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Academic Networking 2.0: Historians and Social Media

Michael D. Hattem

The New-York Historical Society and Lang College at The New School

As the academic job market in history continues to shrink, networking has become something no tenure-track hopeful can afford to ignore. At the same time, the rise of social media has afforded historians with new and inventive ways to network with colleagues from around the world. Whether posting from conferences in real-time on Twitter, connecting with fellow historians on Facebook, or playing active roles in the blogosphere, younger historians are utilizing social media for both professional networking and scholarly development.

Social media is well on its way to fundamentally changing the dynamics of academic networking. Before the internet age, historians generally developed connections either through their mentors’ participation in a kind of academic “old-boy” network or their own efforts a few times a year at large conferences. In the internet’s early days, historians connected with each other on Usenet groups or listservs such as H-Net, an antecedent of today’s academic online networking tools.

But social media has gone further; it has significantly widened the scope and increased the possibilities of academic networking. For example, young historians can now develop connections with senior scholars in their field by “friending” them on Facebook or “following” them on Twitter and interacting with them in ways never before possible. There is also less pressure on younger scholars due to the informality of the act of replying to a “tweet” or commenting on a Facebook post. An informal familiarity develops that simply was not possible among colleagues of previous generations who only met once or twice a year. The same is true for young historians’ interactions with their own peers.

For many, upwardly mobile interactions are only a small part of their social media activities. Facebook and Twitter are also used to connect with peers and colleagues and tap into or create various types of supportive communities. Katrina Gulliver, one of the most-followed historians on Twitter, coined the hashtag #twitterstorians just over two years ago in an effort to make it easier to connect with fellow historians on the social network. Similarly, historians, and other academics, are increasingly using pre-defined hashtags, such as #AHA2012, that are added to the end of a Twitter post to identify them in search results and to create a backchannel at academic conferences. Participants tweet about panels they have attended, conversations they have had, or their overall impressions of the conference, while others can run a search of the hashtag on Twitter and find all the posts about a specific conference.

Jonathan Wilson, a PhD student at Syracuse University, has found that Twitter “turns scholarly work into a shared experience.” Roy Rogers, a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center, finds Facebook makes the more “isolated experiences” of academic work seem much less so. In fact, almost every day on Twitter and Facebook, historians post updates about their own research from archives all around the world. Aside from the sense of community it provides, reading posts from other historians-at-work can even increase one’s own motivation, according to Rachel Herrmann, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas-Austin.

Valuable as Facebook and Twitter have proven to be, they are only two forms of social media being utilized by young historians. Over the past five years, an ever-growing number of blogs by historians have served to help create online communities including Tenured Radical,Historiann, and Religion in American History, to name only a few. The more popular ones consistently inspire debate among their many regular readers. Some younger historians, such as Jonathan Wilson, use their own blogs as a space in which they can write about historical or historiographical topics informally without the constraints imposed by academic peer-review.

Aside from creating communities and less rigid discursive spaces, the more popular blogs—along with the Chronicle of Higher Education and its blog, Profhacker—have also played a significant role in acculturating graduate students and young historians to academia. A number of my fellow young historians whom I queried in preparing this article said they likely would not have applied to graduate school had it not been for these blogs. Many felt that reading blogs by academic historians helped them “get a feel for what academic life was like” and gave them “a better sense of what [they were] getting into.” From these blogs they derive a sort of “intellectual sustenance” and “important exposure to new ideas,” while also giving them a “window into what the profession is like.”

These social media tools are used not only for external networking, community building, and acculturation, but also to bring cohorts together. In addition to allowing members of a cohort to remain in regular contact, which fosters more extended and effective support networks, blogs and other internet tools such as Google Docs,Goodreads, and LibraryThing have proved useful in spreading and sharing knowledge. Both Wilson and Rogers have blogs on which they have published book reviews that can then be used by themselves and others when studying for exams. There are also a number of stories of young historians receiving publishing offers as a result of their social networking activity. In fact, the opportunity to write this article arose from a tweet the author made on Twitter followed by a post concerning the possibilities of social media for the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic and their annual conference on H-Net.

However, one cannot discuss social media without also mentioning a few of the potential pitfalls. Stories proliferate in which moments of immodesty or bad judgment have cost people jobs or other opportunities, both within academia and without. As both the perception and value of privacy appear to be undergoing significant changes in regards to online activity, especially among the younger generation, it is, of course, wise to remember that everything one posts on a social media website is public information and that even closing your account does not remove that information from search engines. A good rule of thumb is to not post anything you would not want a prospective employer to see.

In addition to penalties for indiscretion, many young historians took grave notice of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s use of the state’s Open Records Law to obtain copies of all emails sent or received by University of Wisconsin professor and AHA President-elect, William Cronon, and adjusted their online behavior accordingly. This included avoiding posting political stories on social networks or even refraining from commenting on stories in any way that might betray their political affiliation lest they should one day end up working at a public university. Nevertheless, a modicum of common sense is enough to allow one to reap the benefits of social networking.

Through social media and Web 2.0 tools, the contexts and possibilities of professional networking have increased while the formality that previously defined such interactions has decreased. This has allowed the process of professional networking to become both more organic and more enjoyable as opposed to the often forced and more stressful ways of the past. Whether developing new connections with senior scholars and peers through Facebook and Twitter, acculturating themselves to academia and creating communities through Twitter and blogs, or constantly devising new uses for social media, young historians are taking advantage of the internet in new and exciting ways while also redefining our notions of academic networking.

Michael D. Hattem is a Schwartz Fellow at The New-York Historical Society and Visiting Faculty at The New School. He received his PhD from Yale University and his manuscript, Past and Prologue: The Politics of Memory in the American Revolution, is under contract to Yale University Press. He is also Managing Editor of The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History and served as Producer of The JuntoCast, the first podcast devoted to early American history.

Published in
February 2012

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