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Tweeting History

Average history buffs have a lot on their minds other than history.  They enjoy the occasional TV documentary on the building of the Hoover Dam.  They have visited their region’s selection of quaint local history museums.  Their ability to relay the details of the Allied assault on Nazi territories has impressed friends.  For the buff, history is a source of fact-filled enjoyment, and while he or she would love to spend his days reading War and Peace and critiquing the ideas of great historians, there are errands to run, bills to pay, and a slew of other things that need to be done. 

Luckily, this does not stop buffs from filling their days with all sorts of memories from the past.  You can remind yourself of it every time you log on to your Twitter account.

With an estimated five million users, Twitter is one of the fastest growing social media sites on the web.  It does not ask very much of its visitors, save of course one simple question: what are you doing?  With a 140 character limit, people succinctly key in whatever they happen to be engaged with – eating a sandwich, playing baseball, or catching that neat History Channel special on Roman roads.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Gradually, but effectively, history is making a strong impression on the Twittering community.  In large part, this speaks to its adaptability in a rapidly changing, modernizing, and networking world. 

Twitter represents a wide spectrum of history microbloggers, but three different groups in particular have occupied a conspicuous presence on the site.  First, there are a number of historical societies, museums and institutions that have created accounts to attract visitors.  They are also interested in popularizing the historical event or era to which their establishment is dedicated.  Second, there are the professional historian tweeters. This group, composed primarily of university professors, researchers, and authors (who are often one in the same), joined Twitter for a little lighthearted interaction, often with other professionals.  They talk about anything from projects of which they are  in the midst, to simple facts, like this interesting tidbit: Neanderthals could taste bitter flavors. Then there are all the other folks.  While their day jobs are probably unrelated to history, it is nevertheless a source of interest or perhaps a more seriously taken hobby.  This camp tends to include links with their posts, often to impromptu blogs about an area of history that has caught their attention.  Each variation of tweeter has made substantial contributions to history’s presence on the site, and significantly, they are unwittingly changing the character of the field.

Weighed down by heavy textbooks and dense publications, history has often presented itself as unappealing to non-academics.  The public en masse has all too easily viewed it as difficult to comprehend and irrelevant to the intricacies of their everyday lives.  But Twitter is changing all that. As a tweet, history moseys away from the confines of academic corners, becoming accessible to a more diverse audience.

According to scholar Amanda French, Twitter and similar sites “have made both historians and institutions more human. [They] adopt a tone that’s appropriate to social media.”  This tone is quirky, inviting, and interactive.  Everything from the language to the activities that occur on Twitter are informal, and often are intended to be nothing more than simple fun.  French refers, for example, to the Smithsonian Museum, which tweeted a few months back that it was “playing head games again.”  With obvious playfulness, the Smithsonian was referring to a history trivia game it set up for its followers.  This is a far cry from the usual seriousness that accompanies the Smithsonian’s interest in education.

The Washington State Historical Society is a leading institution for regional history in the Northwest.  With multiple locations representing museums and a research center, the society has a clear commitment to preserving Washington history with depth and accuracy.  For all its gravity as a historical organization, the society has also set up a Twitter page.  Kimberly Adams, the creator of the account, shares several insights concerning the effect Twitter has had on the institution and the field of history in general.

To Adams, Twitter accomplishes well the basic purposes she intended for it. Tweets promote museum exhibits and programs, encourage communication between the museum and the online public, elicit many varieties of questions, and Twittering has increased the interest of the media in the historical society.  Twitter has exceeded these expectations by popularizing, easily and thoroughly, Washington state history.  With “minimal effort,” Adams says, she is able to “maximize content.”  She regularly tweets quick facts about state history.  These appear online on museum followers’ Twitter pages, and if they have the site linked with their cell phone, tweets are receive in the form of a text message.  Through Twitter, the society can deliver a spoonful of easy-to-digest history: interesting, and free from the burden of heavy long-windedness that often stereotypes it. 

Twitter is also removing the sense of detachment people feel toward history.  Instead of being tedious and irrelevant, Adams believes that Twitter stimulates people to continually “make associations” between the past and the present.  When the country felt the first shock of economic recession last year, Adams tweeted information about the Great Depression.  Gone are the days of misconstrued ideas about “what our grandparents had to go through” as modern people encounter similar difficulties.

Additionally, Adams pointed out Twitter’s use as a segue for people to keep engaging with history after they log off the Internet.  The society’s page encourages its followers to read articles it has published on its official website.  The society’s tweets are not an end in themselves, but cause people to read meatier historical articles.  If written well enough, she believes these articles are equally as compelling and informative as the Twitter snippets that led to them.

With Twitter and similar sites on the rise, history is certainly caught up in all the talk and tweeting.  People are becoming more comfortable with their past, more willing and able to relate to it.  And perhaps more history buffs are even picking up War and Peace.  There was an interesting tweet posted just the other day: “100 pages left of War and Peace!  …Tolstoy is THE man.”