Nine Lessons from a Year on Twitter


According to an email I received this morning, today is my ‘Twitterversary’.

Clearly the only rational response to such an email is to smash the nearest glass object. Unfortunately I’m on a bus, and I’m pretty sure this is frowned upon.

In all fairness, I’ve found using Twitter to spread history through the interwaves quite fun, so instead of one of my usual impotent rants, here’s nine things I think I’ve probably noticed in my twelve months as a ‘Twitterstorian’ (…. smash).

1. Twitter Loves Pictures. I’ve tweeted some lovely quotations from historical documents, including one about a guy from Rochdale who needed poor relief because he had sore bollocks. But the ones that take off are always those with pictures. My most successful tweet was a picture of Oliver Cromwell’s baptism record from 1599, over which some bitter clergyman had scribbled something rather grumpy, and everyone loved it.

2. I’ve only really got into a couple of Twitter spats. This has been a big disappointment – it’s been like missing out on the big social thing of the 2010s. Like being on the Western Front for the Christmas Day football match and being told you’re only on the bench, or living through the 1980s without being beaten up by the police.

One was with a Conservative Party propagandist called Jago who took exception to a blog post I wrote about him. He accused me of being jealous of Niall Ferguson; I said I wasn’t, and there it ended. This was not one of literature’s greatest spats.

The other was with an animal rights activist about halal food. Not really historical, I suppose, but I think I won by being a) reasonable, b) nice, and c) right.

But the real reason this kind of thing is to be avoided is that….

3. … Using Twitter for detailed arguments is stupid. Can you imagine if court cases, or Parliamentary debates, had to be conducted in short outbursts of 140 characters? Imagine the script of The West Wing, or Twelve Angry Men, in tweets.

Henry Fonda ‘@juror10 yr a bigot. Am just sayin is poss. #notguilty’.

Exactly. Debates need words, lots of them.

4. An awful lot of people are really, really…. really, boring. Not the most original observation, by any means, and I’m not saying that Twitter necessarily makes people more self-obsessed than they already were. But it does provide a platform for those who think we’re interested in what they had for breakfast or the intricacies of their journey to work. We’re not.

5. Some of your colleagues just won’t get it… but this is not necessarily anything to do with age. Perhaps this is an Oxford University thing, given our evident proximity to the Betweeded Young Fogey Clone Factory, but I’ve had more snooty comments about using social media from younger colleagues than older ones, whereas many senior academics are all over social media.

6. There is, actually, a bit of a liberal mafia on Twitter.

There are two, universally effective forms of social media clickbait – cats, and Michael Gove.

No matter how well-thought out your position is, and no matter how erudite your arguments, a piece espousing a broadly liberal point of view will get more of a response than one that’s essentially conservative, and Education Enemy No. 1 is always a nice easy target.

But to prove the general point, I would suggest the following experiment. First, tweet a link to a well-considered and statistic-jammed blog post from The Economist suggesting that some of the Coalition’s fiscal policies have not been entirely disastrous. Then, a few minutes later tweet that picture of Moet being delivered to No. 11 Downing Street with the hashtag #osborneisanarse and see which of the two gets retweeted.


7. Some academics spend a lot of their daytime on Twitter complaining about how hard they have to work and how little time they have. Don’t worry, chaps, I’m sure that Chinese coalminers and Vietnamese rice-farmers do the same…

8. The most sensible thing that David Cameron ever said was about Twitter, and academics have been proving him right ever since. You know full well what I mean…

9. You should never underestimate Facebook. This has been one of the more interesting things that has come out of those blog stats that you get. I’ve blogged for about a year now, and I’ve used both Twitter and Facebook to share my stuff. The newspapers would have you believe that it’s all about Twitter, but I’ve actually had far more hits through clunky old Facebook.

The Dark Blue Brainkiller might be a great big evil corporation designed by a total arsehole. It might single-handedly make you hate most of your friends.

But much as I love Twitter, its great rival is still the major platform for social networking.


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