Digital History Tools: Using Twitter For Historical Reenactment


There has been much chatter on Twitter this week due to it being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic and its ill-fated maiden voyage. And this reminded me of a post that I have been meaning to write for a good year or so, showcasing some of the innovative ways that historians and future historians are using Twitter for historical reenactment.

Yes, I am a big time public and digital history nerd, but I see several key learning outcomes from this type of activity:

  • It helps promote digital literacy by teaching participants how to effectively use Twitter.
  • It allows students and historians to delve deeper into discovering and analyzing primary source materials.
  • It’s a fun, free, engaging way to introduce others to one’s historical research and/or special collections.

Following is a look at two very current examples, as well as a look at the big granddaddy of historical Twitter reenactments.

Titanic Voyage (@TitanicRealTime)

This Twitter handle is managed by the History Press, a UK-based history publisher, that posts minute-by-minute accounts of the voyage from various (so far, unidentified) eyewitnesses — passengers, crew, reporters, etc. Titanic Voyage posts from a single Twitter account/channel, and uses hashtags to distinguish each particular eyewitness.

A  sample Tweet, from a fictitious reporter who is an eyewitness to the voyage launch.

Some additional screenshots of how they’re incorporating historical interpretation into Tweets.

@TitanicRealTime - Voices
Note the different characters providing eyewitness accounts.
@TitanicRealTime photo
Mixing in historical photos.

Civil War Reporter (@CivilWarReporter)

The federal government doesn’t exactly come to mind when I think of social media or digital history innovation, but I had to give the National Park Service big time credit last year when it launched the Civil War Reporter, on Twitter, as part of its sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War. The Civil War Reporter is Beglan O’Brien, a fictional Civil War newspaper reporter, whose Twitter channel is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) to reenact reports from daily events that took place in the war 150 years ago.

The Civil War Reporter does an excellent job of mixing in events, linking to content and historical documentation on the NPS website, and showcasing historical photos from special collections.

Civil War Reporter
Using Twitter to showcase historical photos from special collections.

TwHistory (@TwHistory)

TwHistory is indeed what I call the big granddaddy of Twitter historical reenactments.  It is the beneficiary of an open education grant that organizes, promotes, and provides technical support to groups who want to use Twitter for virtual historical reenactments.

Students or volunteers pick a well-documented historical event. They pick real historical figures who were at that event, and create tweets based on original source documentation. These tweets are then scheduled to be broadcast in real time. The end result is a virtual reenactment of a historical event, broadcast in real time.

What makes TWHistory’s virtual reenactments so different is that, unlike Titanic, they don’t use just a single Twitter channel to tell their story. Instead, Each TwHistory reenactment consists of a separate Twitter channel for each historical character, aggregated into a project Twitter List and stream, with characters frequently citing each other and conversing with each other…just like a normal Twitter dialogue.  I have been a big fan of their work for a couple of years.

This Cuban missile Crisis 1622 project is a good example of how TwHistory uses Twitter for historical reenactment.

A 2009 Tweet from @RobMcNamara64 the fictious handle for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, on the final date of the crisis.

A Tweet from “Fidel Castro” (@FidelCastro62) also on the final date of the crisis.

“Secretary of Defense McNamara” citing and congratulating “President John. F. Kennedy”.

Screenshots demonstrating how TwHistory utilizes Twitter Lists to aggregate its Twitter reenactments.

TwHistory Cuban Missile Crisis Public List
TwHistory uses a public Twitter list to aggregate all of the historical figures participating in a particular reenactment project.
TwHistory Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 Public List Stream
The reverse chronological aggregated post stream from TwHistory’s project public Twitter list.

What About Sources?

We librarians and educators constantly stress the need to cite sources. And that’s the big piece I see missing from these Twitter-based historical reenactments. The librarian in me would like to see a source cited in every single Tweet. But, I fully realize that would take up too much of that 140 character real estate, and it might also break the flow of conversation. So, I think it’s important that these reenactment projects list their sources on the project pages of their websites, and that their Twitter channel description or Twitter List description reference the URL to that list of sources.

If you’re an instructor who is contemplating making this sort of reenactment assignment available to your students, ask that your students compile their bibliography in Google Docs, and then have them reference that URL as noted above.

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  1. Pingback: Digital History Guide | Twitter: a digital history tool

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