Making History Go Viral

Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

A Twitter bird firing off a string of nine tweets, all related.
Illustration by Slate

Every time major news broke this year, the best place to find historians’ perspectives on the latest Trump calumny or #MeToo revelation was on Twitter, where their carefully argued threads were going viral. I’m on record as being somewhat skeptical of Twitter as a format for writing popular history; historians’ recent perfection of the thread, which allows for a much more developed argument over a long, connected series of tweets, has proven me wrong. But is this new mode of public writing helping get history to more readers? And how much time do these little masterpieces take for their authors to create?

Here’s your Year in Notable Twitter History Threads, with commentary, when available, from those who wrote them.

Natalia Petrzela, of the New School, is a favorite Twitter follow of mine for commentary on gender and culture. I especially love her tweets about the history of the fitness industry. This image-laden thread about the Nike brand’s fraught track record with gender politics, written in response to news about sexual harassment at the company, eventually led to this article in the Washington Post as well as two appearances on NPR.

“Probably the best thing about a Twitter thread is speed,” Joshua Rothman, of the University of Alabama, wrote in an email. Rothman posted a thread about the 19th century writer Charles Ball’s experience of family separation during the slave trade just as we were learning about the worst effects of the Trump administration’s border policies. “For historians, even writing an op-ed might have a delay of a couple of days. But Twitter allows for the transmission and circulation of historical knowledge and context in real time, as events are unfolding. And even though that speed does lead to less careful consideration than a lot of people might like to see, the news cycle moves so quickly that context sometimes never appears unless it’s provided on the spot.”

Here was another example of a historian invoking the stories of a specific child’s experience to highlight the trauma of the separation policy. Beth Lew-Williams, of Princeton, wrote about her grandfather’s separation from his family due to immigration detention in this brief and devastating thread.

For those historians on Twitter who don’t mind confrontation with trolls, this was the summer of dunking on the charlatan Dinesh D’Souza. Kevin Kruse, a very Twitter-active historian at Princeton who is probably the reigning monarch of the historical Twitter thread, did this most visibly with this convincing offering addressing D’Souza’s, um, alternative history of the American political parties. “This one, followed by a couple other smaller fact-checks of D’Souza’s claims, led to a massive increase in followers that month,” Kruse wrote to me. “I was at 80k at the start of July and up to 120k by the end of the month, with most of that happening in the first two weeks.”

“A good thread usually takes about an hour. The argument is usually one I can rattle off immediately—which is why I set out to do these things, they seem deceptively straightforward at the start,” Kruse said. “But I soon remember that the hardest part is tracking down the supporting evidence I like to use. I’ll often know something is available in a book, for instance, but if I’m at home and it’s in my office, I have to get creative to find the text online somewhere. Or there’s a specific fact I want to illustrate (an illustration of a vote on a measure or a particular image), that again can take some time to track down. The more instances like that, the longer it takes.”

Jenny Bann, a “recovering academic” in Scotland, responded to a millennial-bashing editorial with a hilarious series of tweets about student misbehavior, showing that a thread simply showcasing primary sources works very well, especially if the tweets are individually delicious.

“I compiled this thread on the German Nazi Party platform in response to a Dinesh D’Souza tweet while on the subway,” David Austin Walsh, a graduate student in history at Princeton (yes, another Princetonian; call it the Kruse Effect), wrote. “That was completely spontaneous. I’m not even a historian of Germany, but I’d read the document before and his claim struck me as both utterly ludicrous and easily debunkable if you spent more than two minutes with the text. So, I pulled it up on Wikipedia and away I went, making posts every time the train hit a new station.”

“I tried to model what it looked like to be rigorously honest about one’s own family history,” Seth Cotlar, a historian at Willamette University, wrote about this thread, “what it looked like to express love for one’s ancestors while also acknowledging parts of them that are regrettable.” Cotlar responded to Stephen Miller’s uncle’s Aug. 13 op-ed about immigration by offering a family story that’s got a twist near the end. “To me, this is what a healthy historical culture does … it strives to balance respect for the past with a willingness to tell rude truths about it.”

Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian and writer in Atlanta, said that her more viral threads, like this one responding to the controversy over Sen. Chris McDaniel’s Aug. 15 defense of Robert E. Lee, do seem to correlate with higher than average sales of her books. “I’ve found that the more time investment, generally the more likes and RTs,” she told me. “Historical threads with visuals take a LOT of time. If I just rant politically, that takes much less time.”

Kruse explained that this thread, taking a Charlie Kirk claim about police shootings and looking at the bigger picture behind the assumption, was his favorite. “Of all the big threads I’ve done, this one most closely replicates what I try to do in the classroom—because it’s modeled on a lecture I give each year—and it takes pains to make a single, important point,” Kruse wrote. “More than simply fact-checking historical lies, which is what a lot of these do, this one uses the past to challenge the way we think about things in the present, which is an essential role for the discipline, I think.”

Heather Cox Richardson, of Boston College, said of her rare-but-rich threads, like this one about the place of antidemocratic thought in the history of the GOP: “I usually have to be goaded into it, and I think you can hear that in my tone, which is not the same as the tone in my more measured pieces. As in: I’ve let these comments go by for hours, but I’m past the point of tolerance.”

Richardson sees 25 tweets as her outer limit for a thread. “I try to use words as sparingly as possible, and I try to make each tweet self-contained,” she wrote. “This is not an easy process, but I find it enormously fun. I think of it kind of like history Sudoku: How can I fit this massive amount of material into 15–25 self-contained packages?” Richardson told me that it takes her three to five hours to write a typical 15- to 25-tweet thread.

Rhae Lynn Barnes (also of Princeton!) wrote this thread about Megyn Kelly’s show-ending blackface comment that tapped a decade of research on the many ways minstrelsy has been embedded in American culture. Barnes calls the big reaction to her thread a “blessing.” “I received hundreds of e-mails from Americans—liberal and conservative—thankful to learn more about how their own racial imaginations had been shaped in childhood by these insidious threads in popular culture,” Barnes wrote. “I suddenly was able to talk with the audience and readership I had to convince myself for a decade was real and existed.”

Barnes told me she has been contacted by agents and editors and invited to speaking engagements as a result of her Twitter threads, all of which has been extremely helpful in selling her book project (Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface, forthcoming and sure to be amazing). “What I gained from having hundreds of people commenting on my Twitter thread was insight into how to sell my book”—data on which populations might be interested in it, a list of publications and radio stations who had expressed interest.

Barnes has one caveat about threading. “For those pursuing a degree or tenure, Twitter threads can feel productive as you are reaching the public, but regrettably schools are not yet accepting epic tweets for promotion,” Barnes wrote. “While I’ve joked with Kevin Kruse that Twitter threads are absolutely peer reviewed—if hundreds of historians read your work they will let you know if there is a mistake or if they disagree—we will have to keep pushing for how institutions recognize digital labor and public engagement.”

Kevin Gannon, of Grand View University, often uses GIFs and images in his threads. This isn’t his most viral example, but it’s one of my favorites because of its use of imagery to contextualize the caravan hysteria—a classic example of the thread’s power to showcase primary sources familiar to historians of American culture that are utterly shocking to people who don’t study history professionally.

“I tend to do threads quickly, so just the time it takes to type out the tweets and grab screenshots of sources I want to use—maybe 20–30 minutes, tops?” Gannon wrote about his methods. “Quicker if I’ve had enough coffee. If I’m moved to write a thread, the source material I know I want to use tends to pop into my head immediately, so that helps. In my own case, I think if I spent a lot of time polishing and planning, they would lose some of what makes them effective. Threads, for me, should have both an immediacy and an authoritativeness about them. I think they’re a good way to let a general audience peek under the hood, so to speak, and see what we as historians do—model the process, basically.”

More than one of the historians I interviewed pointed me to this thread by Joshua Clark Davis of the University of Baltimore. This is a “story” thread, about a kid George H.W. Bush used to set up his famous “you can buy crack in front of the White House!” photo op. “It was told with an appropriate degree of moral outrage, yet also had a tone of sadness and tragedy about it,” Seth Cotlar wrote in recommending it. The thread starts off matter-of-fact in tone and builds to a startling crescendo—the perfect argument for looking more closely at George H.W. Bush’s record during a period of national mourning.