From the AHA Online column of the November 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

The Expanding Social Mind

Vanessa Varin, November 2013

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90713998/ The Symbolical head, illustrating all the phrenological developments of the human head, c1842.The digital social network in some ways isn't all that new. Human beings have always demonstrated a desire to connect with each other and build communities. Just last year, Nature revealed some of the many parallels between the stone age societies of the late Pleistocene and today's modern society, most notably our tendency to form cliques based upon physical characteristics and activities.1

But now our modern human social networks are bolstered by technology, and scientists are beginning to explore how technology, and more particularly, social media, is gradually changing the way our brains' structure looks and functions. Initial findings suggest that complex communication tools (like social media) are contributing to growth in the size of the human brain, and a related growth in complexity in the brain's architecture that supports intricate social behaviors.2

But no one should take this too far. Just because red wine may produce heart-­healthy benefits, doesn't mean we should drink it in excess, or imbibe wine of low quality. Moderation and selectivity is the golden rule and the same should apply to our presence in social media networks.

Now there's a way historians can enjoy the intellectual advantages of social networking while avoiding the trolls, the uncivil comment threads, and the constant stream of time-­consuming viral videos. The AHA now offers an exclusive online networking platform for the history discipline. AHA Communities is a new space for the history community to connect, share ideas, discuss professional and theoretical issues, and interrogate new forms of scholarship among peers.

I know many of you may have your misgivings. We are living in an age where new social networks appear as frequently as academics cite Foucault. So why join another social network?

Already larger and more diverse than any previous decade, our discipline is always in danger of fragmenting, and our work leads us to hide in the comforts of our windowless studies. The AHA has always been the central nucleus that binds our discipline together but until now, we haven't benefited from an always-­accessible common ground, where discussions can easily cross-­pollenate between fields.
AHA Communities is one step toward building that space. These communities are organized not by specialization (although a member can easily create their own), but into much broader topics that require a greater breadth of opinions and voices. This includes forums dedicated to issues brought up in Perspectives, historical thinking in the news, and pedagogical concerns in both K-­12 and higher education. When you can eliminate the theoretical boundaries and connect people around a similar topic, ideas flourish.

Second, unlike Twitter and Facebook, AHA Communities is a network where scholars can scale communities to their ideal size, from small groups of close colleagues to public communities open to all. Already, we have found great success in using the platform for effective committee work and group collaboration, offering members the opportunity to share ideas and information about projects in a secure and private circle of colleagues. We have often been asked to help scholars find participants and organize panels for the annual meeting, and AHA Communities promises to eliminate the nuisance of long email chains, allowing users to collaborate in a shared space where they can post messages, swap documents, and comment on papers in progress.

Finally, and perhaps more enticingly, no Internet trolls. AHA Communities emphasizes the value of historical thinking, and we carefully curate public conversation topics that will encourage a deeper, more valuable discussion. Our space caters to scholars without a voice online and guarantees a secure network focused on advancing historical thinking in the public square. Those who participate on AHA Communities are there because they have a strong interest in history. Most are AHA members.

Despite what's often seen on many open comment threads, online discussions have the ability to be just as thought-­provoking and challenging as a panel audience at a conference. Having watched and participated in many of these, I've discovered a few best practices for keeping conversations engaging, productive, and lively.

Open-­ended questions are great ways to begin a discussion on a community network. They invite conversation, instead of implying that you're uninterested in exploring all sides of an issue. I have had great success eliciting public feedback using this format because readers sense that I value their contributions. From the perspective of the discussant, quoting the relevant part of a comment in your reply so that others know what you are referring to is always helpful, particularly if it is a longer thread.

Finally, discussions work best when contributions are succinct. Long answers in the web world are harder to read (particularly on a tablet or mobile) and are more likely to be ignored. Shorter comment threads have a better likelihood of being focused, and thus, have a better chance at being read. However, if you find you want to expand on a topic, try the AHA Communities blogging function and link your blog post to a community or conversation.

If social media really does expand and shape our thinking, the content of the social media we consume and produce matters even more. Even if the platform is a little different than what you are used to, and the discussions more challenging, it's a new model of public thinking that forces us to look beyond our standard forms of communication. We hope that AHA Communities will evolve into a mutually shared tool for the history discipline, shaping our minds, and our scholarship, at the same time.

—Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.

Notes

1. Coren L. Apicella, Frank W. Marlowe, James H. Fowler & Nicholas A. Christakis, "Social Networks and Cooperation in Hunter-­Gatherers," Nature, January 26, 2012. Ars Technica, "Stone Aged Social Networks May Have Resembled Ours," Wired Magazine, January 27, 2012.

2. Melissa Hogenboom, "Study Confirms Social Brain Theory," BBC News, June 26, 2013.