From the sinking of the Titanic to the horrors of the Second World War, history is being brought to life on Twitter in real time

Social media is giving the events of yesterday an incredible sense of immediacy, says Christopher Beanland

Two weeks ago, the unsinkable Titanic's unexpected sinking was documented minute by minute on Twitter. It was surreal for Twitter users to read about such momentous events playing out 102 years after the actual disaster took place in the North Atlantic. Titanic was lost to the icy waters on 15 April 1912 – all of it recalled in real time by @TitanicRealTime. It's just one of a slew of so-called "historical tweeting" accounts bringing the past to life in the virtual world over the periods of time that they happened in the real one.

Historical tweeting seems to show that, despite Twitter sating our hunger for the freshest information, it can also be bent into another shape – and so re-imagine momentous events from days gone by. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it – most people understand that 140-character bursts of information are not going to give you the depth that you would get from reading a history book," says Kate Bussmann, author of A Twitter Year: 365 Days in 140 Characters. "And if they spark people to want to go out and buy a history book and learn more, then that clearly is a good thing."

Is social media fundamentally changing the way we experience history? "Social media is the best way to present a more accessible form of history," says Maria Fallon, audience-development manager at The History Press, the publisher behind @TitanicRealTime. "People have very busy lives and short attention spans – 140 characters force you to be concise, and it's the ideal platform for introducing people to the truth behind the stories in their history books."

Historical tweeting is booming, from the North Atlantic to the Crimea. It becomes particularly potent when real-time tweeting about the past throws up uncomfortable echoes in the present. Last month, as @RealTimeWWII was tweeting about Nazi forces rolling into Crimea during the Second World War, unmarked Russian special-forces troops were intervening in today's Crimea.

It's obviously a lot of work for the tweeters involved. Will @RealTimeWWII really go on right until the end of 2017? "Yes, the plan is to end in September 2017 with the Japanese surrender," says Alwyn Collinson, who combines his tweeting with research work at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. He says: "In retrospect, I wish I'd chosen a slightly shorter war."

Past: Nazi forces roll into Crimea in 1941 Past: Nazi forces roll into Crimea in 1941 (Getty Images)
Present: Russian troops intervene in today's Crimea Present: Russian troops intervene in today's Crimea (Getty Images)
The brevity and immediacy of Twitter's world can seem to bring the nastiest aspects of the human experience into sharper, colder relief. In Germany last October, a group of academics tweeted around the 75th anniversary of Pogromnacht (the Nazi-invented euphemism of Kristallnacht is less used in Germany). Whichever name you use, this was an orgy of state-sanctioned violence and terror unleashed against Jews by Hitler. The goal of @9Nov38 then was to bring those horrors to life for young, tech-savvy Germans in a country that hasn't always fully reconciled with its past.

"I think that we got a lot of people to think about those events," says Charlotte Jahnz, a masters candidate in history at Bonn University and contributor to @9Nov38. "The aim was to present the developments that lead to Pogromnacht. We were inspired by a 2012 project of the MDR (a German TV station) that did the same with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That project was not scientific, since the tweets were not historically based. We did a lot of research – going into archives and reading literature about the Pogromnacht, so all the tweets had a historical footnote and [all the] events did actually happen."

Naturally, it doesn't take long for a good, creative, important idea such as this to be hijacked by social-media marketers on the lookout for a fast-moving bandwagon to jump on. Cue the History Channel in the United States using its account to historically tweet John F Kennedy's assassination on the 50th anniversary of the shooting in November 2013. At Newsweek, a similar effort to document JFK's rise and fall at @NWKHistory101 was a better read.

Alwyn Collinson will be tweeting on @RealTimeWWII until 2017 Alwyn Collinson will be tweeting on @RealTimeWWII until 2017
In Britain, in 2012, @parliamentburns charted the inferno that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament on 16 October 1834, while the 1948 war between Israel and Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt was documented by @1948War. Also in 2012, the anniversary of Captain Scott's doomed Antarctic mission was tweeted as-live by @CaptainRFScott. The sign-off there was particularly poignant. Scott's actual final diary entry, which read: "Last entry. For God's sake look after our people."

How do historical tweeters ensure their history is on the money? "We got the relevant information from our expert authors and then scheduled them for the correct dates and times using SocialOomph," says Fallon. "The timing was sometimes difficult," says Charlotte Jahnz. "On the one hand, people were very often accurate enough to name the exact time. But sometimes the reports were vague – such as 'in the afternoon' or 'in the early hours'. We then tried to find a time that we thought was plausible, but of course, we might be mistaken in matters of exact moments in time. But all these actions took place 75 years before on that very day."

Engaging people is great – but it can seem odd when an important tweet documenting the smashing of a Berlin synagogue on Kristallnacht is juxtaposed in a feed with a flippant one about food or the footie. Does historical tweeting encourage more engagement with history – or d0es it make the past seem even further away? "The response I get with Twitter is immediate," says Fallon of @TitanicRealTime, "that's what we had hoped for when the project was being organised." And for Jahnz of @9Nov38 "...one advantage of live tweeting is that it can reproduce the chronological dimension of historical events better than any other medium."

Alwyn Collinson of @RealTimeWWII compares Twitter to other mass-media history, arguing that it engages "just as historical TV or films, or commemorative events do.

"Teachers tell me that they've used my tweets while teaching the Blitz – to make it feel more real and relevant to the Facebook generation. Tweets just scratch the surface, of course. It's to inspire people to go and learn more, rather than to replace text books."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    C# Software Engineer (ASP.NET, C#, CSS, Java Script, JQuery)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits, Training & Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# S...

    CCNP Network Engineer - Farnborough, £250 pd

    £250 per day: Orgtel: Network Engineer (CCNP), Cisco Gold Partner, Farnborough...

    Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

    £250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

    Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

    £30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape