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From fight clubs to coronavirus memes: OU History Club sees success in use of humorous tweets

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Sally Johnson

History and English junior Sally Johnson on March 3 in Ellison Hall. Johnson runs the OU History Club Twitter page.

For just a few brief moments in early April, some OU students were delighted to have their Twitter feeds — likely filled with an endless stream of COVID-19 news — interrupted by an epic brawl.

As the pandemic continued across the globe, the OU History Club resurrected figures ranging from Karl Marx to Harriet Tubman for a no-holds-barred battle royale. The “history fight club” pitted historical heroes and villains against each other, allowing the Twitter community to vote on who they felt would win in a one-on-one match.

Twitter crowds tracked the action and voted their favorites all the way into the final round, the ultimate clash that saw the underdog Tubman dethroning the infamous horseback warrior Genghis Khan to claim the title.

Hypothetically, at least.

As all OU classes have shifted online for the remainder of the semester, social media accounts like the OU History Club’s have become more important than ever for students across the country seeking to stay connected with college friends, some from many miles apart.

Many in the OU community, particularly students and faculty in the OU History Department, are already familiar with the OU History Club’s unique Twitter presence. Sally Johnson, an English and history junior and the architect behind the club’s Twitter content, uses a lighthearted mix of memes and creative community engagement to share her love of history.

“I think between the two accounts — the history club and the (official) history department — we’ve definitely built a very specific brand for the department,” Johnson said, “which I think resonates with a lot of students on campus. We have a lot of people who show up at our meetings just because they saw us on Twitter.”

Johnson said the club’s recognizable Twitter personality has noticeably improved the attendance at its meetings, which now averages around 15 to 20 attendees — a “huge improvement” for the relatively young club founded in fall 2018.

From only around 40 followers when Johnson took over the account in spring 2019, the OU History Club has grown to 568 followers as of April 15. The club’s growth and content has caught the eyes of people well beyond OU’s campus, like Stephen Hausmann, an assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I wish I had a better story, but at some point about three, four months ago, someone I follow retweeted (the club) and it really made me laugh,” Hausmann said. “Usually that’s all it takes to get me to follow ... and from what I’ve seen, they’re really funny on a regular basis. They’ll pick up a lot of followers that way.”

Hausmann said the OU History Club is one notable member of a broader community that exists between historians and academics on Twitter.

“‘History Twitter’ as a thing is a pretty small but pretty close-knit and vocal group,” Hausmann said. “As a working historian, I see it as a useful way to engage with a lot of my colleagues within the field. ... There's also this outward-facing version of History Twitter, and that's where I think that the OU History Club really shines.”

Efforts like the history club’s account — which help engage both a younger audience and those who generally are not interested in history — are important to keep people aware of vital stories and lessons from the world’s past, Hausmann said.

“I think that having a group of undergraduates who are funny and see history as a funny thing and an interesting thing at the same time is a good way to draw people in,” Hausmann said, “and show people that this isn't just a bunch of academic types talking about things that no one cares about.”

Sarah Olzawski, senior academic counselor for the OU College of Arts and Sciences and current head of the OU History Department Twitter account, said the partnership between the OU History Club Twitter content and the history department’s official page has also been a boon to the number of liberal arts majors enrolled at OU.

“When I started the history department Twitter account, we had never had one before three and a half years ago,” Olzawski said. “My whole purpose behind everything I do on that platform is to build community for our students to really show everybody that history is cool, and that our students studying it are cool, and they're really passionate about what they're interested in.”

The department’s official page has also taken a lighthearted approach to helping community members cope with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including a recent call for coronavirus-related memes from followers.

Despite the national downturn in liberal arts majors seen after 2008’s financial crisis, Olzawski said OU has reversed the trend dating back to 2017, with enrollment for liberal arts majors like history up 15 to 20 percent today. While there are a myriad of factors at play, Olzawski said she felt recruiting efforts and community building via platforms like Twitter are some of the most important ones to potential students.

The history club’s interactions with other departments and clubs around the country are another characteristic of its image, Johnson said. After nearly a year-long hiatus, the Oklahoma State History Club’s own Twitter account returned with a Jan. 22 tweet declaring its bid to challenge the OU club’s “meme hegemony.”

While the Bedlam battle between the clubs — at least in terms of followers — is dominated by the OU crew, Johnson said she hopes to connect with other history pages and continue to build community among Twitter historians.

“It's all in good fun. We make it very clear that we're just out to have a good time, and we're super supportive of other departments and history clubs,” Johnson said. “I tweeted at LSU (history club) when we played them in the (College Football Playoff) semifinal, but they never got back to me. … Maybe that was for the best.”

Events like the history club’s recent “Historians at the Movies” showing — where members of the Twitter historian community watch a film simultaneously and tweet their thoughts on it using a hashtag — are just another example of how the club is continuing to build and maintain community.

Hausmann said the OU History Club’s brand has the potential to lead a renaissance in how History Twitter connects with its own community and draws in those who would otherwise not be interested in the topic.

“I would say the style at this point — it's not really widespread, but I think that definitely should be,” Hausmann said. “The club’s Twitter account, their messaging and approach and humor is very effective, but it unfortunately hasn’t been replicated as much as I’d like to see.”

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