Memory  /  Media Criticism

Making History Go Viral

Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

Every time major news broke this year, the best place to find historians’ perspectives on the latest Trump calumny or #MeToo revelation was on Twitter, where their carefully argued threads were going viral. I’m on record as being somewhat skeptical of Twitter as a format for writing popular history; historians’ recent perfection of the thread, which allows for a much more developed argument over a long, connected series of tweets, has proven me wrong. But is this new mode of public writing helping get history to more readers? And how much time do these little masterpieces take for their authors to create?
Here’s your Year in Notable Twitter History Threads, with commentary, when available, from those who wrote them.

Natalia Petrzela, of the New School, is a favorite Twitter follow of mine for commentary on gender and culture. I especially love her tweets about the history of the fitness industry. This image-laden thread about the Nike brand’s fraught track record with gender politics, written in response to news about sexual harassment at the company, eventually led to this article in the Washington Post as well as two appearances on NPR.

“Probably the best thing about a Twitter thread is speed,” Joshua Rothman, of the University of Alabama, wrote in an email. Rothman posted a thread about the 19th century writer Charles Ball’s experience of family separation during the slave trade just as we were learning about the worst effects of the Trump administration’s border policies. “For historians, even writing an op-ed might have a delay of a couple of days. But Twitter allows for the transmission and circulation of historical knowledge and context in real time, as events are unfolding. And even though that speed does lead to less careful consideration than a lot of people might like to see, the news cycle moves so quickly that context sometimes never appears unless it’s provided on the spot.”