Twitter Themes During 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference

word cloud

Most commonly used words in #OzHA2015 tweets during the 2015 Australian Historical Association Conference. Click on the word cloud to enlarge it. Click on it again to be taken to the data behind this word cloud. I love this facility from Voyant Tools!

During the four days of open sessions at the conference, participants tweeted over forty thousand words excluding hashtags and Twitter handles. This year’s conference had the biggest Twitter stream of any Australian Historical Association conference since 2012 and as my last post showed, more people tweeted the conference than ever before.

A conference Twitter stream is a news service for those who cannot attend the event.  It is a crowd note-taking service which participants can refer to in order to jog their memory, find out what happened in sessions they did not attend and to provide added commentary which enriches the conference discourse.

Yet we need to be careful about what a Twitter conference stream can and cannot provide. The fact that there are lots of tweets does not necessarily mean that the event is properly represented in the hashtag. Any digital history papers are more likely to be well tweeted because attendees interested in technology are more likely to be on Twitter. Likewise some papers might miss out on coverage on Twitter even though the room is full, because those attendees are not on Twitter.

How well did this year’s Twitter stream reflect the conference program?

The word cloud above represents the most frequently tweeted words during the four days of sessions at the conference (after excluding stop words such as ‘the’ ‘are’, ‘a’ etc). Predictably words such as history, historians, Australian, Australia and historical were among the most commonly used words in the Conference Twitter stream. If we delve deeper there are some other themes which emerge.

I have taken a closer look at the fifty most tweeted words to identify topics of significant interest to the tweeps during the conference. This is a subjective analysis. I did not use topic modelling software and I ignored over four thousand words which occurred with less frequency in the conference Twitter stream. However, I feel that this limited analysis provides an interesting indicator of at least some of the dominant themes in the Twitter stream.

Dominant Topics

In my overview of the program before the conference I said that women’s history would be a strong theme in the conference. On this topic the Conference Twitter stream reflected the conference program.

Words such as ‘women’, ‘women’s’, ‘Matthews’ and ‘feminist’ featured prominently in the Twitter stream. Jill Julius Matthews was the keynote speaker for the Australian Women’s History Network symposium which was held as part of the conference on Wednesday. While I did not include words outside the top fifty most tweeted words it is worth noting that the word ‘woman’ was number fifty-one on the list. The prominence of tweets about women’s history is a marked contrast to the under-representation of this theme at the 2013 conference.

Public history was also an important theme in the tweets. The Big Questions plenary panel session resulted in the most tweets of the entire conference. Thirty six tweeps sent over one hundred and fifty tweets while this panel was held with seventy of these tweets being retweeted at least once. This comment by panelist, Mark McKenna was the second most retweeted tweet of the entire conference:

RT @AustHistAssoc: Mark McKenna #OzHA2015.

Historians need to be part of public debate as collaborators with journalists, documentary makers, museum curators.

On many measures the Big Questions panel was the session which attracted most attention on Twitter. It produced sixty more tweets and retweets than the next most tweeted session which was the last session of the same day. The names of all of the speakers on this panel appeared in the list of the top fifty most used words in the conference. Over the entire conference, the word ‘public’ was the eleventh most tweeted word, often used in phrases such as “public debate” and “public memory”.

The names of two of the Big Questions panelists featured in the top ten of most frequently tweeted words for the entire conference. Both Ann Curthoys and Peter Mandler from Cambridge University had two significant appearances at the conference. Mandler delivered the conference’s keynote address about ‘The ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ in Comparative Perspective’. Curthoys delivered a public lecture on Race, Liberty, Empire: The foundations of Australian political culture’.

While the Big Questions panel was a discussion amongst historians about how we are connecting to the public, Ann Curthoys’ keynote speech was public history in practice. This public lecture was promoted by the City of Sydney Council and the Conference organisers. It has been recorded by ABC Radio for their ‘Big Ideas’ program to be broadcast later in the year. The Great Hall at the University of Sydney was filled with people on a cold night listening to Curthoys discuss the research that she and Jessie Mitchell are undertaking into the participation of Aboriginal people in democratic processes during the nineteenth century and how these rights were withdrawn from them as the settlers gained self-government.

The history of Aboriginal people since European settlement was a strong theme in the tweets from the conference. This reflects the fact that the history of Australia’s indigenous peoples was also the subject of over twenty papers at the conference and three panels.

During the month in which the conference was held the simmering issue of the harassment of Aboriginal footballer, Adam Goodes by crowds booing him escalated. Clearly the appalling history of how indigenous Australians were treated by the Europeans who captured their lands is still a raw sore in Australian public life. There is still much work to be done to help Australians to understand and engage with this land’s difficult past two hundred years.

As I was writing this much delayed post, the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT issued a public statement in support of Adam Goodes. This is the kind of leadership that historians need to take on such a vital issue that cuts to the core of our nation’s consciousness.

I stopped writing. That statement speaks more powerfully about the importance of historians reaching out to the public than a post about the statistics of conference tweeting.


There have been many conferences, speeches, books launched and journal articles written on the topic of World War I in the past twelve months, and many more are to come. Understandably many historians involved in this work were not at the conference nevertheless there were eleven sessions with thirty-one papers on war or memories of war. This does not include papers which may have been on an aspect of this history but were included in other sessions.

Words relating to this history such as Anzac, War and WWI appeared in the top fifty most tweeted words. Conference tweeps sent just under seventy tweets with words appearing in the top fifty most frequently tweeted words. This topic was not the primary topic of a plenary session which would account for it not being so prominent in the conference tweets. I suspect that some of the sessions on this topic were not tweeted, but overall given the number of people tweeting and the total number of conference tweets, I think that this topic received the proportionate attention of conference tweeps.

Religion Slips Under Tweeps’ Radar

Not only was the Religious History Association Conference held on one day of the main conference, but as I noted in my overview of the conference program, there were at least twenty papers touching on religious issues in the main conference itself. Shurlee Swain delivered the keynote address for the Religious History Association. She has been doing difficult and important work for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Her research strikes at a critical issue that has wrecked so many lives in Australia over the last century and is currently the subject of much public discussion in many countries.

Fortunately Janine Rizzetti has written about Swain’s keynote presentation (and one of the Religious History Association sessions) on her blog and I had a go at tweeting it, but there were very few other tweets about religious history at the conference.

There is a major reassessment of our understanding of the process of secularisation in the west. This has led to historians re-examining our understanding of the role of belief in the west over the last century. I know there are historians in Australia who are exploring the role of belief in Australian society and are keen to engage other historians and the public in this debate, yet they are very few tweeting about religious history of Australia, blogging it or using other forms of social media to convey it.

Gatekeepers such as editors and producers ration access to many avenues historians use to reach the public but social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and blogs are open to anyone to use. Social media is a wonderful opportunity for historians of religion and belief to connect with other historians and the public. It is a powerful way to demonstrate to journalists, publishers and producers that there is an interesting history to be told and that there is an audience interested in hearing it.

Aside from the coverage of religious history, I thought that the Conference Twitter stream gave a reasonably balanced view of the Conference given the small proportion of Conference attendees who tweeted. Was this your view?

I explain the general methodology behind this analysis on my Digital Humanities blog, Stumbling Through the Future. This analysis uses the data from the Conference’s Twitter Archive maintained by digital historian, Sharon Howard.

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