Historical diaries find a new platform in Twitter

, , , , , ,

Many unlikely and whimsical projects flourish on Twitter, the popular microblogging service just celebrating its fifth birthday. Big Ben strikes the hour (“bong bong bong”), encounters with near-earth objects are automatically updated (the most recent one missed the Earth by about three million kilometers), a parody account for a politician becomes a compelling scifi short story and the Field Museum’s T-Rex, Sue, turns out to have a wicked sense of humor.

Twitter’s constraints—140 characters per post, period—and affordances—those 140 characters can be filled with anything, communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, anyone can follow a Twitter account—have boosted its popularity to around 190 million users. They also give us an opportunity to reflect on its resonances with the past. There is a strong community on Twitter of historians, cultural heritage professionals and genealogists—as well as historical characters tweeting for themselves.

Many have pointed out the connections between the terseness of Twitter and that of the telegrams, and the “telegraphic” language both require because of space constraints (luckily we don’t pay by the character on Twitter). But another familiar connection is with diaries. The factual, semi-public diary entries of line-a-day diarists of the 19th and early 20th centuries are short and pithy enough to make excellent tweets (PDF). Like the tweets of our friends, we follow them for frequent, short updates, enough to get a sense of the rhythms of their lives, what on the web we call “ambient intimacy.” Not every individual tweet will be a masterpiece, emotionally compelling or even interesting. But they help us understand the person who tweets them. The updates of historical diarists enable, not the immersion we desire from living history museums, but the ability to take a brief drink from a river that flowed long ago, and to dip in again whenever we like.

The historical diary is a thriving genre of Twitter performance. There are around a dozen historical diaries currently being tweeted, daily or sporadically. Some are produced by historical organizations and some by descendants of the diarists. There are famous diarists (yes, even Samuel Pepys is on Twitter) and everyday people. In 2009, for instance, the Massachusetts Historical Society started tweeting a diary of John Quincy Adams’ trip to Russia in 1809. He talks about travel, who visited, what he read. And @genny_spencer is the diary of a teenage girl in rural Illinois, tweeted by her descendants. Her great-nephew David Griner posted about the project: “Looking at the terse journal, my sister quipped, ‘This is the Twitter of the 1930s.’ We…immediately began planning the Twitter account…”

For tweeted historical diaries, what started as an imagined resonance between past and future communication technology—the observation that short diary entries feel like Twitter—becomes a real daily connection with people from the past. By reanimating and historical actors, we make this connection between historic communication platforms and Twitter real, and we also make this connection between us and historical characters real. Emotional connections make it real. And that’s a key insight for public history practice in less than 140 characters.

~ Suzanne Fischer

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on “Off the Wall,” the blog of the National Council on Public History from 2010 to 2012.

  1. David Rotenstein says:

    I didn't tweet it but I did blog this diary from the 1905 maiden voyage of the cruise ship Carmania: http://blog.historian4hire.net/2010/09/04/carmania/

  2. Steven Lubar says:

    I love that line: these tweets give us "the ability to take a brief drink from a river that flowed long ago, and to dip in again whenever we like."

    Subscribe to, say, John Quincy Adam's twitter stream, and suddenly — interrupting the everyday details of dinners and conferences new exhibits the dozen memes that have grabbed the internet's attention that day — you get this;

    3/24/1811: Anniversary of the Emperor's Accession. Harris dined and spent the Eve with us. Read Massillon & Robinson.

    And you're pulled out of your here and now, or the twitter equivalent of here and now, the everywhere and now, and you are in St. Petersburg, Russia, two hundred years ago, wondering just who the Emperor was, and who was Harris, and what was for dinner, and just what is Massillon & Robinson, anyway, and why haven't I heard of it before.

    (It was the 10th anniversary of the accession of Alexander I, according to Wikipedia; Harris was probably Sir James Harris, 1st Earl of Malmsbury, former British ambassador to Russia, if my Google searching, and bits and pieces from various Google Books is right; and Massillon and Robinson were both famous for their books of sermons, according to Google Books.)

    So this can pull us into a world of emperors, and discussions of diplomacy and history over dinner, and an evening of reading sermons. Instead of, say, a world of earthquakes in Japan, Youtube at dinner, and an evening of catching up on email.
    Twitter is mostly about the here and now. It’s wonderful that it can, occasionally, take us to the there and then.

    –Steve Lubar

  3. John Dichtl says:

    Suzanne's piece pretty much convinced me there IS finally a meaningful use for Twitter (besides organizing revolutions)– and David's, Cathy's, and Steve's comments have cinched the deal.

  4. nghodder says:

    Nottinghamshire Archives are tweeting 18th Century spinster Gertrude Savile's diary. http://www.twitter.com/gertrudesavile (@gertrudesavile)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.