The SMKE Social Media Workshop: The growing importance of social media for Historians

Who here Tweets?  Who uses Facebook to catch up on the latest news from History-related institutions?  Who blogs or reads blog posts?  Do you use Flickr or  We live in a world increasingly saturated with social media both in our personal lives and professional.  At least we do if we choose to do.  It is still possible to avoid this upsurge in new technology, but what was once considered an additional luxury to the working day of a historian, is increasingly becoming more vital and important.  I think this, more than anything else, is what I took away from the SMKE Social Media Workshop held last week at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR).

The workshop began with three presentations: one by Laura Cowdrey from The National Archives; another from Julian Harrison from the British Library; and a third by Isabel Holowaty from the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.  All three discussed their approach to social media – especially blogs and twitter, but also various others such as Facebook; Pinterest (an online scrapbook); Historypin (photograph sharing platform where photographs are pinned to a map); Flickr (another photograph sharing tool); and Delicious (similar to Facebook but more centred around sharing content and links).

The workshop finished with breakout groups, where we were asked to discuss five questions about our views on social media.  There were six of us in Group A, including our earlier speaker, Julian Harrison.  Below is a rough summary of our various thoughts and ideas.

  1. Why do researchers need to develop a social media presence?

It was quickly suggested that this question could easily be turned on its head: do researchers actually need to develop a social media presence at all?  There is a lot of unnecessary information out there and maintaining an online presence takes time and effort which could be better served elsewhere.   Julian Harrison argued that maintaining a social media presence is increasingly becoming essential for career prospects and progression.  A blog or active twitter account can get you noticed, and enable you to spread the word about what it is you are doing.  Traditional journal articles take too long to come out and are read by relatively few, whilst conferences help, they are still limited to a single time and place.  Social Media enables researchers to inform others of their research instantly and delves into a large international audience.  An online presence for your research also provides you with a date-stamped proof of your research in case anyone thought to nab your ideas!

However, there is a balancing act to be had.  A few in the group explained that they had tried to maintain blogs, but found that they were increasingly spending time focusing on blog posts and not on the research questions and writing for their thesis.   The issue of priorities is a very real one and hosting a blog can become quite a chore.  Common consensus suggests that a blog needs regular posts (at least one a week), but for most researchers this is quite challenging.  Especially for postgraduates (but also true for those just establishing their career) is the difficulty of finding something worth talking about on a blog, that does not give away too much of the research, but is also watertight in its assertions.  A well-maintained blog may well be a good advertisement of an Historian’s research, but it could easily also become a negative thing if handled badly.

  1. How can you balance the personal and professional online?

It was quickly decided that social media provides the opportunity to write in a more informal and friendly manner, but that this has its limits.  There are occasions when a little personality can be seen as a good thing.  The Reviews in History e-mail subscription includes a brief paragraph at the beginning of every e-mail revealing a little bit of personal events going on in the life of the editor.  This was generally viewed positively amongst the group, who felt that it was important for a little bit of character to be injected when writing via social media.  It was suggested that two separate Twitter accounts should be set up – one personal and one professional.   Facebook was considered more challenging and there were no real answers as to how to deal with this.


  1. What are the best ways to build relationships/community online?

Knowing your audience and what they might want was considered very important.  Maintaining and posting regularly was also considered vital, otherwise people would think that the account is neglected.  The use of any social media whether that is a blog or Twitter feed, should try and keep within its remit otherwise followers might become annoyed and disinterested.  Ways to build relationships included re-tweeting other people’s posts on Twitter and commenting on other peoples Facebook pages when relevant.  Within all of this was a concern over the difficulty of maintaining various separate channels and of how to draw all of these together in one place or at least link them together in some way.

  1. How do you deal with negative feedback/interactions?

On this question there were two lines of thought.  One was to tackle negative feedback head-on by entering into a debate or pointing out your reasoning.  Another was to ignore it entirely (either moving on or even deleting the comment).  The decision comes down to what is worth fighting over.  Some people will act as trolls on social media, and it is probably never worth getting into a fight with them – simply ignore them or block them instead.  But where there is a genuine query or disagreement, this can actually fuel stimulating and interesting discussion that might be beneficial for both the commenter and the author of the original item.


  1. What are the best social media platforms for communicating historical research, and why?

Twitter and Facebook were considered popular and useful methods, although Facebook was found to be a difficult tool for communicating historical research.  Blogs were seen as the best method, although more time consuming.  Photographic tools such as Flickr and historypin were thought useful, but only if dealing with images as a principal part of the research. was mentioned as a highly useful networking tool and one that does have the ability to promote and discover interest in your field of research.  The group were divided pretty evenly between those who made use of and those that hadn’t or had only created a static, unused page.  It was generally agreed that more attempts to make use of other social media was desirable.

Our discussions ended with an interesting debate about copyright especially when related to images.  The British Library, it seems, provide any images presented over their social media systems under a Creative Commons licence, which allows reuse as long as it is not for commercial gain.  We also discussed briefly the potential problem that could occur if one of the third-party tools declined in use or collapsed.  Myspace was given as the principal example – is it possible to back up?