By Naomi Lloyd-Jones (King’s College London)
The 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:
- Post on a frequent basis
- Be informative
- Write in a lively manner
- Include pictures
- Include links
- Know your audience
- 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:
- Why do researchers need to develop a social media presence?
- How can you balance the personal and professional online?
- What are the best ways to build relationships/community online?
- How do you deal with negative feedback/interaction?
- 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 Academia.edu 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.