Twitter is in an interesting phase of its life-cycle. We’re long past the birth pangs and growing pains, and thank God we don’t have to see any more “Twitter is going to be the next ______” [fill in the blank] blogs like the ones that polluted the Internet in 2009. In this phase of its life, Twitter is now working its way into what you might call “niche markets,” which is fun because you can find some interesting stuff—history, for instance. As a historian, I find it very interesting, and also a lot of fun, to see how people use Twitter to convey historical information. One of the most popular methods is to “be” a historical figure on Twitter. But, as in everything, some people are good at it and some aren’t. This blog is meant to provide a couple of tips to those who might be thinking of taking their favorite king, president, playwright or operatist into the digital age.
Fair disclosure: I have a history account of my own on Twitter. I write and manage @CryForByzantium, which is an attempt to take followers through all 1,123 years of Byzantine history, 140 characters at a time. (My personal, non-historical Twitter account is, of course, @Sean_Munger). While I have my own ideas on that project, this blog is more directed toward my general observations of how—and how not—to “be” a historical figure on Twitter.
I’ve boiled it down to a couple of general rules. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Commit! If you’re going to be a historical figure on Twitter, be prepared to tweet regularly and for the long term. Don’t join, tweet for a while and give it up. Historical names are in very short supply.
My #1 pet peeve of people who start history-related Twitter accounts is that they use up all the best names. If you want to be a specific historical figure, you don’t have a lot of options for names. There are a huge number of Twitter accounts whose users establish them, tweet a few times, then lose interest and drop it. (In fact, the vast majority of Twitter accounts are fallow). If someone has chosen the name of a historical figure as their Twitter account and then drops it, that name is foreclosed forever—kind of like domain names.
Case in point. You want to be Thomas Jefferson? Great. But don’t count on getting @ThomasJefferson as your Twitter handle. It’s already taken. Our third President joined in August 2007, tweeted a grand total of 18 times, and hasn’t been seen since April 2010. You can’t get @ThJefferson either. The person who started that account tweeted only once—and then left that handle fallow almost two years ago. To get to a “Thomas Jefferson” who actually does tweet, you have to go to @JeffersonUSPres. That handle gets the point across, but it’s not the first thing you’d think of. Whoever really is tweeting as Thomas Jefferson ought to have the handle @ThomasJefferson, don’t you think? Alas, there’s no way to police it, so the best you can do, if you’re planning to tweet as a historical figure, is to commit and make good use of your name.
2. Have a Mission, and Stick To It.
Before you join Twitter as Grover Cleveland, Anne of Cleves or William the Conqueror, you need to decide what you’re going to do there. Historical figures on Twitter don’t have the same freedom as everybody else. They have to stay in character (see #4 below), and that can be limiting. That’s why it’s helpful to decide why you are on Twitter as this or that person from the past, and then stick to it.
There are various different approaches. Some historical tweeps are clearly there to teach the world about themselves. The most successful accounts of this nature tend to focus either on diaries or chronologies. @JQAdams_MHS, example, tweets as John Quincy Adams, each day with another capsule summary of the entry from Adams’s diary from that day exactly 200 years ago.@PepysDiary, presenting the famous diaries of English aristocrat Samuel Pepys, written in the 1660s, does the same thing. These accounts are very staid, serious and unyielding, but they tend to be the most informative, and at least you know what you’re going to get. Followers will often look forward to your next installment, because it’s an ongoing story like a soap opera. That’s what’s made @CryForByzantium far more popular than my non-historical Twitter account—people tune in to see what happens next.
If you don’t have a specific, finite story to tell, but just want to have fun as a historical character, there are ways to do this too. Some historical tweeps utilize what you would call, in TV episode speak, a “back-story.” For example, one of my favorite historical tweeps, @PresidentAdams, claims that he is John Adams who has used a time machine to come 200 years forward in time so he can run for re-election in the year 2012. Once you understand this angle, John Adams’s tweets are quite funny as he comments on modern conditions, especially political ones, from the perspective of an 18th-century politician. This is a good example of sticking to your mission.
3. Make It Entertaining. Don’t Just Post Quotes.
Putting historical content on Twitter sounds like a daunting task—because it is. Just because you find a particular historical figure fascinating in his or her own right doesn’t mean anyone else will. If you want followers, you’re going to have to do what every other successful Twitter user does: make your tweets interesting, enjoyable and gratifying for others to read.
From my observation, the vast majority of historical tweeps choose a humorous and light-hearted angle. @KngHnryVIII posts funny and sarcastic quips meant to illustrate kingly life in the 16th century in an entertaining way. Similarly, @AlexanderIII is usually tweeting about partying or other forms of debauchery in the classical world. A comedic approach is a natural magnet for followers, especially those who might not otherwise be history buffs. If you can make your tweets amusing or at least worthwhile following, you’ll quickly gain followers, and you may be able to teach them something too.
One approach that clearly doesn’t work is simply to post quotes from the historical figure. Take, for example, @BenFranklin. If you began following old Ben back in July of 2007, you might have expected that he would try to impart some of his jewels of wisdom to you, such as “At twenty years of age the Will reigns; at thirty, the Wit; and at forty, the Judgment.” Okay—but that’s allhe ever posted, quotes from Ben Franklin, and you see that after a little less than two years Ben threw in the towel, having gotten only 284 followers. This is a terrible shame. We’re talking about Ben Franklin, one of the wittiest, sharpest Americans who ever lived! Surely if Twitter existed in the 18th century and the real Ben Franklin used it, he wouldn’t have used it to say things like “A penny saved is a penny earned”–he’d probably be flirting with chicks, making fart jokes, and engaging in all sorts of ribald humor. But alas, @BenFranklin on Twitter is just a big old bore. Lesson learned, I hope.
4. Stay In Character.
This should seem obvious: if you’re going to be a historical figure on Twitter, be that character. However, it’s much more difficult to do in practice than it is in theory. The reason is because in order to make Twitter effective you have to have a conversation (see #5 below), and in the course of that conversation, you will naturally be touching contemporary subjects which the true historical figure wouldn’t have known anything about. In order to do this successfully, you have to be something of a mind-reader.
Let’s say that everyone on Twitter is talking about a particular celebrity who has done or said something outrageous. (At the time of this writing it’s Charlie Sheen, but trends change so quickly that I’m sure this one will be dead probably by the time this blog goes up). You want to get in on the conversation, but that’s a little hard to do when you’re Genghis Khan. You can’t break character, or else you’ll just become another Twitter account, another comment on Charlie Sheen, and then when you go back to being Genghis Khan, your “brand,” so to speak, will have been diluted. What do you think Genghis Khan would say about Charlie Sheen if he was alive to see him? Think of something, and tweet that.
5. Have A Conversation.
It’s been a while since anyone described Twitter as “microblogging,” and there’s a reason for that. The fun of it is not reading what people post. It’s reading what they post in reply to other people, or you. The @ reply is the not-so-secret backbone of Twitter, and you should make use of it. Talk to people, have a conversation, and make your voice and your historical character’s personality heard.
This can occasionally be difficult with historical figures. Depending on the format you choose, your “mission,” engaging in real-time conversation with other members on Twitter may be tough—my own @CryForByzantium, for instance, very rarely does @ replies to real users. However, the most successful historical tweeters are those who @ frequently.
You should respond to every @ reply you get, especially early on. This is a good way to build followers, because it’s been my experience that most people who you @ eventually end up following you. Even if someone posts something to you that’s off in left field, remember to reply in character. If it’s funny, and especially if what you post is something that can stand alone independent of context, others may re-tweet it, giving you more exposure.
Special hint: when your post begins with an @ symbol, in most cases the post will appear only in the timeline of the person you’re @-ing, as well as those who follow both you and the recipient. To avoid this problem—meaning, to make it so that everyonewho you follow sees what you’re posting—don’t put the @ symbol as the first character in your post. Therefore, if you are Marie Antoinette and someone tells you that your people have no bread, don’t reply:
@[Someone] Let them eat cake!
Well, @[Someone], let them eat cake!
6. Know Your Audience.
If you’re going to be having a conversation, you’d better know who you’re going to be conversing with. At least at first, until you build some “civilian” (i.e., non-historical) cachet, most of your followers will probably be other history buffs, of which there are many on Twitter, and also other historical accounts. Just clicking on any historical Twitter personage—say, @Mr_Lincoln—and then checking who follows him, you’ll see a lot of other historical accounts in the same genre. These are the people you want to follow your account, and the people you want to engage in conversation.
What’s really interesting is when historical Twitterers of different genres and areas get into a conversation with each other. For example, @Pres_Washington and @TheQueenOfScots (Mary, Queen of Scots) often have arguments about whether democracy or monarchy is the superior form of government. You can expect some heated conversation among historical rivals—I have yet to see a Twitter debate between an Alexander Hamilton and an Aaron Burr, though I’m quite sure it will be done if it hasn’t already. This is the real fun of presenting history on Twitter. Where else can you see a conversation like this that isn’t scripted, contrived or otherwise artificial?
7. Use Lists.
Lists are the key to success of historical figures on Twitter. Why? Simple: they’re ready-made rosters of potential followers. Many people who like to follow historical figures on Twitter will create a list of their favorites. Chances are there will be other history-related accounts in that list that you haven’t heard of. Follow the list or follow the members on it, and you’ll pick up tons of appreciative followers in no time at all. They’re not all just historical figures either. Many lists will include official Twitter accounts of libraries and museums, historical enthusiasts, and various history-related blogs and websites. (@Medievalists is such a blog). Many professional academic historians are on Twitter, and they often keep informal blogs of their own. These people are usually delighted to see historical material on Twitter, so they’re very good to follow and even better to have as followers of your account.
Other users also like to be listed. If you have a history-related account and are coming across a lot of other historical followers, make a list on your own, add them to it and chances are you’ll have a loyal follower who will generate other followers for you. Like everything else on social media, an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine ethos prevails. Keep in mind that any user can follow a list you created, whether or not they follow all the people on it or not. When others start following your lists, you know you’re attracting attention.
8. Be Accurate.
This should go without saying. Not only do you need to know your audience, but you need to know your subject—really well. This sounds totally nerdy, but it really helps if you have some reference material near your computer. If you’re Genghis Khan on Twitter and you have any sort of visibility, I guarantee you that among your followers there will be a Ph.D. student at some obscure university who’s doing a dissertation on Genghis Khan. (And he probably follows about ten other Genghis Khans, too). This is the person who’s going to notice if you fudge the year that Genghis sacked China or if you misspell Bortai’s name, and he’ll RT your error all over Twitter with an embarrassing correction. A follower may also try to test you by @ replying you with some obscure fact about your figure’s life, and if you don’t get the reference, you’ll look like an ass. Don’t put yourself in that situation.
In short, Twitter can be an interesting, informative and fun place on the web to interact with history. And like everything else in social media, you only get out of it what you put into it. If you put some effort and thought into your role as a historical figure on Twitter, chances are very good that you’ll gain followers and influence, probably at a higher rate than you would if you were just an “ordinary” Twitter user without a gimmick. The cool thing about it, though, is that I don’t think it’s really about gaining followers and influence. It’s about peoples’ affinity for history. Historical figures on Twitter are helping to show people that history isn’t just dull boring crap in dusty old books, but that it lives, breathes, and yes occasionally tweets.
Thanks for reading.