Tweeting To Find CommunityRoundup
tags: social media, historians
Varsha Venkatasubramanian is a history PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She tweets at @varsha_venkat_.
As a fourth-year doctoral student in history, I began my dissertation just as COVID-19 shuttered archives and libraries, suspended in-person conferences, and put a halt to classroom teaching. Although public health measures required that I isolate in my apartment with just my books for company, I needed to remain active in my field. Twitter, a site where users post short messages called tweets, emerged as an essential tool for maintaining my network during COVID.
If you only use Twitter to keep tabs on the 24-hour news cycle or the latest memes, you’re missing out on the opportunity to join conversations with scholars in your subfield and connect with people in other subfields and disciplines. During a year characterized by social distancing and independent work, I used Twitter to reduce my sense of personal and professional isolation, build my professional network, deepen my understanding of various subfields, and identify new professional opportunities.
Twitter, like TikTok, Instagram, and other social media sites, can feed into a “doomscrolling” habit (scrolling and seeking out bad news) that takes a toll on mental health and productivity. But if used strategically, Twitter can be a powerful networking tool for historians at all stages in their careers. Building a social media presence is an important professional task that can also be a fun and creative personal outlet. My Twitter presence is a combination of the goings-on in my work life, my reactions to the barrage of daily news, and the private dramas of my life. My former professor Nils Gilman (Univ. of California, Berkeley) described it quite well. He said that my Twitter presence is a combination of “intellectual-professional-political seriousness with a self-deprecating and sometimes absurdist presentation of [my] personal life.” Besides being the kindest thing anyone has ever said about my personal life, Gilman nailed what makes a social media presence work. It is both formal and informal, professional and social.
I wasn’t active on Twitter until 2017, when I started graduate school and joined the conversation happening under the #twitterstorians hashtag. (A hashtag uses a pound symbol, followed by a word or phrase, to collect tweets in one place; #twitterstorians was coined by Katrina Gulliver to foster a community of historians on Twitter.) Since then, I have met more graduate students and professors working in my field than I would have by simply attending events like the AHA or Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations annual meetings. I don’t dispute the benefit of in-person conferences, and I look forward to returning to them after the pandemic ends, but Twitter allows me to spend more time talking with people about my research, sharing resources with them or getting help with teaching, and learning from their experiences on the academic and nonacademic job markets.
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