History Retweeting Itself

Email a Friend

Just over 50 years ago, the Soviet ship Omsk crept across the Atlantic, secretly transporting medium-range R-12 rockets and 261 military personnel to Cuba.

The voyage, one of hundreds made by Soviet vessels that fall, was part of the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over 13 days in 1962.

Now, those crisis filled days of yesteryear are playing out on Twitter as if they were happening today, thanks to author Michael Dobbs and @missilecrisis62.

Dobbs decided to commemorate the anniversary through social media because it provided another way for him to explore how the Cold War was understood as it happened.

“History is understood backwards, but is lived forward,” said Dobbs, explaining that ideas and perceptions about how events happened in the past were actively assembled in the present with the benefit of hindsight and more information.

Through the tweets, Dobbs can reflect on what was known at the time and recreate how people learned about what was happening in Washington, Moscow and in the waters off of Cuba.

“And it’s a very good model of how executive decisions are made with little information,” he added.  “Not so different from today, only sped up.”

It’s just the latest example in a burgeoning trend of recreating history in real-time with 140 characters or less — from Alwyn Collinson’s six-year effort to recreate World War II via @RealTimeWWII to Robert F. Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition (and death).

These real-time Twitter histories have a feel closer to a news-tickers or snippets of radio-broadcasts rather than all-encompassing portrayals of past events like books or epic length documentaries.

As Pablo Boczkowski, director of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University explains the trend, it’s about exploring how messages travel and decisions are made, and more importantly, “whether it will result in a different understanding for a wide cross-section of society.”

But not every project is welcome.

To mark the ten year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks last year, the Guardian caused a small controversy when it tweeted events in real-time. According to a report, the site lasted less than an hour before backlash led the paper to close the account after only sixteen posts.

As one commenter put it, “Sorry, Guardian, but @911tenyearsago doesn’t feel right to me. There’s a difference between remembering and reliving.”