In Which a Luddite Embraces Twitter

I mentioned in this blog’s inaugural post that the Adverts 250 Project originated on Twitter (where it still continues as part of my account, @TradeCardCarl). I have only recently been initiated in the Twitterverse, having looked at it askance for several years. Tweets seemed both ephemeral and insubstantial. What could I possibly say in 140 characters? Certainly not anything of significance! When I established my account I included “Recovering Luddite” in my short biography (since replaced with “Daily #Adverts250 Update”). I have long joked that on the spectrum of early adopter to Luddite I fell somewhere around “Printing Presses Are Cool.” (They are!)

I signed up for Twitter while participating in the American Antiquarian Society’s Digital Antiquarian Workshop (a week-long seminar designed as a companion to the Digital Antiquarian Conference), led by Molly O’Hagan Hardy (digital humanities curator, AAS) and Thomas Augst (English, New York University). I wanted to become a bit more tech savvy, hoping to pursue digital humanities projects that would further my own research as well as design others as part of the introductory public history class that I teach every second spring semester. In my application I even suggested potential book history and advertising projects I could pursue with students. I do intend to pursue those projects eventually, but for the moment I have moved them to the back burner in favor of the Adverts 250 Project. Undergraduates from Assumption College will be joining me in this endeavor during the Spring 2016 semester. I’ll certainly have more posts about that – as well as guest contributions – in the coming months.

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As I mentioned last week, the first #Adverts250 update was a whim, a bit of fun (but I am grateful that I had the foresight to include #Adverts250 as a hashtag from the start, making it possible to identify all of the entries). The first advertisement I featured garnered several “favorites” (then a star rather than the current heart icon) and retweets, some of them from friends and colleagues but others from scholars and interested members of the general public whom I did not know. I followed up with another advertisement the next day, gaining more “favorites” and retweets. I also gained new followers, which I attributed to the new series of posts about eighteenth-century advertising. It was then that two things happened: I decided to formalize the Adverts 250 Project as a daily feature of my (previously very sporadic) Twitter account and I embraced the power of Twitter.

I have long been concerned that historians at colleges and universities often engage in insular conversations among themselves and other scholars but do not always communicate more directly with the general public. This is a lament that we hear often from a variety of colleagues striving to make our work meaningful and accessible to others, so I will not rehearse all of the arguments here except to say that the digital humanities opens new doors and complements the work being done by our public history colleagues. As a methodology, digital humanities enriches our research. In providing new or alternate media or forums, digital humanities allows greater distribution of our work and invites new audiences. I quickly found this to be the case with the Adverts 250 Project in its first incarnation on Twitter. My research, previously doled out in moderate-sized chunks at conferences and public lectures or in articles and chapters, now had new audiences. I had previously dismissed Twitter for being too much of a popular culture phenomenon, but instead of nurturing such anxiety I should have realized that the mass consumption aspects of Twitter that made me disregard social media actually presented a rich opportunity for engaging multiple audiences that I long desired would take a more sustained interest in learning about the past.

I also quickly got over another prejudice: “What I have to say is too complex to express in a mere 140 characters.” While I continue to maintain that complexity and nuance – more words! – are imperative to the work we do as scholars, I have had an attitude adjustment concerning the 140 character limit on Twitter. Being succinct has never been one of my strengths, and I believe that many of us are trained to be verbose, often unnecessarily. Distilling my commentary on any eighteenth-century advertisement (explaining its context and significance) down to one or two sentences forced me to refine my thinking. What is the most important thing I want to say about this particular advertisement? What is essential for me to communicate? How can I do so for fellow eighteenth-century British Atlantic World specialists? How can I do so for other audiences? Composing a tweet intended to use an advertisement to open up the commercial, cultural, or political world of eighteenth-century colonists often turned out to be a much more difficult task than writing an entire paragraph (which is part of the reason that the Adverts 250 Project continues on Twitter as well).

I was having a great time with my daily #Adverts250 update on Twitter. Several colleagues whom I respect told me how much they were enjoying the project, but one in particular encouraged me to seek a more permanent home and a platform for reaching broader audiences. That the Adverts 250 Project has its own blog is the result of conversations with Molly O’Hagan Hardy, digital humanities curator at the American Antiquarian Society, who consistently doles out insightful and helpful advice. As I’ve already made clear, I’m a novice in the world of digital humanities, but Hardy has thoughtfully and patiently worked with me to develop both my own projects and projects for students in my undergraduate courses. I have very much appreciated the attention that she bestows on my work, but I have also witnessed her consulting on projects with scholars possessing various levels of digital humanities expertise. Her intellectual generosity is a model.

That’s where I would like to conclude this week’s behind-the-scenes look at the Adverts 250 Project. Thank you, Molly O’Hagan Hardy, for your encouragement and advice. Last week I concluded with an exclamation: “the Adverts 250 Project was born!” To continue the metaphor, you are the midwife who assisted in the delivery.

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