Twitter, blogging and historians

Tuesday 7 September was the first anniversary of the founding of the twitterstorians’ list by Katrina Gulliver. I couldn’t mark the day because I was away from home and struggling with slow and unreliable internet access for most of the week, but I wanted to post something anyway, and it gave me a few days to mull over my thoughts.

I joined Twitter in June 2009, and wouldn’t change any of my reasons for doing so:

And yet, what is Twitter if not another manifestation of the adaptability of the blog as a medium of communication? … Twitter’s genius is not the 140 characters. It’s the hash key. Oh, and the @. Tagging rocks, and metadata rules our world, baby.

But that doesn’t begin to cover what I’ve learned about Twitter in the course of using it, and being put in touch with so many historians via #twitterstorians. As someone who was around when academic blogging started to really take off five or six years ago, it’s striking how many complaints about Twitter – narcissistic, shallow, trivial – echo, in even more extreme forms, what used to be said about blogging then (but which you don’t hear so much now that blogging has become so ubiquitous even in the mainstream media. Funny, that…).

After all, Twitter as a form of blogging (‘micro-blogging’) takes certain aspects of the medium, brevity, rapidity and ephemerality, to new extremes. But Twitter doesn’t just shorten posts and move things along quicker. The single most significant difference, I think, is the way in which it removes the familiar blog structure of “post” and “comments”, and simply sweeps away the hierarchy of “blogger” and “commenter”. All tweets are equal. Getting started on Twitter is even simpler and more inviting than starting a blog.

Add to that the ease of finding and following other people and (crucially) making them aware of your existence: it’s easy to take for granted those automated emails when you follow people and the simple effectiveness of the @ and RT and the hashtag (I confess I didn’t immediately get the point of the RT: so I asked Twitter, of course, and it was gently explained to me). The nearest comparable tools available to bloggers were the damnably unreliable tools of pings and trackbacks (ah, you Twitter kids don’t know you’re born…).

The cumulative effect is that Twitter facilitates the networking and linking and community-building elements of blogging to a far greater degree, more effectively and rapidly, than blogs were able to do (so much so that, yes, it can become slightly overwhelming). Much of what is said on Twitter, far from being ‘narcissistic’, refers and/or links to something happening elsewhere. Blogs and twitter networks complement each other; 140 characters is more than enough for a (shortened, of course) link and teaser, to facilitate pursuit of the bigger ideas, the more nuanced conversations, elsewhere online.

Of course, that isn’t all it does; the flexibility of Twitter is apparently endless. It’s a place to hang out and relax, a place to communicate with work colleagues, a place to get news, ask for help, vent. I use Twitter to keep in touch with ‘real-life’ friends who live hundreds of miles away, as much as with people I’ve never met in real life. Its use as a ‘backchannel’ at conferences is well-established, enabling people who are attending to discuss (or criticise) presentations and share resources, and helping people who couldn’t attend to follow (and contribute to) the discussions. Innovative uses of the tools facilitated by the Twitter API (something else I didn’t know about, let alone grasp the significance of, a year or so ago) are emerging, such as Digital Humanities Now, which ‘takes the pulse of the digital humanities community and tries to discern what articles, blog posts, projects, tools, collections, and announcements are worthy of greater attention’.

I’ve been thinking, ever since I joined Twitter, about ways that it could potentially be used to revitalise the History Carnival. It certainly did help as a supplementary channel for announcements, but this seemed to only tap the surface of its potential. So, I’ve finally created a History Carnival account, which apart from all the usual networking things you can do with a Twitter account, has enabled me to appropriate the same tools used by Digital Humanities Now to create The Broadside as a regular, Twitter-generated supplement to (and resource for) the Carnival itself.

Early this year, we had our first experiment in tweeting and blogging a complete edition. Maybe that will become a regular occurrence. Hopefully it’s the kind of thing that can spread the word of blog carnivals to new audiences. And, like most things to do with Twitter, it was fun.

Twitterstorians’ anniversary posts
Andrew Devenney
Gentleman Administrator
Georgian London
The View East

See also…
ProfHacker on How to start Tweeting
Twitter and the book trade: the good, the bad and the ugly

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