I May Have Been A "Twitterstorian," But I Will Not Be A "Histodon"
Historians should just be ... "historians."
Like many high-frequency, high-volume Twitter users dismayed by the site-sabotaging changes either planned or precipitously implemented by the platform’s new owner, I decided to make a Mastodon account so that I would have a place to land if I needed one. (You can find me there at mastodon.online/@ldburnett, or @firstname.lastname@example.org—I honestly don’t know how to format a Mastodon handle, but I do know that it looks clunky and inelegant next to the simple “@” handles of Twitter, where I am just @LDBurnett, all day, every day.)
If you start to complain about Mastodon, someone will show up in your mentions to explain how it’s really fine and actually better or safer or more pleasant than Twitter and easy to use if you just implement a series of clunky workarounds that involve both respecting and bypassing the siloed architecture of the site. The key thing is to always remember which server people have joined. There is no apparent logic to the naming conventions of the servers, and there is no easily accessible searchable directory of servers. Just, you know, find your friends scattered across whatever randomly named servers still had room for signups and cobble together a following/followers list. Then you chat amongst yourselves, and people can sometimes find you. What they can’t do and what you can’t do is simply scroll the timeline. (No, the “federated” feed doesn’t work like that, when it works at all, because some Mastodon servers are not known to other Mastodon servers. Or something.)
Mastodon is not a good substitute for Twitter; it is an alternative to Twitter. Online communities seeking to reconstitute themselves there will take on a particular shape or style marked by the features and quirks of Mastodon’s platform design.
One of the communities to which I belong on Twitter, and which is trying to reconstitute itself somehow on Mastodon, is the (loosely organized) community of academic historians. Katrina Gulliver, an early adopter of Twitter, created the hashtag “#twitterstorians” to look for fellow academic historians. The label stuck; she made fetch happen.
The historians’ hashtag on Twitter signaled something more than simply our academic profile or interests. Because it incorporated the platform name into the label, the #twitterstorians hashtag came to signify the self-conscious Extreme Onlineness of the loosely-knit community of academics who used it to identify themselves and to find each other. While “twitterstorians” has often been used simply to indicate “historians who happen to be on Twitter,” at a more fundamental level it signified “historians who are into Twitter.” The “Twitter” half of the portmanteau handle loomed as large as the “historian” part of it.
Now that Twitter’s new owner seems to be systematically and gleefully degrading the platform as a forum for academics, journalists, and others who, by temperament and training, are generally interested in veracity and verifiability, it seems fairly clear that identifying our intellectual community so closely with the medium of our communications was unwise if perhaps unavoidable.
While so many academic historians migrating our social media presence to Mastodon, we have the opportunity to disentangle ourselves from this over-identification with the particular software platform/user experience we happen to be using. We can identify not with our distant corporate host but with our fellow sociable guests, labeling ourselves and finding one another with the simple hashtag “#historians.”
We can, but apparently we won’t. Because of course someone coined the hashtag #histodons—a portmanteau of “historians” and “Mastodon.” Rather than calling together a community of like-minded scholars and practitioners who happen to be on a particular platform (or federation of platforms, or whatever Mastodon is), our cutesy hashtag is once again confounding our identity as historians with the corporate brand of the platform we use.
Why? We of all people ought to learn something from the past, even the recent past. In this moment when we might reflect fruitfully on the ways that we constitute and reconstitute our identity online, and how our self-presentation online is always mediated and shaped by the capitalist logic of the social media corporations who extract value from our labor as “content generators,” why once again identify our intellectual community with the corporation hosting our discussion boards du jour?
I wish the quick adoption of the “histodons” hashtag represented some epiphany of ironic self-recognition—“here we are, we scholars, inextricably enmeshed in the very systems we aim to critique.” But the explanation is more banal, and therefore more pernicious: a cutesy portmanteau linking our scholarly identity with yet another brand or product name felt natural, familiar, easy.
The fact that that “Mastodon” denotes an open-source software platform, rather than a company name (yet), is somewhat beside the point. The problem lies with our readiness to believe that “community” can be defined by loyalty to or affection for the same branded goods. If someone invoked the “Chevy Malibu community” or the “Lucky Charms cereal community” or even the “Outlook email community,” we would—I hope—recognize that this conception of mutuality and belonging is ad copy from Madison Avenue.
We can historicize that kind of thinking—and historians like Lizabeth Cohen and Thomas Frank have done so—to the rise of the idea of “the consumer” in the 20th century, particularly after World War II. We need not actively participate in the long campaign to convince people that the strongest ties they share with others are forged by enthusiasm for the same products.
“It’s not a big deal,” some will say. “It’s just a way for the migrants from Twitter to find each other on the new platform.”
Why can we not just be “historians”? If we have accounts on the Mastodon servers, and use the hashtag within that architecture to find one another there—we are on Mastodon, looking for others on Mastodon—why must the hashtag convey information already known at the outset? What has a decade and a half of self-identification with the brand name of our online community done to our conception of community?
On Twitter, I used the hashtag “#twitterstorians” because the historians on that platform had already coalesced around the term, and if I wanted to reach the people who followed that hashtag or be included with the people who tweeted to that hashtag, then I needed to use it. And in using it, I became it—to the point where I am, in my own small way, part of the brand of our band.
Well, I think it’s time to spike the idea that community inheres in the brand of software we use. I think it’s time to stop identifying the contours of scholarly community with the trademarked identity and ludicrous naming conventions of a particular platform. (I don’t care how Mastodon describes the process of posting something to their servers; it will be a cold day in hell before I talk about “tooting” anything.)
So I won’t be using “#histodons” to label myself on Mastodon or to address anyone else. When I have something to say to our about my fellow scholars, online or offline, I’m going to use the hashtag “#historians,” which is portable across all platforms. I’m going to be on Mastodon, and I’m going to be on Twitter, and I’m going to be on whatever other social media platforms that may emerge that seem useful or pleasant to me. I’m not going to identify myself with any one of them. Been there, done that, lived to tell the tale, not to re-enact it.