Yesterday, Kathleen Hulser of the New-York Historical Society (yes, the hyphen is supposed to be there — it’s a historical hyphen), who is writing an article for Perspectives on History, the “newsmagazine of the American Historical Association,” wrote me to ask, “How have social media blurred the boundaries between historian/institution and audience?” Here’s a lightly-edited version of what I wrote.
Sure, happy to answer. Being neither a historian (sorry!) nor an institution (not sorry!), I can’t quite answer from either of those perspectives. But I do have a great deal to say about that blurring as an audience member for history, albeit a somewhat privileged and over-informed audience member who reads a great deal about and via social media and who is part of the “digital humanities” community.
The short answer is that for me, social media have made both historians and institutions more human. I’ll give you a couple of examples, both related to Twitter, which has dominated my own social media landscape in the past year. The first has to do with an institution: the Smithsonian. My mother and brother and I visited Washington DC last year and visited a couple of Smithsonian museums, and afterward, in a gift shop, I signed up for a subscription to Smithsonian magazine. Recently I let that subscription lapse, because although I did enjoy the articles (I remember a great one about the historical evidence that Greek statues were painted), I didn’t find one that I really liked often enough to justify the subscription. However, I’ve been following the Smithsonian on Twitter, and if you visit that link you can easily see how much less formal the language is: “The Smithsonian is playing head games again,” for instance — which, by the way, refers to an actual game that “The Smithsonian” is playing with its Twitter followers. There’s clearly someone familiar with the tone that’s appropriate to social media behind the Smithsonian’s Twitter account. I’d prefer it if the Smithsonian included that person’s name, in fact, like the Brooklyn Museum — note how many more followers the Brooklyn Museum has, in fact: 15,694 to the Smithsonian’s 1,794, and they’ve only been twittering a year longer. Note how much more often Shelley Bernstein replies to the Brooklyn Museum’s followers, too — that’s a sure sign of engagement. But the Smithsonian is making a very good attempt, and when it broadcasts something that sounds interesting, it’s a matter of a fraction of a second to click on the link and explore the Smithsonian’s holdings. (I recently learned a bit about stewardesses’ uniforms in the 60s and 70s — those were some unbelievable hot pants and boots.) I get a similar feeling of serendipitous discovery as I did with the magazine, but at less cost to me in time and money.
I’ve also gotten to know historians through Twitter, most notably Dan Cohen, whom I’ve still never met, but who broadcasts extremely useful information via Twitter almost every day — and some less useful but still charming information, such as this nugget about the Victorians: “We historians of the Victorian era don’t like to tell people our little secret: Victorians had bears, not dogs, as pets”. We’ve exchanged messages about digital tools and issues, and I was particularly interested to read about his visit to the “Smithsonian 2.0” meeting, which I was able to track amazingly well via Twitter.
The Smithsonian, Dan Cohen, and I are all equal entities on Twitter: when we “tweet” something interesting, people reply. Moreover, we all use Twitter as a place for both play and work, for broadcasting and receiving information — and by “information,” I mean knowledge and enjoyment. It feels very natural.
A few further thoughts: it occurred to me that these examples (such as the hot pants) might actually serve to confirm the “anti-intellectualization” concern raised by an unnamed attendee at the Smithsonian 2.0 meeting. You can hear the incident discussed in the latest episode of the Digital Campus podcast: someone (a curator?) worried about this anti-intellectual bent when shown that content on Flickr Commons includes such “wrong” tags as “guys with moustaches.” And it’s certainly true that the Smithsonian Twitter feed is no replacement for the magazine (though it’s certainly a lot cheaper for the Smithsonian as well as for me), and that the money I’ve lately been giving to the Brooklyn Museum in admission and 1stfans membership fees has a great deal to do with the fact that I now live in Brooklyn. At some point it comes down to premises: is it a good thing for the Smithsonian and historians to be more accessible, meaning both more present online and more individual in tone? I believe it is.