Publication Date

February 1, 2014

I recently stumbled upon the concept of the “democratization of intimacy,” which I think historians might find of interest. The basis of this concept is that the growth of the social web (including social media, chatrooms, and LISTSERVs) is breaking the isolation of physical barriers, making it easier and more likely for us to communicate with each other more regularly and (in some cases) more meaningfully. This concept, first discussed by Stefana Broadbent in her wonderful TED talk, directly contradicts the widespread assumption that social media has done more harm than good in enabling significant relationships.

So why would I bring this up?

I have no means of testing this theory in any scientific way, but I do have an example of my own (taken from the recent AHA meeting in Washington, DC) that corroborates Broadbent’s claim. In the fall, the AHA organized the first Twitterstorians and History Bloggers reception at the annual meeting, in the hopes of breaching the technical boundaries and offering a meeting space for both the digitally connected and those just testing the waters, and bringing the two groups together. Considering it was the first time we formally organized something of this nature, we had no way of knowing what would happen: Would people show up? How many? What would they talk about? Do they speak English or only hashtag?

It turned out that not only did people show up, they did so in droves. They showed up early (a rarity within our tribe) and dragged the reception 45 minutes beyond its closing. Floating around the room, I dropped into conversations ranging from the conference itself (what panels are you attending?) to the professional (when is the book coming out?) to the personal (how is the baby?). This tells me that, at least for people in our own discipline, we still perform the same social rituals that we did pre-social web; it’s just that now we have a more expanded network of colleagues and tools that enable us to communicate more across time and space.

Twitter avatars of just a few of those who used #AHA2014 during the annual meeting. Gallery compiled by and courtesy of Tweetbeam expanding horizons don’t affect only the people who are connected online; social media is beginning to change the ecosystem of the profession as a whole. The sheer numbers—the users who tweeted during the meeting using particular hashtags and the people they reached—are pretty impressive. A total of 8,865 tweets were sent out (as of January 10) using the hashtags #AHA2014 or #AHA14. (Special thanks to Sharon Howard for archiving this year’s tweets, which you can find here. She does not include some of the panel­specific tags or the popular #ThatCamp and #ThatCampAHA tag, which would make the total number of conference­related tweets even higher.) Using, I dug deeper into the stats of the #AHA2014 tag and learned who exactly was doing the tweeting and exactly how our tweets were performing. We know that 245 users tweeted using our hashtag, and Keyhole recorded 672,862 impressions (the number of times a tweet was displayed). Of those interactions, more than 368,213 unique followers encountered the AHA annual meeting on Twitter.

What does this have to do with the profession? For one, this type of worldwide audience for the AHA meeting would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. For comparative numbers, the AHA lists 18,168 faculty and staff members of departments and organizations in the Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians. But our tweeting colleagues have reached an audience twenty times larger than the segment of the discipline listed in the Directory. Just looking at the accompanying hashtags that followed the AHA hashtag, one can see it touched a wide number of Twitter communities dealing with social welfare, the military, the Modern Language Association, higher education, and even pirates.

And returning to my original point regarding the tension between global networks and the strain on meaningful interaction, the data shows that social media conversation between users is still occurring. Only 34 percent of the posts captured by Keyhole were original. The rest were either retweets (either a reposting by another user or a tweet comprising a quote from another) or a conversation.

All of this data, intoxicating to look at and study, demonstrates the significance of the network back channel happening alongside the conference. It is cultivating extended conversations (and professional relationships) throughout our discipline and beyond.

But that does not mean that it in any way supersedes the physical interactions we engage in during the meeting. The success of the Twitterstorians and History Bloggers reception demonstrates that even the most connected professionals in our discipline still find it necessary (and fun) to meet in person. If anything, we should start seriously considering social media as a global tool to promote the conversations happening within the walls of the meeting.

That being said, there is still a great need for more quality conversation online during the meeting. As William Gibson once said, “The Future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We have garnered a worldwide audience, but a significant percentage of historians are not engaged in the conversation, which is a missed opportunity. I strongly encourage historians to explore the Twittersphere at the next AHA meeting in New York City and consider joining the conversation.

—Vanessa Varin is the AHA’s assistant editor, web and social media.

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