Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) – Central Park, NYC. Hugo Schneider, 2019 & TikTok App. Solen Feyissa, 2020. Wikimedia Commons
The study of history isn’t the exclusive preserve of full-time professors or museum curators. Every day, individuals outside of museums and universities plug into history in their own way—they share family stories and photo albums, they reenact historical events, they read historical books or watch historical television shows—and sometimes they log onto their social media apps and say something about what they’re learning about the past.
In an admirable recent article in The Public Historian, Benjamin Filene refers to those with a passionate interest in the past that they choose to pursue on their own as “outsider historians,” and asks what we can learn from them. (Filene himself is currently the chief curator at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.)
Is a daily post that reaches thousands of people a less valuable way of engaging with history than an academic book that only a select group of people will be able to understand?
Credentialed academic historians are trained to prize written documents in physical archives—a focus that marginalizes other media in which information about the past has been conveyed. At the same time, many objects of historical interest in museums have been looted, or acquired illicitly. So why should we regard Western professors and museums as more reliable sources of historical information than Indigenous and non-Western communities, which have long shared information about the past in different ways?
Recently, social media has offered a new space for historical knowledge-sharing that is accessible to a broader public. Some academics, like Filene, consider the work of “outsider historians” to present novel alternative ways for passionately engaging with history. Others look back to the amateur academic circles of the past, such as the Republic of Letters that flourished during the Renaissance, with a certain nostalgia.
However, the development of an elite intellectual community in early modern Europe is inextricable from the increased free time made possible for wealthy people interested in the past by the profits of the transatlantic slave trade. While on the surface the early Republic of Letters may seem like an intellectual community to be emulated, it existed because of the exclusion and denigration of certain groups of people. Today, similarly lucky intellectual circles in the academy similarly privilege those with the luxury to be able to spend time reading long, in-depth articles and mastering complicated scholarly works.
While social media like Instagram and X (formerly known as Twitter) could be considered to belong to a modern republic of letters—certainly the academic community has a strong presence on X—these new media have the potential to disperse information about the past to much broader audiences. Twenty-first-century digitization and social media like X, Instagram, and TikTok allow users to read, listen to, watch, and respond to material in a few minutes and engage with historical events and figures to an extent that was previously unimaginable. Although not everyone has access to the internet and social media, it does have a wider reach than traditional forms of knowledge-sharing and allows for different methods of historical engagement. Unlike museums or research articles in an academic journal, social media can potentially allow people to connect to history for free from home for a few minutes a day.
History can be a central part of people’s everyday lives even if it is not their occupation. Individuals interested in historical fashion (@fitfashionhistory), LGBTQ history (@LGBT_history), or any other broad or niche historical timeframe or focus will probably be able to find a community of people with similar interests to follow or share information and conversation. Algorithms, though not always accurate, can help people find accounts that cater to their personal interests. In this sense, social media holds space for the study of history beyond the limitations of what a single museum or archive can do.
For example, social media accounts like the Equal Justice Initiative’s Instagram account, @eji_org, can inspire activism, share stories, and educate and engage with people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn. Every day, @eji_org posts a sentence-long story that recalls an instance of historical racial injustice that happened on that exact date in the past. The stories appear alongside the reminder that “to overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history.” For a few minutes a day, followers can reflect on the impact of a historical event and consider its relevance to the world they live in. The account has 493,000 followers and represents a nonprofit organization led by Bryan Stevenson. Although Stevenson has a law degree, has published books, and lectures at universities, this social media account allows his message and the important historical stories he is sharing to reach a public of hundreds of thousands of people who might not have had an opportunity to complete a university education, or have the time to read a full-length book.
For many museums and archives, social media has already become a space to share more widely images and information from their collections. Perhaps if they also consider the passions of community members, as reflected on social media, they can help create a more inclusive and diverse intellectual community. The study of history is more than just a regulated discipline in the academy—it belongs to the public.
An MA student in English Literature at the University of Maryland, Rose Botaish’s research interests include eighteenth-century British literature, life writing, women’s writing, and gender and class performance.