Tweeting Historians: an Oxymoron?

Annika Zorn
Oct 13, 2016 · 5 min read

Aren’t historians those people sitting in dark archives studying dusty sources from a long time ago? How could historians possibly be interested in using Twitter and more importantly, how could a social media tool like Twitter be of any use to the work of academics studying history, which almost certainly does not describe the period since 2007, when Twitter started to take off during a conference in the US.

As part of our Networked Scholar series, we asked Serge Noiret, a historian working at the European University Institute’s library to support academic research of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows studying at the Department of History and Civilization, about the value of Twitter for academics in general and historians in particular. To start with we asked why using Twitter isn’t a waste of time for academics.

Serge points to the use of Twitter for academic communication and how the introduction of Twitter into British universities was supported by the research of Melissa Terras (Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies, University College London, and Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities). Not only can Twitter be used to reach out to a global academic audience, but Serge also points to the defining restriction of Twitter. As Twitter only allows you to use 140 characters, you need to be very precise how to formulate what you are thinking, to choose the right words and to avoid redundancy — especially when talking to colleagues in your discipline. You have to

“… be precise in your disciplinary language, which is different from one discipline to another… (your disciplinary language) is translated through the social media (in which Twitter is becoming) a vector which is taking care of your disciplinary language.”

Serge also describes the way Twitter is typically used by historians. One important use of Twitter is to crowdsource knowledge, to attribute information to sources and contextualise information found in traditional archives or online. He tells us about an exciting project by Master students of European Contemporary History at the University of Luxembourg gathering thousands and thousands of sources and information on World War 1 on Twitter — being inspired by Allwin Collinson’s project @RealtimeWWII.

The World War 1 real-time project went beyond a classroom exercise, it allowed historians to get access to data, make network analysis and study

“ how the past enters the present…”

differently in varying national narratives — an important field of research for Historians.

Twitter also allows access to new sources, as for example when people start sharing private documents which are not accessible in any archive or library — as done for example in the project Letters1916 — the first public humanities crowd-sourced project in Ireland, a digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising 1 Nov 1915–31 Oct 1916 — and thus allowing historians and anybody interested to gain easy and free access to an unprecedented amount of sources to study.

Tweets have today become the object of research for a variety of disciplines. Tweets are considered a such an important source of information and data that the Library of Congress had announced in spring 2010 to preserve “the nation’s increasingly digital heritage by acquiring Twitter’s entire archive of tweets and planning to make it all available to researchers.” Although the project turned out to be more difficult than initially thought, it is a sign that Tweets are considered a valuable and important source for research.

Serge also explains why and how Twitter can be used in classroom teaching to train young historians to use sources and learn how to contextualise these.

And last not least, public historians are keen to create open dialogues within the academic community and beyond during conferences. As Serge points out, often today there are two parallel conferences going on: the real-time speakers, as well as a Twitter Feed which allows anybody in the room or following through the conference hashtag from another part in the world to comment or share what is discussed at the conference or to share information, sources and references.

Annika Zorn — Teaching & Learning Expert (European University Institute) and founder of a Higher Education Online School and Nicholas Barrett — Social Media Writer (The Economist) — views are our own.

Find some additional tips and tricks and references from Serge Noiret here below, as well as some Historians he likes to follow on Twitter.

Tips and Trick for managing Twitter information

Here are some of the Historians that Serge likes to follow on Twitter:

Other references

L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique — Blog entry from 19th September 2016 on Hyoptheses by Frédéric Clavert at https://histnum.hypotheses.org/2655#more-2655 (accessed on 13th October 2016)

Project: 1 Jour — 1 Poilu Hashtag #1j1p and project description (in French) at https://www.1jour1poilu.com/

Grande Guerra + 100 is a project at the University of Trento sharing events, sources, info of exactly 100 years ago through tweets and a timeline

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