Social Media and Historians

Curated by Stefania Scagliola, Jordan Ricker and Emmanuel Decker

Lesson on how to deal with the abudance of digital born data, with regard to research, reaching out to audiences, teaching, and preservation strategies, using social media as a case study.

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about the lesson S


This lesson discusses the relationship between social media and the practice of academic historians from the perspective of source criticism, public outreach, and preservation. It offers a short clip, a quiz, and a series of assignments that deal with various perspectives on the phenomenon of social media: their historical and pedagogical value, their bias and bad reputation, the variety of platforms across the world, the pioneers, and their business model. A more in-depth analysis is offered of Twitter, a microblogging service that can be accessed with a mobile application and is very much used in journalism and advertising.

What is the objective of this lesson?

How is the content organized?

watch this animation S

Social media and historians, why bother?

S Why should historians bother with social media?

This animation discusses the relevance and historical value of social media for the historical community.

complete these assignments M

M Assignments (7)

1 out of 7 — When does a Tweet or YouTube clip become "historical"?

Amongst historians, it is argued that in order to consider an event “mature” enough for historical inquiry, there should be distance in time and access to classified documents. This idea of a necessary “waiting period” has long determined the “historicity” of a given event or topic. The advent of the web and social media—with direct access to an abundance of data, especially in the realm of private life—seems to have challenged the idea of what can be considered as “historical”. In this assignment, you are going to be confronted with different opinions on the role of social media in history and whether they can be considered “historical sources”.

social media interactivity interactivity

Image credits: Linaria Comunicación via Giphy, INTO ACTION via Giphy, Flamingo Services via Giphy

20 Min

1.a What can be considered “historically relevant” social media expressions?

30 Min

1.b Arguments put forward by historians

Reading/viewing suggestions

2 out of 7 — Social media in historical perspective

When looking at social media from a historian’s perspective, it is important to remember that opinions differ between experts on how to even define “social media” as well as whether or not this form of communication existed in the pre-internet era. Much of these debates hinge on whether the technical infrastructure as such is the innovative element, or what people do with the technical infrastructure when it becomes available. From the perspective of a historian, the term “social media” is problematic, as media have a social function by definition. Even within the scope of the digital era, the term “social” poses problems, as it can confusingly also refer to the pioneering sharing platforms that evolved in the early 2000s, such as MySpace and Friendster. At the time, they were coined Social Networking Sites. With the introduction of Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat, arguably geared towards sharing content more than creating networks, the broader term “social media” gained traction. In this assignment, you are going to explore the historical continuities and discontinuities of the phenomenon of social media.

20 Min

2.a When did it all start?

25 Min

2.b Different views on the beginning of social media

3 out of 7 — Typology: social media around the world and who is behind it

typology “2021 World Map of Social Networks”. Image created by Vincenzo Cosenza and used here without adaptation from the original on Vinco’s Blog under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC. [smaller font and downsize image]

In this assignment, you are expected to conduct web research to complete the profiles of different social media platforms. There are many approaches to specifying the characteristics of a social medium; for instance, one can consider the technology and the type of communication it facilitates, the user experience, or focus on the policy and strategy of the company that runs the social medium, that is, the business model. These different approaches help to better understand what these different social media actually are. In classifying their typology, historians can more accurately analyse their content as digital sources.

20 Min

3.a Social Media around the world

25 Min

3.b The companies behind social media

25 Min

3.c Business models of social media

4 out of 7 — How about your own habits with social media?


Image source: Imgur

10 Min x 3 Days

4.a Document and compare your own use of social media

5 out of 7 — Preservation: who is responsible for archiving social media?


“Digital Preservation.” Image created by Jørgen Stamp and used here without adaptation from the original on under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.5 DK.

25 Min

5.a An historical inquiry into two archived social media platforms

20 Min

5.b Archival efforts to preserve social media

25 Min

5.c Who is still covered by the Library of Congress?

20 Min

5.d What about other social media?

6 out of 7 — Social Media in different contexts

In this assignment, a series of examples are presented in which social media have been used in various ways, including:

  1. To illustrate the changes in the practice of historians
  2. To teach history in a new way
  3. To spread fake history
  4. To document a historical event

For each example below, note what arguments are put forward by the corresponding article and then write a short text (150 words max.) about how the example applies to one or more of the four cases described above.

20 Min

6.a Ku Klux Klan Tweet

25 Min

6.b Election Tweet

15 Min

6.c Collecting as much as possible

15 Min

6.d Each day of the last month of the Second World War

7 out of 7 — Twitter as a case study (assignment curated by Frédéric Clavert)

In this assignment, the various features/dimensions of the social medium Twitter are discussed: its history, how it is used, how it is analyzed, and how it is preserved and archived. Answer the questions below in your answer form.

15 mins

7.a How Twitter was created

10 mins

7.b How Twitter is defined

25 mins

7.c How Twitter changed over time

10 mins

7.d How you can interact with others on Twitter

15 mins

7.e How a Tweet is archived

Reading/viewing suggestions