Tweeting from scratch only requires a computer and an hour time. Set up an account, choose a name for your handle, read a few “how too” guides to get a sense of what the twitter etiquette is, how to use a #hashtag, how to ask a question and pursue a conversation, and you’re ready to put your thoughts, links and pictures online, and to read those by any other user. Those by the people you follow will appear on your screen in the order they are posted, creating a timeline. You can like a tweet (which is akin to bookmarking), retweet to make it visible to those who follow you, comment, reply and enter a discussion. You can see whatever a nations’ president, a journalist, a central banker, a blogger, a Nobel Prize recipient, a rockstar economist or a registered colleague sees fit to package in 140 characters and put online. You can also engage with any of them.
This is where most historians of economics might be tempted to quit reading. For what kind of scholarly idea can be expressed and circulated in 140 characters? Are years of research, construction of objects and subtle methodological distinctions reducible to a 15 words sentence? This social media thing is total nonsense! The purpose of this post, therefore, is to convince the reader to rethink her resistance to using social network for scholarly purpose, by outlining the various functions twitter can serve in historical research. It is not intended as a “how to” guide or a set of warnings. First, because tutorials specifically designed for historians and discussions of twitter’s shortcomings – from trolling to abuse, limited impact, ephemeral attention, dopamine surge and fleeting illusion of mastery – already abound on the web. Second, because each platform aimed at creating and sharing content and networking has its own set of interaction rules and technological constraints. These rules are constantly transformed, and several platforms, including twitter, might not survive 2017. The present discussion therefore seek to emancipate from the institutional and technical constraints associated with tweeting to focus on the new practices and questions it generates, and their significance for historians of economics.
For tweeting is not merely about compressing an idea in 140 characters and sending it in the wild, though that exercise is interesting it itself. It allows the dissemination of working papers and professional news, and fosters the development of new objects such as a thread or a tweetstorm, a series of tweets which, taken together, introduce a more elaborated opinion, a narrative, a set of papers or a list of references. Writing a tweetstorm is an interesting writing exercise for a historian. It has to be consistent and organized enough so that the reader will want to read the next one to the bottom of the thread. 140 characters do not allow subtle logical articulation and transitions, so that overall consistency requires shaping a kind of flow, a simple yet compelling narrative arc, possibly a chronological one. Doing so forces the writer to weed her story until its spinal chord is excavated and strengthened.
The most straightforward benefit of twitter is to improve scholarly communication, but this plays out differently depending on the state of each discipline. In history of economics specifically, it raises questions of objects and audiences. Less known, but equally promising, is how twitter can serve as a tool for researching and writing the history of economics.
Communicating the history of economics
Our first readers are our colleagues. The gradual marginalization of the history of economics since the 1970s has made places where several historians can interact and trade ideas scarce. Our community is scattered, with members often working alone in an intellectual and institutional environment that is at best curious, sometimes hostile, often indifferent. Restoring a sense of community is momentarily achieved through disciplinary conferences, and such was the purpose for the establishment of the SHOE list in 1995 and of the young scholars’ Playground blog in 2007. As Adam Kotsko has noted in the early days of social media, blogging is “especially great for academics who would otherwise be quite isolated from other academics with similar interests.” I believe that twitter offers a less costly, more flexible and more permanent infrastructure to support an online community. It allows researchers from various locations, disciplinary and institutional background to share news, call for papers, working papers, publications, PhD defenses, hires. The History of Economic Society and the European Society for the History of Economic Thought have thus recently pooled together to set up a twitter account. It also allows conferences to be live-tweeted: if a paper is publicly available online, or if panelists feel confortable with social media, scholars in the audience tweet major ideas and most significant questions. This helps those who could not attend keep track of the reception of new research and of ongoing debates.
Twitter thus works as an online “faculty lounge.” Since exchanges are (1) public and (2) searchable, these virtual lounges are less closed and exclusive than physical ones. They escape disciplinary boundaries, which is especially fit for a discipline whose survival is predicated on the reaffirmation of an identity, yet not a disciplinary one. What unites the twitter community is its objects, not its institutional structure. It does not matter whether you come from an economics, history, history of science, sociology or anthropology department, or else. The online structure of scholarly twitter also eases bibliographic search and comparative study. When I work on how economics is classified, why the American Economic Association has set up a prize system after World War II, or on changing notions of what makes “good data,” I systematically wonder what the situation is in other sciences. Querying major history of science publication does not always yield a satisfactory outcome. Twitter allows to jump from account to account, from research program to research program, and to identify ongoing work on physics classification or on the social history of the Fields medal. It also eases the identification of those artifacts which stand in between big fundamental texts and archival traces of the daily lives of scientists, which happened to shape a generation’s approach without being set in stone: an American Economic Association presidential address that was not so much cited but influenced a generation of graduate students, how the Lucas critique was weaponized, which textbooks were in use during the 1980s, or some exchange in which the naming of a new generation of macroeconomic models generated meaningful disagreement.
Other audiences can be reached through twitter: students, journalists, citizens, and of course, economists. Here, the platform offers a new opportunity to solve a longstanding tension. On the one hand, historians of economics complain that their scholarship is largely ignored by economists, but on the other, dissemination is usually held as a separate, secondary and often lower kind of activity compared with research. The problem we face is not one of contempt of disinterest anymore. It’s one of invisibility. The 2017 economics graduate student or assistant professor does not hold history of economics in low esteem, she does not even know such scholarship exists, even less where to find it. Yet, the thirst for history has not disappeared. Students want to know why and how they discipline has become mathematized, how to define a model, or who this “Haavelmo” is. Twitter can be a substitute to those disappeared history courses, it allows economists’ attention to be hacked, hooked, and channeled to a piece of history that could become significant for her. “Social media platforms have disintermediated communication between scholars and publics,” Kieran Healy notes (It might not be true though that economic twitter has no power structure. A new kind of structure, which does not mirror the tight hierarchy that characterizes academic economics but is hierarchized nonetheless has emerged).
Hacking attention however requires: (1) open, or at least easy access (time is scare, attention is fledging, it is often a matter of now or never, of immediately accessing a paper) and (2) articulated content, overarching stories and clear narrative arcs. Historians of economics are good at studying how Irving Fisher or Charles Kindleberger conceived debt, how Robert Solow produced its growth model or how Lawrence Klein thought individual behavior and macroeconomic aggregate related to one another. At providing broader narratives on how measurements, theories and models of growth have changed throughout centuries or how they have managed to predict in the last 100 years, much less so. There is little incentive to write surveys, to hook pieces of research together. Twitter allows putting reference together, discussing a set of paper together without the costs of writing a full-fledged survey.
What twitter allows should however not be conceived as reconnecting to a lost audience. There are as many reasons to be interested in the history of economics as they are registered users on twitter. Predicting what topic will “work” and what will not is bound to failure –except Friedman and the Chicago School, always a hit. And altering research interest to please a fantasized audience is the surest path to loose our hard-won intellectual independence. A suggestion, then, is to adopt Corey Robin’s admonition: the public intellectual “is writing for an audience that does not yet exist […] she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being.” While Robin uses this idea to target fashionable and successful writers, it is also one useful as a guide for scholars working in a marginalized area: do not strive to regain a lost audience, but bring one into being. Because tweeting is to some extent shouting in the wild, it paradoxically dispenses the history with targeting a specific audience.
Researching the history of economics
Economics, past and present
Social media platforms have enabled the observation, quantification and measurement all kind of social behaviors, interactions and engagements. Through its APIs, twitter data were initially largely accessible to social scientists, who have scrapped huge quantities of data, and the platform has quickly emerged as a valuable repository. Scrapping and visualizing data is becoming standard practices in some branches of sociology, and the word “digital ethnography” has been coined to designate a new set of practices whereby social behavior is being observed through twitter. Of course, contemporary economists’ behaviors and networks as measured through twitter and the ideas they trade online have not yet become history. But it does not mean twitter data are not relevant material for historians. First, because they allow us to distinguish permanent from changing features in economists’ methods, discourses and practices. New storage, processing and real-time recording technologies and companies may have ushered economics in an age of big data, but the debates I witness are strikingly reminiscent of the Cowles vs NBER “Measurement Without Theory” controversy and the economics as an inductive vs deductive science question.
Second, the boundaries between the past and the present are unstabilized and permeable, in particular in contemporary history. Till Düppe defines the latter as dealing “with the past that is still remembers by some of those among us.” “Some” might be the former students or children of the economists we study. They might be those economists themselves, retired, or as we move toward present, still active. Twitter offers data which, with appropriate tooling up in sociological and ethnographic methods, harness some of the challenges Düppe highlights. First, observing economists’ exchanges highlights how they wield and weaponize their history, the canonical and the one we produce. Whose protagonists our narratives serve become clearer, and that economists cooperate with historians in part to influence them too. Even those projects which are not aimed at restoring credit alter the relationships of protagonists or communities with one another. By becoming historical objects, the sunspot literature, disequilibrium economics or contingent valuation, become worthy of attention, and, in the end, distinct, consistent and worthy scientific endeavors. Proponents of self-called “heterodox” approaches have long understood this; there are more histories of heterodox economics than mainstream ones.
Twitter offers the possibility of interacting directly with graduate students, government and think thank economists, academics, central bankers, and more. Yet doing so might change our practice as much as we may want to change theirs. At the very least, it makes tensions over purpose, methods and identities more salient. Over the past decades, we have evolved from being economists doing history to become historians studying economics. We have emancipated in terms of objects and methods. Archive oozing and interviews have spread, and the deployment of quantitative techniques more akin to digital humanities than econometrics or experiments are on the rise. Our disciplinary identity has expanded to the edges of sociology and history of science, sociology and intellectual history. Yet, in spite of calls to move to history departments, I suspect that history of economics contributors are still in majority located in economics departments, teach economics, are evaluated according to economics rankings, and define themselves as economists (that’s my case). Most important, we do write history with a purpose, however largely unconscious: changing economists’ theories and practices, providing facts to anchor current debates on the state of the dismal science, instilling more reflexivity into their intellectual and institutional practices, improving policy-makers, citizens and journalists’ ability to decipher and assess economists’ work. We may have diverse audiences in mind, but we want to be relevant, and twitter offers us the ability to get a better grasp at current debates and angst. Whether our research topics should be allowed to shift is a matter of debate, but twitter cues may help us pitch our chosen stories to improve our outreach.
From writing history for public uses to writing history “in public”
According to sociologist Kieran Healy, social media “tend to move the discipline from a situation where some people self-consciously do ‘public sociology’ to one where most sociologists unselfconsciously do sociology in public.” This, he explains, because “new social media platforms have made it easier to be seen,” creating “a distinctive field of public conversation, exchange and engagement.” Twitter does not merely enable historians of economics to trade reference, discuss alternative “modeling” practices of monetary theories or disagree on the influence of the Cold War or Civil Right movements on the objects and methods of economists. It requires them to do so in public. It is often considered as a shortcoming – being challenged in public might highlight some weakness in the analysis and create a reputation of sloppiness. Resistance to airing disciplinary dirty laundry online also derived from the notion that scientific credibility is tied to the ability to achieve and publicize some kind of disciplinary “consensus.”
I don’t share this worry. Science is predicated on the belief that truth is not sui generis, involves puzzles, trials and errors. Doubting and arguing in public is a sign of individual soundness and disciplinary self-confidence. It is being comfortable with scientific method. Tweeting is “thinking in progress,” and it is recognized as such (though I have never seen formal guidelines, the etiquette seems to allow tweets to be quoted in blog posts, and blog posts to be quoted in academic papers.) Researching the history of economics in public is also a way to help other scholars relate to our practices. Laying out a puzzle –why have subfields who most benefited from computerization, such as large-scale macroeconometrics or, computational general equilibrium became marginalized as the PC spread –, posting an exchange between Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman or a figure representing a principal component analysis, a co-citation network or the result of some Newsweek articles text-mining and arguing over interpretation allow to frame history as a process whereby some quantitative and qualitative data are gathered, exploited and interpreted. Rough data – qualitative and quantitative – are put on display, suggesting both commonalities and specificities in the methods historians need to use to make them speak. Finally, opening the narrative black box by writing history in public and circulating working papers allow fellow historians to engage in a sort of early online public referee process, and economists to react in a public and articulated way.
In short, twitter is a tool for researching and communicating the history of economics. The latter can be done at little cost, with the uncertain yet real prospect of high spillovers effects. This is a good reason for all historians who like a good economics argument to give it a try, and join their some 50 colleagues already registered. Twitting also raises all sorts of questions on our research practices and audiences. It forces those who routinely eschew reflexive endeavors (such as the author) to articulate their perspective on the present state and future of their discipline. For writing the history of economics in public and disseminating it in the end requires a good deal of enthusiasm for the quality of what is being published and optimism in its possible social benefits.
Note: this is a draft paper for a historiography volume. Comments welcome.