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Twittering to Byzantium

Tim Gregory sent me a link to this curious Twitter feed Cry for Byzantium.  The feed reports sequentially on events in Byzantine history as if they were being twittered by the Byzantine Emperor (currently Anastasius I).  The entire scheme is explained in the feed’s companion blog.  To create the feed, the author of the Twitter feed draws upon the work of Julius Norwich and Warren Treadgold to create his first person narrative.  According to the blog, it is basically a labor of love.

This is not the first instance of Byzantium in the new media.  The most famous example was Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers series of podcasts.  The popularity of these podcasts resulted in an article in the New York Times and eventually a book deal (he also maintains a blog). 

Cry for Byzantium and other new media experiments in Byzantine history got me thinking about the relationship between scholarship and the new media.  At the same time, my graduate historiography seminar is reading Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra this week.  While these two scholars have not said anything in particular about history and the new media per se, they have both written about the largely uncritical acceptance of traditional forms of historical writing.  They have singled out the uncritical assumptions that undergird most historian’s adherence to traditional forms of narrative pointing out that the basic structure of most historical narratives remains rooted in early 19th century forms which drew heavily on the conventions of “realist” fiction.  Since that time, of course, attitudes toward the fictional narrative have changed, but history has not.  Our approach to narrating a “realistic” past continues to look to a 19th century style for validation.

As styles and practices of narration have changed to accommodate and capture the dynamism of a changing world more successfully, the book as the medium to communicate, narrate, and critique has come under increasing criticism (e.g. for a very recent one).  No one would deny that recent efforts to create a paperless book (or eBook) are not at least a little absurd.  New forms of writing, technics of constructing narrative, and communicating information such as those most obviously visible in the internet (and new media) run the risk of making historian’s long standing commitment to the book as quaint as the 19th century narrative practices that White and LaCapra have critiqued.  While historians are trying to embrace the new media and the potential of a “bookless future”, it still seems that practicing, academic historians are a step behind the interested public in our willingness to experiment. 

On my walk home last night, I thought about what it would mean to use Twitter to write an article, for example.  I regularly serialize my research here on my blog (in most cases writing blog posts as I am doing the scholarship as sort of proto-working papers).  Blog posts are much shorter than the finished articles, but nevertheless contain at least some basic scholarly apparatus (hyperlinks rather than footnotes in many cases) and often help me formulate an idea before having to compose it in its full academic form.  A tweeted article could look the same way except limited to 140 character expressions.  Cry for Byzantium approaches this by narrating an “emperor’s eye” view of Byzantine history in such short passages, but the author admits to composing his tweets before hand and preloading them into an application that posts them regularly.  Tweeting an article, as I imagine it, would require the author to be more spontaneous and actually compose the article in twitter over the course of a stretch of time (perhaps a month?).  The intervals between tweets, like the moves in a game of correspondence chess, would allow an author to think carefully about his next move.  At the same time, the audience for the article could respond and critique, or not, to the various ideas and arguments that emerge before their eyes.  (One downside of Cry for Byzantium is that it does not do much with the social media aspects of Twitter.  For example, neither the Ostrogothic King Theodoric nor Pope Symmachus respond to Anastasius tweets.)  This would put some pressure on the author to articulate arguments concisely and clearly.  This focus on language is a good thing for any writer and the limit of 140 characters is not much more arbitrary than word limits imposed on various other forms of academic writing (or works of literature in general, particularly poetry).

While it’s unlike that I will run out and start Twittering an academic article, the thought of it and the potential of such new media experiments as Cry for Byzantium is intriguing.  It serves us well to keep an eye on these kinds of things (and that means following the Cry for Byzantium Twitter feed!) and consider the potential of these experiments as real critiques of our tradition-bound scholarship.

Categories: Byzantium, The New Media
  1. November 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Someone really should take up the mantles of the Popes and King Theodoric and start engaging. I think that would be hilarious and awesome! It might even be enough to tempt me to twitter, just to observe it.
    I have to say that I think it would be really difficult for me to critique pieces of an article that were composed via twitter. It would be kind of like judging a book by the first sentence, or workshopping one sentence at a time in a novel with no context.
    Or, perhaps I’m just overlooking the obvious–we’ve been using short coded bursts of information to convey things for years in Newspaper Headlines, and I have no trouble judging an article in the paper as worthy or not based on that text.

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