Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Twitter (II)

Inscription above the Bodleian entrance - a 21C Republic of Letters?
Photo by summonedbyfells

It is several months since I nervously ventured onto Twitter, and now’s as good a time as any to reflect on what it’s been like stepping inside that noisy room. So here are some interim observations on that strange new world.

1) As someone who’s published on the printing revolution of the 15C, one of the striking things about Twitter (or twitter, as it seems to be losing its T) is how self-referential and self-conscious a medium it is. You can, like the great historian of printing Elizabeth Eisenstein, scour the pages and prefaces of early printed books and struggle to find much comment on, or reference to, the new medium in which they were produced. That’s why historians have to work so hard to tease out the contemporary meanings of early printing. The voices on Twitter, however, very often seem to be talking about Twitter itself. 

2) Twitter has also refined and expanded my sense, at least, of who the audiences for academic history might be; of whom we can and should be talking to from the virtual ivory tower. It’s a place to talk directly with young artists interested in Renaissance images, documentary makers, or the wide range of people in the UK (and beyond) with an interest in Polish history. It reminds you what a curiosity there is about what we do; and how open it is to challenge.

3) Twitter can enhance the sense of academia as a community. The inscription above the entrance to Oxford’s Bodleian library reads: 'to you, and the Republic of Letters’. The republic of letters, from the 15C to the 20C, was a physically disconnected, slightly virtual community of scholars and writers, but Twitter can knit it together in new ways. It lets historians from different universities around the world, with different research interests, converse together about how we write books, how we teach, and so on. This effect is perhaps particularly powerful locally, in Oxford’s famously fragmented institutional environment. The History Faculty here has over 100 postholders (or faculty), and there are simply no opportunities to meet collectively, far less debate, with the great majority of one’s departmental colleges, scattered as we are across our different colleges. But Twitter allows me, at last, to eavesdrop on what my fellow historians in St. John’s, or St. Catz, are thinking about. (@redhistorian, @katheder, @CraigClunas)

4) Finally, one of the more unexpected networks which Twitter seems to be creating is one of Somerville historians past and present – tutors, current students, and former students. This started to become clear this month, when my colleague Benjamin Thompson (@HistorianBenj) acquired a Twitter account. Twitter can, potentially, allow all these generations of Somerville historians, in Oxford and beyond it, to talk directly, regularly and spontaneously to one another for the first time. This communications revolution starts to dissolve the barriers between Fellows, those studying here now, and those who studied here 5 years ago. So, if you can block out the white noise of social media, this is what twitter at its best can achieve – to turn imagined communities (to cheekily borrow a famous phrase from the history of nationalism), into closer, more tangible communities.

1 comment:

  1. Studied at Somerville 38 rather than 5 years ago but have been following your blog. Interesting to also follow the College and Fellows on Twitter. I belong to a community of librarians who share conference news and training updates via tweets.