Social Media as a Distinct Form of Knowledge Production

When I started blogging in 2016, I had not been an active reader of blogs. I liked the idea of reaching out to a broader public by blogging about my research project on the eponymously titled Migration and Belonging, not least because it was publicly funded, but what exactly would it mean to blog as a historian? How often would I need to upload a post and on what? Would I be able to handle the technical requirements? What pictures could I use? And how about other social media? I have been blogging and tweeting for some four years now. In 2017, I also began using Instagram for scholarly communication. Here I reflect on my experiences with academic blogging and other social media as a distinct form of producing knowledge—some meta-blogging, if you will.

Academic Blogging

Many scholars use blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, Reddit, Flickr, Pinterest, and other forms of social media for academic purposes. Before I began blogging, different a cademic blogs inspired me, mostly those by other scholars writing about their current research. In recent years, I have also begun reading more and more blogs by research networks or professional associations as these are important sites for learning. The Black Perspectives blog and the German-language project Geschichte der Gegenwart (History of the Present), for example, offer a broad range of topics relevant to my own research and teaching. These and other such blogs that address an educated public influence my own blogging in terms of how to address readers, explain complex topics, and manage controversial debates.

For me, blogging is a genuinely academic practice.1 It is simultaneously a writing, research, and teaching practice. Blogging is fun because it is dialogic and processual. It can help one to write regularly. Moreover, the practice creates networks, making it possible to reach a broad range of people interested in a specific topic, in my case migration history. Blogging makes it possible to present research in the making, which in turn requires one to reflect regularly on the research process itself.2 I do this on Migration and Belonging with posts filed under categories such as From the Archives, Research Reports, and Methods and Theories for ready retrieval. The academic weblog portal Hypotheses, where I blog, even encourages scholars to conceive of blogging as a research tool.

Nonetheless, many historians are skeptical about blogs and even more so about social media. Even if blogging and tweeting are more accepted today than they were a couple of years ago, I still encounter feedback that these forms of communication are a waste of time, unnecessary, or even harmful for one’s academic career. In a recent study on young researchers in physics, chemistry, mathematics, life sciences, and related fields, Carsten Könneker and his colleagues found that one in two young scientists in Germany assumes that scholarly communication on blogs and other social media benefits their academic career, while three-quarters of their colleagues from other countries think so, even eight out of ten in the United States.3 While these numbers might differ somewhat for the humanities, they point to a common skepticism in German-speaking academia towards scholarly communication in general and social media in particular. This hesitation towards all things digital has recently begun to disappear, as evidenced by the many German contributors to this blog. It helps that History of Knowledge is hosted by a respected institution. In fact, blogs like this one can help to establish standards for blogging and the credibility of the format, hopefully lending blogging more acceptance as an important form of academic writing.

I enjoy blogging, and I like the opportunities that other social media offer; however, blogging and scholarly communication do not just happen. A blog, an Instagram account, a podcast, or a YouTube channel require regular and sustained effort, while time is usually in short supply. Even if scholars can join blog portals like Hypotheses or Humanities Commons at no charge, or they can produce videos with a mobile device, well-made social media content also requires substantial time resources and often either institutional or additional financial resources to produce content, to present it appealingly, and to disseminate it. Although I author most of the posts for Migration and Belonging, I am able to pay for professional support through third-party funding. A colleague Kai-Britt Albrecht proofreads the texts, edits the images, uploads the posts, and plans the general layout of the site.4 I then publicize the blogposts via email and Twitter.

Academic Instagram

I also started using Instagram with an eye to increasing traffic to my weblog. Alas, cross-media does not work that well in my case. I am struggling with Instagram in part because of data privacy issues. Moreover, creating image-based content of largely text-based historical research is neither self-evident nor easy, especially if one wants to produce original, Instagrammable pictures instead of relying exclusively on public domain images only. One way I managed this during the past academic year at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, was to publish a weekly Instagram post under the hashtag #ResearchFellowInDC.5 The idea was to tell short stories about my research, writing projects, academic events, and daily life as a historian abroad.

I continue to post, but not as frequently. After more than three years and more than 160 posts as an #InstaHistorian, I have fewer than 400 followers. By comparison, my blog is visited between 5,000 and 13,000 times a month and some 1,200 people follow my Twitter account. These numbers diverge from general social media usage among Germans, who spend more time on Instagram than on Twitter.6 At the same time, they reflect how academics and historians prefer blogs and Twitter to Instagram posts. (Age also seems to play a role here).

Nonetheless, more and more museums and research institutions are using Instagram successfully for history in order to reach the public at large. It also helps that they have capable staff and their own collections to draw on. A widely discussed and privately funded history project on the Holocaust is Eva Stories. Individual historians like me post on Instagram, too, for example under the hashtag #historygirls or on personal accounts that include history, for example, those of Regina Adjoa and Alexander Schwanebeck.

Social Media and Historical Knowledge

Studies have shown that a wide range of social media is used in the academic field to promote and communicate research, facilitate networking, and complement traditional publications. Social media is also used to read about new scientific literature, grant opportunities, and science policy, not to mention conferences and other events.7 But this scholarly communication does not simply happen. It should be understood as academic work that has a place next to reading other’s scholarship, studying source material in the archives, publishing journal articles, and teaching.

What happens to academic knowledge and knowledge production when it is communicated via social media instead of primarily in scholarly journals and lengthy monographs? Using social media for academic purposes entails leaving one’s academic field—with its specific rules of proof, legitimation, and communication—to enter another system with different rules and standards. This change of medium undoubtedly affects production and content. In a fairly recent study of science blogging, Paige Brown Jarreau emphasizes that internal motivations, personal interests, “organizational and social institutional objectives” as well as field-specific “guidelines and constraints [combine] to produce recognizable patterns of blogging approaches and content decision principles.”8 In other words, blogging and other social media can change not only communication and the transmission of knowledge but also research modes and topics.

These findings are certainly consistent with my own experiences, whether blogging about research, conferences, and teaching; discussing such things with colleagues on Twitter; or describing research routines on Instagram. To begin with, I usually blog in my primary language, German, and my German prose has changed. Composing papers or lectures seems easier now, and my writing has become more accessible and (hopefully) less dependent on the German tradition of Bandwurmsätze, endless complex sentences that can remind the reader of a tapeworm.

My perception of academic work and its locations has also undergone a shift. When working in archives, I take pictures not only of the material but also of the building itself. I do this with a future blogpost in mind. One might criticize this as a silly distraction; however, observing the places and spaces where historians work helps me to reflect on the conditions of historical knowledge production. This includes remembering that the collection, preservation, and organization of my sources has a history too.9 On a practical level, such blogging enables me to share information with others about what one can find where, what is permitted at a given archive, what has been digitized, and so on. The collaborative spirit behind such information sharing also motivates some of my tweeting. When I participate in conferences, for example, I might decide to tweet live from the event, and in this way engage in further discussions with scholars, some present and others unable to attend.

Another aspect of how social media can change historical knowledge and historiographical practice became evident when I compiled a timeline of a historical event on Twitter with a group of students. The class led to renewed reflection at a workshop at the German Historical Institute Paris on “Teaching History in a Digital Age,” followed by a post in English on my blog. The students and I, for example, had used archival sources in a different way from more conventional historical research projects and thereby tested the possibilities and limits of social media in practice.

Underlying all of this blogging, tweeting, and Instagramming is the thought that it can amplify my research. A negative side-effect of this visibility can be the wish to create likeable posts or to avoid controversy. Jarreau, for example, finds that many science bloggers avoid controversial topics on their blogs.10 At the same time, visibility on social media can be about more than gaining an edge in a highly competitive academic arena. Scholarly engagement on social media often calls for the exercise of responsible academic citizenship. for example, by interacting with commentators, responding to queries, and amplifying marginalized voices.

Sharing personal observations on the internet about what it means to work as a historian did not come easy to me. It was not part of my academic training, and it remains foreign to a great many historians. Nevertheless, linking historical content to social media has definitively changed my work as a historian—and in a positive way. Academic communication via blog posts, tweets, and other social media enriches my research and writing as much as it facilitates my engagement with other scholars and the public.

Levke Harders is assistant professor of modern and gender history at Bielefeld University in Germany. She tweets with the handle @LevkeHarders and her research blog is Migration and Belonging.

Image: The author in the Library of Congress via an Instagram post from February 7, 2020.

I would like to thank Mark Stoneman for his excellent advice and thorough editing.

  1. For introductions to academic communication, including blogging, see Christie Wilcox, Bethany Brookshire, and Jason G. Goldman, eds., Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Diane Rasmussen Neal, ed., Social Media for Academics: A Practical Guide (Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2012). ↩︎
  2. See also Björn Gebert, “Soll ich oder soll ich nicht? Zehn Gründe, warum es sich für Historiker*innen lohnt zu bloggen,” Zeitarbeit: Aus- und Weiterbildungszeitschrift für die Geschichtswissenschaften 1 (2019): 43–51, ↩︎
  3. Carsten Könneker, “Young Researchers and Science Communication: Results of an Extensive Survey,” Blog of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, January 30, 2019, ↩︎
  4. See also Heike Helen Weinbach, “Forschung bloggen,” Resonanzen der Kinder- und Jugendpartizipation 2019, May 23, 2019,, via Internet Archive, ↩︎
  5. Others can use the same hashtag, of course, although it probably won’t be relevant until after the present pandemic. ↩︎
  6. In 2019, 19% of Germans used Instagram weekly, but only 4% used Twitter. See “Nutzung von Onlinecommunitys 2019,” ARD/ZDF-Onlinestudies, ↩︎
  7. Isabelle Peters, “Science 2.0: Was hat die Wissenschaft vom Social-Media-Prinzip?,” Forschung und Lehre 25, no. 1 (2018): 10-13, (or see preprint version with citations); Isabelle M. Côté and Emily S. Darling, “Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the Choir or Singing from the Rooftops?,” Facets 3 (2018): 682–94, For the humanities, see Mareike König, “Strategische Kommunikation: wie Geisteswissenschaftler*innen bloggen: Ergebnisse der Umfrage bei de.hypotheses,” Redaktionsblog, June 6, 2019, ↩︎
  8. Paige Brown Jarreau, “All the Science That Is Fit to Blog: An Analysis of Science Blogging Practices” (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 2015), 210–11, etd-04072015-094935. ↩︎
  9. See, for example, Anja Horstmann and Vanina Kopp, eds., Archiv—Macht—Wissen: Organisation und Konstruktion von Wissen und Wirklichkeiten in Archiven (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2010); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). ↩︎
  10. Jarreau, “All the Science,” 212. Harmful attacks on blogging or tweeting researchers can be seen not only in the sciences but also in the humanities. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Levke Harders, “Social Media as a Distinct Form of Knowledge Production,” History of Knowledge, September 16, 2020,