for ‘plogging’ – that is, plugging your blog. This glorious word has itself gained Twitter parlance, and Jane sees hashtags such as #twitterstorians as especially good for this purpose. Nevertheless, you do not want plogging to step over a fine line into shameless self-promotion. This can be wearing, and will not do you any favours. Instead, Jane’s recommendation is that you help to support and promote others – Twitter, as with life, works both ways. There is even a whole subculture of blogs on the etiquette of tweeting, with a particular focus on public shaming versus constructive critiquing. One further word of warning, based on my own experience of this event – Twitter will cut you off if you tweet incessantly enough. I ended up in Twitter rehab, and Amy had to take over the live tweeting. Twitter’s view of you as a potential spammer aside, always remember to be interesting – Jane likes tweeters who are not afraid to show off a bit of personality. Just don’t tell her what you ate for lunch today.

A note of caution, though. Jane pointed to statistics which reveal that while more than 20 percent of humanities researchers use social media, less than half of this group find it effective. Most of us frankly do not have the time to communicate constantly in this arena, and Jane cautioned that social media must not be the main focus of your activity. Moreover, trying to calculate our influence on social media platforms can be a real headache. Our twenty-first century lives are hectic and pressurised enough without worrying whether we are shouting out into an echo chamber. And, as Jane made clear, even the most innovative experiments remain linked to traditional processes such as conferences and publications.

So is this a brave new world, or is our little academic bubble simply evolving into something more appropriate for the nature of life in the twenty-first century? Such is the nature of technology today that Jane feels the process is only likely to continue changing. Her closing comments perhaps provide us with an answer: ‘History lends itself to public communication. You have nothing to lose by getting involved, but everything to gain.’

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. She has guest blogged for History & Policy, I.B. Tauris and the BBC History Magazine online, and is the postgraduate History blogger for the King’s Arts&Humanities Life blog. You can find her on Twitter @beingahistorian.

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