"Social media prefers the bizarre, the visual, the cruel"
Catherine Fletcher, professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of Beauty and Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020)
At best, social media is a remarkable mechanism for the exchange of ideas, book recommendations and contacts, which makes the life of the historian considerably easier. Last year I attended a conference round table that researched Manchuria, Korea, Russia and Italy, which would not have been possible without Twitter. Archiving can be isolating and social media an excellent virtual water cooler, a place to share jokes and amusing stories, like the secret of the shrinking crocodile that kept me and my followers busy when I was working on the Medici cloakrooms. (Both large and small crocodiles were among the curios that the dukes of Florence collected in the 16th century.)
The crocodile story is instructive, however, because I wasn't in Florence to research deceased reptiles. My project dealt with weapons that are a much more sensitive issue on social media. It would be too easy for a funny comment on historical firearms to lose humor when speaking of shooting. So I'm pretty careful about tweeting about her. The nuances of social media are spectacularly bad: the subtlety that is a sign of good historical writing rarely plays out well in the fray. Stuffed crocodiles look a little safer.
But crocodiles are also not without problems. They are an example of how social media prefers the bizarre, the visual, the creepy, the greedy or the conspiratorial. Everything has a certain tabloid headline quality, and although that can be funny, it has real problems. In a Twitter thread in June last year, curator Sara Huws wrote about her concern that the stories she tweeted from a Welsh museum account received more attention when suggesting that they were suppressed. The public wanted to believe in a conspiracy to hide the historical truth, even if there was no evidence. Huws stopped using the tactic. Under the pressure of promoting exciting research, historians – including motivated ones – find it all too easy to get involved in the more worrying tendencies of social media.
"The disruption of social media can also be the freedom of alternative interpretations"
Jeremy Black, author of The power of knowledge: how information and technology shaped the modern world (Yale, 2015)
Nobody has ever had an opinion. Even in the most authoritarian states, there was gossip and rumor both inside and outside the system, and in many ways, social media are a number of ways to spread both. The Internet has further developed the ability of the phone to communicate instantly between people who are physically separate. Thanks to such developments, established political, social, economic and cultural loyalties and alignments exist alongside rapidly developing links. Control samples are questioned.
In connection with this, there are a variety of intellectual and cultural concerns, from health problems to concerns that accuracy and authority in reporting have been falsified. If opinion and feeling exceed facts and thinking, what are the consequences?
For historians, this includes access to a wide range of opinions as many societies go through a democratization process that has shaken existing institutions. The Internet offers a different reach and capacity than previous national, transnational and global information and communication systems. It has also enabled a more engaging response from consumers, turning consumers into users and users into producers. Media content and software-based products offer platforms for user-controlled interactions and content. The resulting idea of information and opinions as chaos and crisis all too often reflects the standard approach: "What I stand for is reasonable, but you are a victim of false consciousness and your approach is raw and populist."
A more detailed analysis of the circumstances is required. Established academic and other patterns of authority are not necessarily harmless, and history is part of a state-controlled process of legitimation and ideology in much of the world. Even in liberal societies there are heavily shifted processes of professional influence and reasoning, including access to grants and publication. The disruption of social media can also be the freedom of alternative interpretations.
"It is difficult to understand what is behind the online bubble."
Matt Shaw, librarian at the University of London Institute for Historical Research
History – or at least the engagement of historians – is undoubtedly good for social media. They make me laugh on Twitter every day, they warn me to be careful when a historical picture with a delicate provenance goes viral, and they diligently dot the myths, nostalgia and explanations that make soil so fertile and sometimes dangerous online. However, when looking at social media, it is difficult to get a feel for what is behind the online bubble, which is just as curated as a large selection of corrupt Twitterstorians.
With a few exceptions, it's hard to see that historians are really affecting the wider culture via Twitter, let alone the giants of Instagram, WeChat or Facebook. This is not to say that there have been no major discussions, particularly about Confederate monuments in the United States or the use of the term "Anglo-Saxon", but they are not included in the larger gossip of Bots, Gramm, and Stan. A more quantifiable contribution could be the opening of historical collections to a wider audience.
But is social media good for historians? I think this is mainly about Twitter, which, like the discipline of history, remains a largely textual medium, acidified with the occasionally selected GIF. It is a gift to the historian's craft. Examination of thoughts; Lifting profiles; decipher a tricky hand; Discover work colleagues in the same field. But there are undoubtedly emotional, even psychological costs that the medium accepts – one that is usually not borne by those who identify themselves as male, nor by those who are in academic positions or in other privileges. The real blessing it offers when the cost of those who raise critical, underrepresented or new voices can be overlooked is shaking off old beliefs about what history is and how it should be done.
Whether social media is good for us or not, it won't go away that quickly. It won't stay silent either. Perhaps social media will calm down as business pressure, regulation, and demographic change change the online and real world. For Gen Z, a Twitter thread is probably just as attractive as a recorder party with Professor Welch.
"How can I not be inspired by how easy it is to access the understanding that social media has brought?"
Llewelyn Morgan. Tutor in Classics, Brasenose College, Oxford
A few years ago, British Pathé uploaded its entire collection of historical films to YouTube. Editing each of the 85,000 items was fairly minimal, and many materials were given inaccurate descriptions. One such topic was a minute-long news program with German subtitles about a revolution in Afghanistan in 1928-29. We see the rebels marching into Kabul, a close-up of their leader, Habibullah Kalakani, who will soon be King Habibullah II but is disparaged by his enemies as Bachaye Saqao, "son of a water bearer". In the end we see the British aircraft Vickers Victoria, which brought foreigners and members of the former royal family out of danger and flew over the mountains to India. Pathé claims that it is a completely different event, a wrong date, a wrong king.
It is an amazing survival. One of the things I'm most proud of, despite the scenes in which I posted it on Twitter and made the mistake of calling Habibullah Bachaye Saqao. (What is a safe story for me can keep an urgent contemporary charge in Afghanistan.) But, I would suggest, it includes the impact of social media on our discipline: an exciting explosion of information combined with the dramatic loss of the authoritative one Framing This democratization of the knowledge base has brought. Dodgy's versions of the story thrive and remain undisputed in this environment and it deeply offends us. But anyway, what a thing to see. What an exciting document for a historian.
New sources of information, not to mention new means of communication, can never be bad for a historian. In my later Middle Ages, I can read about Anglo-Saxon saints, cuneiform script, subcontinental genetics, or Edwardian architecture in a minute. How can I not be inspired by the fact that social media make it easier for me to understand?
But am I thankful that I learned to sift through and evaluate evidence in the dark age before the internet came? Yes, more than I can say.