Learning to Tweet Like a Historian

Rebekkah Rubin, Public History M.A. Candidate, UMass History

Before I came to UMass, I spent a season working as a historical interpreter at a living history museum. Every morning I put on two petticoats, my dress, and a bustle, and drove to work. Throughout the day, I talked with visitors about the temperance movement and women’s rights in the 19th century. During breaks, I took pictures of juneberry pies that I had just baked in the wood stove. I brought out the coffee container in the museum’s collections that came from my hometown, 530 miles away, but visitors rarely saw. After I swept the dust off of the front porch and let the embers die down in the stove, I posted the pictures to Twitter, using the hashtag #ITweetMuseums. On my days off, I visited local historical societies and museums, tweeting all the while. By tagging my tweets with the hashtag #ITweetMuseums, my museum experiences became accessible to people who ordinarily would not have had a chance to visit these museums. When I couldn’t venture out to new museums, I scrolled through my own Twitter feed, searching for #ITweetMuseums tweets that transported me to museum exhibits miles and continents away.

Throughout Professor Marla Miller’s “Writing History Beyond the Academy” seminar, we have discussed the ways in which historians can use Twitter to their best advantage. From a visit by Lee Badgett, professor of economics at UMass and author of The Public Professor, we discovered that being on Twitter can be beneficial in making connections, and those connections can be essential in discovering ways to make your research benefit the greater good. From talking with Rebecca Onion, Slate.com’s history writer and the department’s Writer-in-Residence (whose public lecture “Truth, Lies, Clicks, and Shares: How History is Faring on the World Wide Web” can be viewed here), we’ve learned that people are engaging with history in all sorts of new ways on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet.

Earlier this semester, the department hosted Mark Schlemmer, the founder of I Tweet Museums. I Tweet Museums’ mission is to “encourage and support museum staff to tweet museo-relevant content from their personal Twitter accounts.” Schlemmer, the registrar at the New York Historical Society, is inspired both by his own work and the work other museum professionals do on a daily basis. He created I Tweet Museums as a platform for museum professionals to share what they are naturally impassioned about in their day-to-day work.

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Johnson

For Mark Schlemmer’s public talk, he created a designated hashtag (#ITMUMA). In the spirit of his talk, I live-tweeted for the first time. I attempted to convey Schlemmer’s ideas in an understandable way for those who weren’t in the room. I had to break his points down into 140-character segments, and, as a result, I found that I engaged with the material to a greater extent than I would have otherwise. Additionally, by following the hashtag, I could also see what others in the audience thought about Schlemmer’s talk. The hashtag expanded the audience beyond the standing-room-only crowd in Herter 601; anyone who was interested could join in on the Twitter conversation from their phones and computers.

Not only did live-tweeting Schlemmer’s talk help me realize how live-tweeting can create dialogues across communities, but I was also inspired by his enthusiasm for sharing his work with the wider public. I think all historians, whether public or academic, have the same kind of passion for their work that I Tweet Museums seeks to amplify. Schlemmer’s talk emphasized the power of Twitter in reaching a wider public, and I would suggest that Twitter is an excellent outlet for all historians to share their research with a broader audience.

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#ITweetMuseums stats, courtesy of Mark Schlemmer

In my experience, I’ve found that the constraints built into Twitter force a clarity that I may overlook when writing for longer venues. I have to be concise with my prose in order to adhere to Twitter’s 140-character limit. I have to be deliberate about the words that I use, both choosing them for their meaning and their length. I have to be succinct if I don’t want to use more than one tweet to convey an idea. Twitter’s form necessitates that I break down my ideas into bite-size pieces, which attracts people who wouldn’t typically pick up a monograph.

As a result, all types of people can engage in conversation on Twitter. At first, I was skeptical that anyone would willingly read my string of 140-character-long thoughts about 19th-century women writers and British history, and to some extent, I’m still surprised whenever someone “follows” me on Twitter. Yet, I’ve had numerous thought-provoking Twitter interactions with historians and non-historians alike, about topics ranging from the history of vegetarianism to George Eliot’s novels.

Because of Twitter, I’ve met other historians with similar research interests despite geographical distance. I have cultivated relationships with other scholars and talked with non-historians about my research. I’ve crowd-sourced ideas for articles to read and received definitive answers about which is the best biography of George Eliot. Through all of these interactions, I’ve realized Twitter’s impeccable power in both facilitating communicating scholarly ideas to a wider public and in fostering community.

I rarely wear a bustle or bake in a wood stove anymore. Although I visit museums when I can, I generally spend more time pouring over archival materials than browsing museum collections. Now, #ITweetMuseums, but also so much more.

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