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Twitter and History of Science

December 31, 2013

During the most recent History of Science Society 2013 meeting, a roundtable on social media, “The Pleasures and Dangers of Social Media,” was organized as a part of a continuing conversation that has been ongoing about the role that social media plays in providing leads for research, in constructing course syllabi, and even for opening conversations about the role of archives in historical research and how that could look like, going forward. Of course, the particular social media of interest is Twitter due to the flexibility of its built for public outreach and academic networking.

However, personally, what I find most interesting about the question of the archive has to do with Twitter’s capability for the reproduction of archival material, in a manner not unlike the Wunderkammer; Twitter can function as placeholders of time capsules where less well-known historical narratives can be foregrounded into other users’ immediate consciousness. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is relatively less demanding in terms of its rules and regulations pertaining to who or what is entitled to a personal profile. As one does not have to follow an unlocked public profile to track what they tweet about, celebrities and public figures have taken advantage of this feature to engage in a form of ‘selfie,’ whereby memento-mori like events are captured through their twitter updates.

Taking advantage of such capability, certain enterprising individuals have decided to make use of the narrative immediacy of twitter to set up profiles of famous intellectuals and tweet 140-word aphorisms from the latter’s corpus of writings. This is particularly the case for historical figures, and the number of them ‘joining’ Twitterverse can only increase with time.  Twitter encourages narrative continuity, regardless of the gap between the posts, and is suitable for philosophical musings, existential soliloquies, newsbytes, and flash fiction.   In fact, the juxtaposition of multiple timelines that interlace and interpenetrate between the layers of your personal tweets are able to conjure an atmosphere that heightens the punch of a tweet even if it were to be drawn from observations that are centuries old.

One such example is Samuel Pepys, or more precisely, his diary. Whoever that is behind the profile has been dropping choiced selections from Pepys’s diary on the latter’s twitter updates. Ever an artful gossiper, Pepys had a taste for scandal and was not above documenting some of his personal improprieties, bringing archaic, but highly identifiable, humor into the flow of more contemporary tales of scandals and bizarre behaviors. If one is interested enough, one can do a search for history of science personalities with tongue-in-cheek handles (Sir Isaac Newton is known as @MasterofPhysick). However, for others such as Charles Darwin (@cdarwin) and Humphry Davvy (@sir_humphry davvy), the choices of handles are unsurprising.

Some of these profiles are given a more personable aspect in that the individual(s) managing the handles would engage in contemporary rapport with other ‘normal’ twitter users in contemporary dialect, or, in the period-based language of the historical personality.  Some of the historical handles are merely conduits for publicizing the works of the figure. Some of these figures perform twitter parodies of ‘autobiographical’ updates on personal achievements and milestones, though unfortunately, their handler could not change the automatic manner in which dates are listed on Twitter (Twitter’s interface builders either wanted to avoid, or had not considered, historical manipulations).

While one of the more positive use of Twitter had been the highlighting of the lesser known contributions of women in the history of science, through the use of hashtags such as #womeninscience, the focus tends to be more on contemporary women in the STEM fields. In fact, a search reveals that there are not as many historical female figures on Twitter, and this in effect mirrors the standard narratives in the history of science. Of course, there are a number of twitter handles that take their inspiration from historical female icons, and these handles are usually part of a project or program set up to respond to urgent issues on gender and science. However, it is not as usual to find a dedicated handle that is about the life and work of a particular female icon in the history of science. An investigation into this lack becomes more critical given the discussion of the under-representation of women as public intellectuals. Moreover, historically, women’s contributions are often submerged under that of their male counterparts because of the former’s lack of institutional affiliation and access to formal scientific publication. However, women are not only the under-represented demographics, whether in present time or historically, as the history of science is presented as a largely masculine affair.

This brings us to the question of why the dominant narratives of history are still the ones to dominate social media: why are we allowing social media to merely amplify social and intellectual preoccupations rather than bring about new ways of thinking? However, this need not be the case, as social media, and Twitter in particular, has the affordances to generate attention towards the often ignored archives: archives that inscribe the voices of the subalterns in the margins (women and people of color).

Social media can be part of the digital humanities project for performing voices that had been silenced for so long: where meta-histories to content with para-histories (such as histories that were never formally recorded or buried under the deluge of dominant narratives).  Even as creative writers imagine the multiple ways whence one can put historical figures in conversations with each other, Twitter allows such historical conversations to have urgent immediacy, thereby emphasizing how histories are often re-iterated merely with changes of circumstances and actors.

Finally, we should ask ourselves as to what sort of archives of knowledge do we want to build with social media: do we desire to redraw the lines of history of science or merely echo the products of better-known archives? How can social media be used as a supplementary tool for showcasing research of figures and historical narratives at the margins (after all, we can now attach videos, photos and instagrammed visuals to our Twtter updates), and as a form of outreach on history of science at the margins?

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