When the horrible pandemic of 2020 required me to telework from home for three months and halted some of my favorite hobbies outside the home, there was a part of me that wanted to renew my presence on this blog. Why not take some of my newfound free time to write more essays about my historical interests? Instead, I didn’t write a single post between February and September. Equally important, I can’t help but notice that since maybe 2017 or 2018 there has been a significant decline in blogging by historians more broadly. Al Mackey’s still chugging away at Student of the Civil War and Pat Young’s doing his thing at The Reconstruction Era Blog, but many other noteworthy names have moved on. What gives?
With regards to the pandemic, one could argue that we are all burnt out by Zoom meetings, emails, and the constant isolation of working from home, therefore the idea of spending a few more hours each day writing on a blog is unappealing. And yet, plenty of historians (myself included) spent plenty of unnecessary time on Twitter talking and tweeting about history during this time.
I would suggest that the rise of the Twitter thread is one reason that blogging has changed. For those not on Twitter, a thread enables users to connect a series of tweets together to form a more coherent stream of thoughts. Some have taken to calling this medium “microblogging” since each tweet is, at most, 280 characters long. To cite but one example, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse has gained international fame for his threads on 20th century history, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these threads were started by Kruse’s attempts to debunk bad history being peddled by known psuedo-historian Dinesh D’Souza and others like him on Twitter. There has been vigorous debate about the effectiveness of these threads and the usefulness of debating people who are not invested in having a fair discussion about history. I personally don’t care to see a bunch of people wasting too much time on a single tweet or getting into condescending arguments (“Historian here…”) with pundits, celebrities, and politicians. Nevertheless I do think Twitter threads, when done well, can be really informative. And there’s something to be said about engaging in debates about history not because D’Souza will change his mind, but that other open-minded people might be exposed to your arguments and be compelled to learn more about a given subject.
Other factors play into the decline of blogging. Podcasts have become a popular medium for historians, although they can be much more time consuming than a blog. Conversely, writing tweets is easier than blogging and allows for short thoughts to be quickly thrown into the social media mix. Additionally, Twitter’s algorithm now privileges popular tweets and threads more broadly rather than a chronological timeline, meaning that someone could log in eight hours after a thread was written and still see it on their personal timeline. Meanwhile, at the academic level, blogging has been largely dismissed as an effective tool of scholarship and is viewed by many historians not on social media as pointless. Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s remark that blogging is a “pernicious waste of scholarly time” (I guess he has not talked with Kevin Kruse about social media at a department meeting yet). It appears that any sort of blogging done by emerging scholars does not figure into their employment prospects, nor does it figure into a tenure application. Why waste your time on something that doesn’t advance your career?
In sum, a multitude of factors have made history blogging less appealing, including changes to Twitter’s platform, the appeal of writing twitter threads that could gain a wide audience (and more attention for the historian), the rise of podcasts, scholarly dismissals of blogging, and a crippling pandemic that has changed our lives. Speaking personally, I am at a different chapter in my life compared to when I was a graduate student who was single and living, eating, and breathing history 24/7 with little time for much else. Furthermore, @theglamacademic also makes a good point in suggesting that “the continuous disruption caused by new social media tools is also something to note,” by which she means that social media communities have always been in flux, whether the platform is AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, WordPress, or TikTok.
I still believe in blogging, however.
The most important argument I can make is that a blog is an easily accessible record of YOU. While a Twitter thread may be more accessible within a moment of hot discussion or controversy, it becomes very, very difficult to find that thread on Twitter long after the discussion has ended. Moreover, many people who are enthusiastic about history are not on Twitter, which can do much to limit exposure to your content. With blogging, the use of tags, metadata, algorithms, and search engines makes your content more accessible in the long term in a way that can’t be achieved by using Twitter. Nobody has to log in to view your content on a blog. Finally, I would argue that in comparison to tweets, blogs allow for more extended thoughts to be expressed in a more nuanced manner (although this argument is somewhat ironic since much academic resistance to blogging originally argued that blogs were too short and cut out important context that could be included in a 30-page journal article).
I came of age as a blogger, writer, and historian in the early 2010s, when we were living in what could be described as a “golden age” of blogging by historians. Those blogs were really crucial in helping me learn more about public history, 19th century U.S. history, and current debates about both fields taking place among sharp minds. At one point I was writing upwards of 15 to 20 posts on a month on this very website. I don’t know if (I) or (we) will ever get back to that point ever again, but I still love blogging about history and will continue to write in this space when time permits.
8 thoughts on “Where Did All the Bloggers Go? A Few Thoughts on Historians and Blogging”
And the WordPress platform has made blogging much harder and more frustrating!
As you point out, I keep doing my thing on blogs. Here are a few observations inspired by your post.
In some ways Twitter mimics aspects of the early days of blogging back two decades ago. A lot of blogs were both solipsistic and engaged in dialogues (or flame wars) with other blogs. A blogger might discuss her breakfast while berating a rival blogger’s opinions on George W. Bush. It was all very chatty (and catty).
Blogging changed with the arrival of journalists a half-decade later. Newspaper web sites were still mimicking their print incarnations and essentially putting out “editions” of the paper online at various times of day. They rarely posted a report the minute it came in, but subjected it to the same careful editing they gave to the print version. Reporters began blogging out of frustration at the constraints on breaking a story. While the journalist blogs had looser standards than a newspaper web site, they were much more formal than the old fashioned blogs of let’s say three months earlier. These journalistic blogs began to change how non-journalist bloggers structured their posts as well. Blogs looked less and less personal, and more like something that might be published in a newspaper.
Tweets mark a return to the solipsism of the early blogs, and with the incessant @ing used to target opponents, a prime Tweeter is in a never-ending flame war. The flames actually keep the Tweeter airborne. Informality reigns.
I use Twitter for my work on behalf of immigrants, but I rarely Tweet about history. Here is why I use the facebook and blogging platforms.
1, Twitter has relatively few users. Roughly three times as many people use facebook as use Twitter. While the politicians I try to influence in my day job are all on Twitter name-checking to see who is talking about them, only about 20% of Americans are using the platform regularly. Since many historians are on Twitter, for reasons we could discuss at another time, and since they like to talk to other historians (A LOT), it makes sense that some have left other platforms for Twitter. However, for me, reaching other highly educated people has never been my goal.
2. Facebook provides a greater opportunity for reaching readers who are interested in history, but who lack academic credentials. It also allows for easygoing discussion of my posts by people within organized and moderated facebook communities. Flame wars are less prevalent (though not unknown) than on Twitter.
3. My facebook posts often focus on blog posts I have written. This allows a tie-in between the largest social media platform and the original social media platform, blogging.
4. While Tweets can often get a lot of views in a short time, they are among the most ephemeral of artifacts. After a few days, no one sees them anymore. In contrast, there are blog posts I wrote a decade ago that still got thousands of hits last year. My historical blogs typically get anywhere from 150,000 to 250,000 unique visitors combined each year. Many of those readers are looking at articles that are more than a year old. Blogs can have a long tail.
5. The program of my two history blogs, The Immigrants’ Civil War and The Reconstruction Era Blog, is educational. The Reconstruction Era Blog uses a document-based approach to examine the racial, class, and gender politics of the post-war world. The Immigrants’ Civil War consists of long-form posts of up to 8,000 words on overlooked aspects of immigrant history. One lesson it teaches is the ubiquity of immigrants in American life in the mid-19th Century. Blogging allow me to footnote each paragraph and provide access to online sources for the education of my readers. This mirrors my approach to blogging on contemporary immigration law. Those articles are written for immigrants with no legal training to help them understand the law, while giving the immigrants accurate information and tools for learning more.
6. Since I have no interest in an academic history career, the disdain you say exists in the academy for blogging does not influence me. I am not looking for artifacts for my resume, only for effective ways of reaching a public.
There are many great ways to reach the general public with scholarly information. Heather Cox Richardson gets 120,000 viewers for her twice-weekly talks on history and current events on Facebook Live, the crankiest of platforms. Hopefully those historians who want to reach a broad public will continue to experiment with new social media formats, but will, like you, take the time to follow your fine lead and occasionally write a blog post.
Great thoughts, Pat. Thank you for taking the time to explain your thoughts on tweeting vs. blogging. I particularly like your reinforcement of the idea that tweets are very ephemeral and do not reach as wide an audience as other social media platforms and blogs more broadly. Many historians, journalists, and the pundit class use Twitter, but its reach limited. Thanks, Pat, and keep up the great work on your blogs!
Thanks very much Nick, you too. I appreciate the fact that you are reaching the public through different modalities, both scholarly and popular, including facebook, blogging, and books and scholarly journals.
I also enjoy your reflections on interactions with non-historians at your historic site and during public appearances.
For scholars not willing to do the work of starting and publicizing a new blog, I would suggest they try to write occasionally for group blogs like Muster and Emerging Civil War.
I’m jumping in to say that blogging consumes more energy than Twitter! However, I dislike Twitter threads as a general practice because they are difficult to follow once they go beyond 5-7 tweets. My happy medium right now is Instagram, where I can use images to tell a story and my followers have a choice to read and respond to the lengthy captions. Also, a lot of the things I’m interested in right now are visual and sound based, which makes writing about these dynamic materials become very static.
Thanks for chiming in, Angela! My friend Marvin-Alonzo Greer (@magthehistorian) has really perfected the use of Instagram as a medium for sharing history effectively. I think he’s up to around 26k followers, so somebody’s taking interest in history on Instagram!
Writing is something that comes a little easier to me, so I feel very comfortable using blogging as one channel to communicate my interests in history. That said, you are correct that it is a time commitment (although not as much as doing a podcast!). A few recent blog posts have been inspired by what I saw and said on Twitter, and I’m sure I’ll keep doing that in the future as well. Thanks again for the comment!
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