Communicating Classics: How Social Media Helps Create Classicists

Molly Willett

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time on social media. Since you are reading this article, I’ll assume that you also love Classics. Perhaps this combination has led you to hours of scrolling through #ClassicsTwitter or chuckling at Classical Memes for Hellenistic Teens… or perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about. Irrespective of whether you are social-media savvy, I want to take you on a little tour of some of the ways that social media is helping to get Classics in front of young people and how we can use this to create more future Classicists.

Before we head off, a bit about me: I’m Molly, the Access and Outreach Coordinator at the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge. My main route into Classics was being able to study for a Classical Civilisation AS level at school but I’ve been interested in the ancient world for as long as I can remember. Sending messages to my grandad using a children’s hieroglyphics set was my first experience of ancient languages, and I was always fascinated by documentaries on Ancient Greece. When I found out that there was an academic subject about the ancient world that I could study, I just knew I had to do it – even if I couldn’t quite answer the dreaded “What will you do with that?” career question from my friends and family.

A supervision (teaching session) in the Cast Gallery of Cambridge’s Museum of Classical Archaeology.

As part of my work for the Cambridge Classics Faculty, I use social media to promote our outreach work. I also use these platforms to educate and entertain people with content that explains the field of Classics, including reading recommendations, fun facts, and stories from the ancient world. Doing this has allowed me to see some of the best trends for engaging with young people about Classical themes on social media.

A sample Bookstagram post from our Cambridge Classics account.

The first stop on our tour is #Bookstagram. It is an excellent place to find future Classicists. For those of you who don’t know, Bookstagram (and its variations, e.g. #Bookstagramuk) is a popular hashtag on Instagram that brings together book lovers. So called ‘Bookstagrammers’ share beautiful images of books alongside reviews, polls, and other bookish content. At the time of writing the main hashtag has amassed 72 million posts – and, crucially, a lot of people engaging with these posts are teens and young adults.

This is great for Classics for so many reasons. When you find these readers, you find people who are predisposed to have an interest in literature and culture. If those readers can be encouraged to read and enjoy ancient material, we are halfway there! There are already specific fun challenges encouraging people to pick up Classics, both ancient and modern, and as a Classics community we can keep encouraging people to pick up our favourite ancient texts in the comments beneath these posts.

Over the last few years a plethora of new mythology retellings has proved extremely popular within the Bookstagram space. Kicked off by Madeline Miller’s beautiful The Song of Achilles (2011), the surge in ancient retellings has captured people’s imaginations, especially through their representation of LGBT+ characters and the explorations of women’s roles and voices in mythology. And, although we are taught not to judge a book by its cover, the stunning designs of books by Miller, Jennifer Saint, Natalie Haynes, and many others can’t have hurt in the highly aesthetic medium of Bookstagram.

Exposure to Classical material in this accessible and appealing way is an excellent first step on the path to creating future Classicists, as well as many more Classics enthusiasts. But once they have read these books, how do we build on that to encourage further study of Classics?

First, it is essential to show young people that there is in fact a subject here ready and waiting for study. We Classicists can do this by maintaining a presence in these spaces, interacting with content about these books, and working with their authors. That said, when working to build institutional social media presence for this purpose it is important not to be too ‘polished’. I discovered this when I was routinely posting beautiful curated photos of Cambridge: although they did well in terms of likes, more meaningful engagement – measured in terms of comments, link clicks, event sign-ups, and messages – actually decreased among our target groups. So rather than entirely emulating the aesthetic focus of Bookstagram, it seems to be more effective to vary content slightly and not be too afraid of the imperfect. Whether that’s because it makes us seem more approachable or because it helps our content stand out (or some mixture of the two) I’m not sure, but it’s a lesson learned for me.

St John’s College Library, Cambridge: can the perfect be the enemy of the good?

Second, it’s also useful to help young people find more to read once they have enjoyed one of these retellings. We can encourage them to read the ancient sources or perhaps some light scholarship (such as articles here on Antigone or in Omnibus magazine) on the themes in these books. Now, I know there is some debate on curating reading lists for prospective students. Some are concerned that this is too prescriptive an approach and worry that prospective students will feel under too much pressure to have read everything recommended before they apply. I completely understand these concerns. However, as someone who works in outreach and is asked for reading lists on a daily basis, I think some further guidance on reading is helpful. Reading webs based on these popular books offer a nice alternative to a traditional list. Take this one that I put together for kids who have read the Percy Jackson books:

I hope that I’ve managed here to offer suggestions for reading and progression into finding out more about Classics without being too prescriptive, as well as to suggest tools to navigate further reading in the subject, as these young readers develop their own interests in the field. 

Similar to Bookstagram is the fast-growing BookTok – essentially the same idea but on TikTok. The benefit of this space is that the audience tends to be slightly younger, so we have more opportunity for them to engage with content about Classics before they make their decisions on which subject to pursue at university, if they choose to go on to further study. The downside is that TikTok, more than other social media accounts, is quite time-intensive to keep up: Classics at Cambridge has not (yet!) ventured into this area for this reason. As with Instagram, though, I do think it will become important to have a presence in this space. 

From the newer social media platforms, I must now lead you to the murky world of Twitter. Perhaps you can already tell, but this is not a favourite platform of mine! Aside from the abundance of trolls, the demographics of Twitter mean that it is less useful for me in directly reaching potential students, as more than 93% of Twitter’s global users are already over 18. However, the exciting academic community on #ClassicsTwitter means that it would be remiss of me to leave it out of this article altogether. The presence on the platform of many academics and of their various outreach projects can make it a really great resource for people looking to ask academics questions and to find various ways to interact with the world of Classics. Unfortunately, this will often pass today’s young people by, and if academic colleagues are looking to advertise directly to these groups, I would encourage them to look into other online spaces to do this.

But all is not lost for Twitter outreach; teachers should really be our focus in this space. Not only do they actually use Twitter, but they often support and encourage outreach programs more effectively than trying to get individual kids to engage. Getting Classics into classrooms is a fundamental way that we will be able to increase the uptake of the subject at the university level, and perhaps in turn at schools, so being able to share and collaborate with teachers from across the world on Twitter is something even this Twitter-sceptic can appreciate.

In that spirit, if you are a teacher looking for more information on outreach projects and classroom resources offered by Classics at Cambridge please do follow us on Twitter (@CamClassics) and sign up to our teacher mailing list for the latest updates

Another way that Classics is getting attention on social media across all demographics is through its use of ‘memes’. If you don’t yet know (or want to know!), memes are amusing or interesting captioned images or short videos that get shared around social media – often to a degree that far exceeds other posts. For example:

Mythology references are proving extremely popular in memes, and some large accounts that span Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook – such as Classical Studies Memes for Hellenistic Teens – are getting a lot of attention and engagement. Reduced attention spans mean this short-form content is a particularly effective way to attract people’s interest, especially when they are scrolling social media. The position of many mythological names and stories in our cultural consciousness lends these memes a familiarity which acts as a hook, while offering more niche in-jokes which compel people to investigate further.  

Again, the emphasis on short-form content means that ‘fun facts’ are a great cornerstone of what gets good engagement across social media platforms. One popular reel I created for the Classics at Cambridge Instagram account was about some Latin in Pompeii by Bastille:

This short fact-format got us nearly 900k views, over 50k likes, and – while we can’t see the precise number of followers we gained – I would estimate it was somewhere above 1,000. It may not be realistic to think that a short fact-driven meme can convert someone from never having heard of Classics to being a die-hard devotee to the subject in one moment. But they can do several things.

First, consistent sharing of these fun facts come together to showcase the exciting and amusing parts of our subject, which can encourage engagement with more serious and in-depth learning.  Second, as the reach of this one reel shows, it has the potential to grow audiences for Classics-based pages, where prospective students will become even more likely to engage with other long-form content on Classics and university courses. (Cambridge, like several other universities, teaches Latin and Ancient Greek to Classics undergraduates, and does not require any earlier study of these subjects at school.)

The Oxbride Classics Open Day occurs later this month!

“But is all of this really worth the effort?”, you may ask. I do sympathise with this question. Keeping up with trends and reach and engagement and putting out content that (on its own) can feel a little superficial takes time and can feel, well, superficial. But for me the answer to this provocative question is still an absolute yes. It is worth it. We need to meet young people where they’re at – and so often that is social media. Luckily for us, though, this is a way that we can reach future Classicists all over the world without even having to leave the comfort of our own faculty buildings!

If you would like to help spread the word about outreach initiatives run by university Classics departments, both in the UK and far beyond,  please consider sharing details of them on your own social media accounts (big or small), as and when you see them. And please remember that you can always reach out to us either on ‘the socials’ or via a good old email, especially if you work for a school or a charity – we would be delighted to hear from you and are always on the lookout for ideas about the best ways to reach the young people that you work with.

Molly Willett is the Access and Outreach Coordinator at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge.