Has Twitter Changed How History Will See This Era?Historians in the News
tags: social media, Twitter, primary sources, recent history
Although messages posted on platforms such as Twitter initially seemed both ephemeral and insubstantial, they now have the power to drive news cycles, incite real-world rebellion and carry the first announcements of important policy changes. Scholars now agree that they are valuable sources for the archives of political figures and eras.
Carole McGranahan, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder has PhDs in both history and anthropology. In recent months, she’s analyzed social media practices from the perspective of these disciplines, in particular the voluminous archive created by the president.
“One of the things I've written about for a very long time is what becomes history,” she says. “What sort of events and experiences do we categorize as history and which ones do we leave in the category of personal experience?”
Historians will draw from social media to tell the history of the last four years, from the pandemic and the federal response to it, to protests regarding racism and police behavior, to an attempt to overturn a legitimate election. McGranahan discusses the ways that it has both reflected and shaped these events.
You’re trained as an anthropologist as well as a historian. How does your familiarity with both disciplines affect your viewpoint?
I see the two as going together. The anthropology part is more what's going on right now, and the history part is “How did we get here?”
How do the writings of government leaders inform the historical view of their work or character?
They are very important. This is true going back for as long as we have written records. We turn to the writings of world leaders to understand who they were, what they were thinking, what their strategies were.
Those writings exist across different genres. Sometimes we have personal letters, letters written to loved ones. Other times we have formal or official documents that have been deposited in archives. Other times we might have writings that have been written for the public, such as poetry, or short essays, or their biographies.
Writings by government figures have always been important to our understanding of the person who's inhabiting the office, not just as public figures but also as private ones.
When did historians begin to think that writings on social media should be included in this source material?
Some scholars thought that these were important from the very beginning. That cuts across the disciplines: historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists. Others might have thought this was a bit more frivolous in the beginning, as did the general public and probably some journalists.
But reporters, and most scholars, pretty quickly clued into the fact that something substantive was happening, a part of public culture and political life that deserved their attention.
Scholars have written about all the different platforms, whether early discussion-based forums or chat embedded in games or virtual worlds online, and then the advent of what we now think of as social media. At first it was MySpace and Facebook, now Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, WhatsApp, all of these sorts of things. Now they're taken very seriously.
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