We live in a time when our information landscape is quickly changing. We can access information via internet more easily and quickly. As public historians we try keep up the pace to reach our public via social media.
For me, as an historian, I find it hard to tell stories through social media. I love to tell stories, but telling them in only 140 characters is a big challenge. So why should we try to get involved in social media? In the seminar Tweeting on the past: Reinforcing the idea of History in 140 characters Cord Arendes and Moritz Hoffmann explain us what the benefits for historians are to use social media as Twitter and tweet for an audience.
In 2013 Moritz Hoffmann started the Twitter account @9nov38, telling the story of ‘Kristallnacht’ (night of violence against the Jewish community in Nazi-Germany) 75 years later. Like Cord Arendes explains it is hard to get a lot of followers like Barack Obama, so historians have to focus on telling historical topic as breaking news. That’s what Hoffmann and his colleagues did: they told the story in an active way, as if the audience were witnessing the event (of 75 years ago) right now .
The way of telling in action gets people feeling involved and makes them want to react, which is easy on social media. Hoffmann put forward that one of the advantages of using twitter for historical projects is getting a lot of narratives. The audience reacts, asks questions and wants to share their own story and we historians can benefit of that. For us these questions, reactions and their own narratives are a source to hear from the audience what they like to know, read, hear or see. It gives us insight in how they think. Knowledge on which we can improve our digital/social media projects.
Still, 140 characters are not enough to give sufficient context of the topic. Twitter offers the option to link to blogs, sites and sources to give the audience the context. But the essence of 140 characters is to directly get to the point, you therefore have to be clear and catch the audience. One disadvantage of Twitter is that you have to monitor the hashtag frequently, because a discussion can easily ‘derail’ and the original subject is no longer discussed.
Can public history as a discipline participate in social media? Twitter can be used to close the gap between historians and the public. Historians can help the public by filtering the huge amounts of data hurled at the public every day and also give people a platform to react and share their stories.
After the exciting world of Twitter we moved on to ‘old school’ websites with the seminar A Decade of Online Memory Collecting in Amsterdam by Mike de Kreek and Willemijn van Helbergen.
What started as an initiative of the Amsterdam Museum and the city district council of Amsterdam-West, the websites ‘Geheugen van Oost’ and ‘Geheugen van West’ (Memories of East/West) collect memories of the citizens of these districts. The idea of these online local memories is that neighbors share their memories with each other and comment on each other’s stories.
Volunteers gather memories of citizens and citizens participate in writing-workshops to write down their own stories. These online memories help the participating audience to organize their lives, by telling stories or read and react on other’s stories. They provide the opportunity for museums to connect with the public.
For over a decade the online memories of East and West collected thousands of stories, comments and other materials. Like the input of the audience on historical twitter-accounts the online memories are of great value for public historians. The small stories of individuals are an opportunity for us historians to illustrate the big historical themes.
But we have to think about what these memories mean and how we can use them properly as public historians. And how are we keeping the materials accessible? Organizations which are driving forces are going bankrupt, twitter accounts forgotten, internet sites out of date. What can we do to not forget these memories?