Tweeting the 2016 Australian Historical Association Conference

Street lamp in foreground with powerlines and buildings behind it obscured by a blanket of fog. The sun is a bright ball peeking weakly through the fog.

Conference tweeps shared a lot of photos and comments about the bleak Ballarat weather…
@AuthorClaireG tweeted about a conference excursion, “Off to the Springdallah goldfields on a very foggy morning!” The weather was drab in Ballarat last week, but this week it snowed.

Last week there was a flurry of Australian history tweeting emanating from Ballarat in Victoria. The 2016 annual conference of the Australian Historical Association was held in the old gold city and over three hundred presenters from universities, galleries, libraries, archives, museums and small businesses talked all things history.

I have attended the last four conferences, but not this year. I was one of those who following the conference twitter stream from afar. At times it was too easy to get drawn into the twitter stream and distracted from what I was supposed to be doing!

In previous years I have given an overview of the conference Twitter stream. I was particularly enthusiastic last year with three posts: the numbers and people in 2015, Twitter themes in 2015, top retweets in 2015. Also see the social media overview for 2013. So how was the 2016 conference reported on Twitter?

This year over two hundred people and organisations sent tweets using the conference hashtag, #OzHA2016. This is great. The more people tweeting the more likely we are to get a good coverage of the conference and a diversity of views. The list of people tweeting using the conference hashtag naturally includes a few people who only tweeted once or twice. I noted last year that the 2015 conference twitter stream was dominated by eleven voices contributing 76% of the tweets. This was in line with the conference twitter stream in 2013. I was delighted to see that this year a lot more people were responsible for this percentage of tweets. Thirty-nine people/organisations contributed 77% of the conference tweets.

It is in this context that we should consider the total number of conference tweets. This year saw fewer tweets than the conference last year. Between the conference start on Monday 4th July and the conference end on Friday there were 1,724 tweets sent compared to 2,625 tweets last year. There was some confusion at the beginning of the conference about the conference hashtag which would have led to some conference tweets not being counted, but I would argue that the fact that the top eleven tweeters were not dominating the tweets anywhere near as much as last year made this year’s conference hashtag a valuable one for people following afar.

A conference would be a dud without people putting their hands up to deliver papers. If they are on Twitter it is nice to mention their Twitter handle when tweeting their paper. Most historians are not on Twitter and it can be difficult to find the Twitter handle of someone with a common name, so I decided to start a Twitter list of conference presenters. I did this by trawling through the conference twitter stream and cross-checking with the program. I also sent out tweets asking presenters to send me a tweet so I could add them to the list.

I have now found fifty-one presenters at the conference on Twitter. What I thought would be a mere aide for people tweeting a conference lives on. If you want to hear what historians in Australia are doing and hear about developments in history, then get tweets from historians by subscribing to the list.

Two trees with no leaves in front of a lake and grey sky. The foreground shows a wet road.

@jameslesh tweeted, “A photo before my chilly run around Lake Wendouree this morning.” One has to wonder why he did it, but I suppose I have been known to swim in an outdoor pool before dawn when it was 5 degrees. You do feel good afterwards.

Let’s Have More #OzHist

Now the conference is over, where do people talk about Australian history on Twitter? Many Australian historians use the #twitterstorians hashtag which is one used by English-speaking historians world-wide. It is a huge and valuable hashtag. But I believe that we need a hashtag just for Australian history. We need a place where family historians, local historians and cultural institutions such as museums, libraries and archives can share and discuss Australian history.

At the same time as we decided to adopt the #OzHA hashtag for Australian Historical Association conferences, we also decided to use #OzHst to discuss Australian history on Twitter. Independently the #OzHist (with an ‘i’) has also emerged. The latter seems to be garnering more tweets, possibly because it is more intuitive.

It would be great if the historians who were tweeting #OzHA2016 could continue to tweet Australian history news and discussions using the #OzHist hashtag. I would love to see #OzHist become a place for anyone interested in Australian history, whether as a reader, a family historian, a teacher, a worker in the tourism industry, cultural institution or in the public service. It could be a place where historians interact and learn from each other as well as the diversity of people who are fascinated by history and want to know more.

The Twitter Archive

Each year British historian, Sharon Howard, sets up an archive of our conference tweets which I then use to analyse the conference Twitter stream. This year she used Martin Hawksey’s TAGS Google sheet template to produce a network diagram of the conference tweeps. When I saw this I realised that I probably messed things up a bit by forgetting to use the conference hashtag when replying to conference tweets, so those interactions would have been missed. I would imagine others would have done the same thing. That is something to remember for next year – add the conference hashtag when you are responding to a conference tweet.

At any rate have a look at the network diagram for the conference. You can also see a list of top tweeters and top hashtags used. It is good to see that the conference organisers, the Collaborative Research Centre in Australian History or @CRCAHBallarat, tops the list with number of tweets. The network diagram and the top hashtags list shows the influence of environmental history in the conference. One of the organisers of the environmental history stream, Jodi Frawley can be seen as a key person in the conference Twitter stream, and #ozeh2016 (the hashtag for the conference’s environmental history stream) and #envhist are near the top of the hashtags used in conjunction with the conference hashtag.

people seated around a table and others standing behind them

The environmental history stream of the conference was very successful. @DrDreHistorian tweeted, “Well the #envhist panel at #OzHA2016 is popular. I have to sit in the doorway!”

I also learned about the Australasian Victorian Studies Association from the conference Twitter stream. This Association is interested in the culture of the Victorian era as it was expressed by people living outside Britain. They organised a #VictorianMargins conference stream which was well-tweeted. Have a look at their Storify collection to see what was reported online.

Martin Hawksey’s TAGS project makes archiving tweets a doddle. In a few minutes I had created my own archive of conference tweets on which much of this analysis is based. There are a lot of complaints about the internet, but we forget how supportive people can be online and how much is freely and openly shared. The collaboration and reporting on #OzHA2016, Sharon Howard’s quiet, but valuable archiving of tweets and Martin Hawksey’s TAGS service demonstrate this.

The Value of Tweeting… and blogging

Tweets are limited to 140 characters. By their nature they are short and ephemeral (unless you go to the effort of keeping an archive. The papers delivered at an academic conference are by nature, deep and complex. Is there any value in tweeting a conference? I had a chance to assess this from the perspective of someone who did not attend the conference.

I had things to do but I kept one eye on the conference hashtag and at times was engrossed in the discussion. The Twitter stream alerted me to things I had did not know about such as the ‘Historic Urban Landscape’ approach to heritage and the ‘Loud Fence’ movement which shows support for child sex abuse victims. The tweets gave me an idea of what was discussed and allowed me to ask people for more details. It also alerted me to more great Australian history tweeps to follow.

But people at a conference cannot possibly cover the proceedings thoroughly on Twitter. I prefer not to tweet conference sessions where a brief tweet could be misinterpreted or a tweet could not possibly do justice to a difficult topic. History has plenty of fraught topics. Aside from this, how can a series of tweets do justice to a twenty minute paper which has been crafted over a long time?

Tweeting does a unique job of immediate reporting, but we also need the longer read to gain a deeper understanding of what the conference was about. Sometimes a presenter will be generous enough to share their paper freely online, or there may be websites shared on Twitter during the conference which deserve our considered attention.

In my next post I will share the blog posts about the conference and the websites which were highlighted during the conference.

If you are interested you can flick through all my posts about Australian Historical Association conferences since 2012.


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