Tweeting Renaissance Research

November 10, 2020
By James Brown

In this blog post, Dr James Brown (University of Sheffield) offers a masterclass in running social media, and especially Twitter, for an early modern research project. James is currently Research Associate and Project Manager (UK) for the international project Intoxicating Spaces: The Impact of New Intoxicants on Urban Spaces in Europe, 1600–1850 and has many years of experience running social media for large-scale research projects. Here, he reflects on humour, hashtags, and how to make compelling Twitter content from early modern source materials.


One of the most enjoyable aspects of the various early modern research projects on which I’m lucky enough to have worked is running their social media; ‘doing the Twitter’ is something I’ve found especially rewarding. The benefits of a vibrant Twitter feed for research projects are self-evident; from promoting your publications, events, resources, and blog posts, to reaching external audiences, to crowdsourcing research queries and palaeographical puzzlers, to generating attractive numbers for funding reports and follow-on applications (easily done via Twitter’s powerful free analytics service).

While none of my tweets have ever gone properly viral, compared like with like my project accounts have always earned a respectable and engaged following with high levels of interactions and impressions – Twitter-speak for views – on most posts. Below, I share some of the things I’ve learned, with special reference to my current HERA-funded project, Intoxicating Spaces, which has gained 2,330 Twitter followers since the account launched in September 2019 (there are also excellent tips from a cultural heritage perspective here, here, and here):


  • The promotion of project activities and outputs makes up a small fraction of the content I publish, and if you only fire up your account when you’ve got something to advertise you’re unlikely to gain a significant audience. Instead, I retweet extensively, and also post lively and entertaining material from manuscript, printed, visual, and material sources. That way, when you do have something important to publicise, it’s more likely to gain traction.
  • The original content I share emerges organically from the historical materials on which I’m working; I don’t have a ‘social media strategy’, targets for daily/weekly number of tweets, or anything like that. This is of necessity – given my other project responsibilities I don’t have time to trawl sources specifically for Twitter – but I think also makes for a more dynamic and spontaneous feed that authentically conveys research activity. If I come across something that I find especially interesting, I share it; my own tastes tend towards the wry, which also informs the tone and voice of our account as a whole.
  • What makes for popular renaissance content? In my experience, the hardy perennials are things that are amusing (like this drunk vicar throwing a frog at a gentlewoman), things that are relatable (like this eighteenth-century doodle of an antiquarian being bothered by his cat), things that are risque (like this floating coffeehouse which ended its career as a brothel), things that are surprising (like this early modern coffeehouse called Nando’s), or a combination thereof. However, Twitter can be a fickle mistress, and not everything will resonate even when it ticks all of those boxes; this 1711 case of diarrhoea in a coffeehouse, for example, under-performed.
  • Topical content that speaks to the season or current news items also tends to go over well. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic I ran a darkly humorous series of tweets highlighting the connections between intoxicants and the plague in the seventeenth-century (developing out of research for a project article), while when English pubs controversially reopened post-lockdown on Super Saturday we indulged in some light trolling.
  • I’m generally not a fan of hashtags, but if used judiciously they can be your friend. The proliferating number of national and international days can be a good springboard for content, especially if they intersect with the themes of your project; I saved this over-caffeinated letter writer for #InternationalCoffeeDay. There are also wildly popular weekly hashtags such as #FolkloreThursday which, with some creative thinking, can be used to leverage project material. Just #dont #over #use #them (this can be useful for discoverability on Instagram but is pointless, spammy, and unaesthetic on Twitter).
  • Nor am I super-keen on threads – done properly they are very time-consuming and I’m not very good at them! – but they are a useful vehicle for telling richer and more complicated stories and can be a neat alternative to a conventional blog post. Here’s one documenting our recreation of a seventeenth-century plague onion (a fire-roasted allium stuffed with opium), while during the Black Lives Matter protests I published a thread exploring the close relationship between intoxicants and slavery.
  • Finally, always use an image. This is obvious for art historical material and objects, but is equally true for manuscripts and printed texts; not only does it make quotations pop on the TL, but things like early modern secretary hand are intrinsically odd and interesting and, for those of your followers lucky enough not to be in the profession, provide insight into the day-to-day business of being a historian. Always cite the source, which I do by tagging the institutional handle, giving the shelfmark and folio number, and – if the material is already digitised – linking to the full record online. To avoid spamming the institution with notifications if the tweet proves popular, I generally do this in a reply to the original tweet. For my previous project I also made extensive use of my own photography; I still do this for Intoxicating Spaces, but to a lesser extent, and it generally stays on our Instagram.