When History Goes Bad: On the Dangers of Going Viral

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-5-42-34-pm

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

If you spend enough time on social media, you start to get a sense of what is going to be popular. Take something sensational that pushes people’s buttons and confirms their deepest pre-existing beliefs. Give them some ammo for their self-righteousness. Or just put up a cute animal. Or all of the above.

I try my best to avoid doing this. I work on the history of East Germany and post historical facts and photos daily, often on material that can be very emotionally charged. When it comes to historical posts, I do my best to hold back on editorializing or adding inflammatory commentary.

Then came last Friday. I was on the road going to a conference still up in the middle of the night and saw the Daily Mail’s now infamous “Enemies of the People” headline denouncing the High Court for their decision on how Brexit will proceed.

I found this to be objectionable and not just a little bit proto-fascist. Normally I avoid making comparisons with Nazi history, but it immediately brought to mind the famous cover of the Illustrierter Beobachter with the header “Volksverräter” or “traitors of the people” listing those whose citizenship was being stripped in 1933. Not the same thing, just eerily reminiscent.

Shortly after midnight, after a quick google image search for a scan of the newspaper I decided to post the two images side-by-side just stating what they were and calling on readers to compare and contrast. I wasn’t prepared to go so far as to say the Daily Mail were actually fascist, but I wanted to point out where this sort of extreme thinking can lead to. I hadn’t really thought it through too carefully, more just a middle of the night reaction to something troubling in the news.

Almost immediately the post was being re-tweeted by dozens of people and far in excess of the usual enthusiasm for my normal posts of East German football matches or Berlin Wall shooting victims. I stayed up to argue with some people for a while (again, something I try not to do)  and then decided to shut off for the night.

Continue reading

Ask Me Anything (about East German history that is…)

Last week I decided to check in with the close to 2,500 people who follow me on twitter to ask the simple question: what about East German history would you want to know more about?

I started this blog about a year ago to give myself the chance to talk about some topics in greater length than my twitter account (@historyned) allowed for. In the past few months, I haven’t been producing as much – I’m trying to finish up a book manuscript and research two new projects – but I want to get back to the blogging soon.

One of the great privileges of being an academic is the chance to share your nerdy interests with others, but since I currently have a position with no teaching responsibilities, the chances to talk about my field with non-experts is rarer than I would like. As such,  I’m happy to offer up my expertise on this narrow sliver of human history to the curious public as an alternative.

Continue reading

5 Lessons from Twittering While Academic

Screenshot

I have been on twitter as a historian for over a year and I’ve put together a few lessons I’ve learned in that time.

  1. Know your audience – the one you have and the one you want

The best way to get the most out of Twitter as an academic is to know whom you are trying to reach. If you just want to keep in touch with a handful of specialists in your field versus bring your research to the masses you will need a very different approach. The more people you want to reach, the catchier you will have to be both in terms of your writing and your visuals. You don’t have to resort to cheap clickbait, it just takes some creativity. I make sure to post daily with an easily legible format that includes pictures and links to more media when possible. This works for me because I find it fun to do and it helps me to expand my knowledge of my research field more broadly. If the people are you are trying to reach most just want the facts and will be turned off by lots of extraneous material, then the public engagement approach may be counter-productive. Figure out whom you are trying to talk to and what you are trying to get out of the experience and tailor your TL accordingly.

Continue reading