My Social Media Story, Part 1

This week I gave a talk on campus about “Online Engagement and New Audiences for Scholarship” at a faculty colloquium. It was a chance for me to think through in a systematic way some of the ways I’ve learned to think about being online and being in public as a scholar over the past five years, and—perhaps as importantly—some lessons. Here I’ve reproduced and fleshed out some of the key points I made in the talk and summarized a little bit the Q&A.

For me, there are four key questions at this point that shape how I approach my online engagement:

  • Why am I engaging online? What do I hope to accomplish?
  • What’s the right venue for the sort of engagement I’m seeking?
  • How will it fit into a schedule limited to 168 hours per week?
  • Will it count? (And what does that even mean?)

To get at those questions, I offer a little bit by way of autobiography about why and how I became involved as a publicly engaged scholar online, which for my purposes mostly means Twitter and blogging (and some related activities).

There were two broad reasons in retrospect why I was interested in being actively engaged in social media. The first relates to my research interests in the history and politics of media. As a student of the eighteenth century, I’ve thought a fair bit (and read enough other thinkpieces) about how Huffington Post is just like colonial newspapers, or that Twitter is an online coffeehouse, or that Snapchat is a tavern writ large (or something like that). (I didn’t go back to find essays, so you’ll have to trust me that they exist.) As any self-respecting scholar of eighteenth-century media could tell you (hi!), there’s a grain of truth to each of those arguments, but they’re all a little off historically in one way or another.

I saw my contribution, therefore, as twofold: first, I could learn from discussion and debates about modern social media and journalism at a time of great turmoil that I could then apply back to my study of the eighteenth century. And second, I thought I had something to offer by way of historical perspective that often seemed lacking in accounts of journalism or social media.

The second reason I wanted to engage online was to take part in a broader conversation about scholarship, teaching, the historical profession, and the academy in its broadest sense. I have great colleagues with whom I enjoy discussing teaching and research, but on campus we’re all incredibly busy, and of course we’re only of a limited number. By extending that conversation into a public space such as Twitter or engagement through blogs, we multiply the possible voices we encounter, their diversity, and create a specific space to discuss those professional matters.

That’s why I ended up being active online, though I will freely admit that it took me several years to realize some of that reasoning on a conscious level. As for how I ended up online, well, the story is a bit more prosaic. When I started graduate school in the mid-2000s, blogging was a niche. Few academics undertook to start blogs, and those who did mostly did so under the guise of a pseudonym, fully wary of the warnings of Ivan Tribble and others that blogging could do serious damage to an academic career. I was vaguely interested in reaching out to a larger audience, of testing ideas, of sharing thoughts on current events (mostly from a historical perspective), but I heard the debate and was a little spooked, to be honest. (I did maintain a LiveJournal, if you remember those, but subsequently deleted it in its entirety.) By the time I was finishing my dissertation, the field had changed. Lots of people were blogging, and it seemed more palatable.

Still, I was hesitant. I often thought about starting a personal blog, but I never followed through because of the challenge (pre-Twitter) of building an audience from scratch, the imperative to publish regularly, and the perils of whether it would “count.” So instead I waited and tried to find ways to publish in a group setting with some sort of institutional cachet to take the pressure off of myself. Fortunately, two opportunities appeared out of conversations with friends and colleagues: the first from Jeff Pasley, who invited me to write for the Publick Occurrences 2.0 blog at Common-place, and then an invitation from friends whom I knew from research in Philadelphia to join the Junto. These choices seemed to play things a little safer, given that the former was a blog attached to a respected online journal, and the latter was a large group, which addressed my major concerns.

I found academic Twitter by accident, which is to say that I joined in the Winter of 2010 mostly so I could track the weather (I lived in Maryland then, and it was the Snowmageddon). Over time, now more than five years, I’ve built up my list of people I follow and of followers through engagement in conversation, making sure my name and Twitter handle were out there and connected with one another, and frankly the growth of Twitter as a medium.

In Part 2 of the essay I’ll talk about my online profile today, what being active on social media has meant for me, and how I manage it (or not).


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