Teaching Twitter: The History of the Present

Krista Sigler, April 2011

"140 characters is a novel when you’re being shot at."
—Anonymous tweet during the Iranian Green Revolution

One of the chief historical skills taught in all classrooms is source analysis. We labor over this with students, impressing on them to take no commentator—whether that person is Abraham Lincoln or Mother Teresa—at face value. Along the way, we hope to promote that spin-off of a questioning mind, a lively curiosity.

This mindset, and this skill, is vital in the world and never more so than now, when our globe is brought together by the information deluge from the internet. But rather than preaching to students of the need to think critically of this new media, I prefer to confront them with it. For example, in the minutes before I start every class, I have a Trojan horse positioned against the classroom wall: my big-screen display of a news web site. I change the sites regularly: CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, even the English-language editions of the Beijing Times* and Russia’s Pravda. As students take their seats, they read the top stories and I appear to indulge them by clicking on any links that pique student interest, questioning along the way how the bias of a given paper and country frames a given article. What follows is one of my favorite moments in teaching: watching the students begin to express their reaction to the news, their response to how news is disseminated in different cultures, and their giving voice to their growing curiosity about the world.

I have discovered another tool that makes this point, the essential nature of critical analysis outside of the history classroom: Twitter. Twitter (www.twitter.com) is described frequently as a microblogging web site, which can also be accessed through internet-ready smart phones. Twitter users write short (no longer than 140 characters) statements describing their day, their thoughts, or their actions (“Went to class, now grading a mountain of essays. Anybody want to help me? Please?”), and “followers” (those who are watching this regularly updated stream of thoughts) then receive these public messages. The frequency of these “tweets” varies; since many users now access Twitter through a cell phone, it is possible to get instantaneous responses to many situations. And to get them whether you know the individuals tweeting or not: Tweets—the texts sent out by the Twitter user—can be made entirely public, or limited to the private (that is, to your chosen followers such as friends/family). As with Facebook and all other social networking sites, Twitter can provide a less-than-enlightening experience: from the cat who tweets to the frequently profane ramblings of an older man, Twitter, like humanity itself, is often a stage for the silly.

But Twitter can also be the source of valid and useful information. According to the New York Times, as of April 2010, Twitter users sent out 55 million tweets per day.1 In that barrage of messages are those of our own AHA (@AHAHistorians), the Library of Congress (@LibraryCongress), and a slew of professional organizations, as well as Net-friendly historians, like Vanderbilt’s Holly Tucker (who maintains an extensive list of Twitter-using historians at her account, @history_geek). As noted in an AHA blog post from June 2009, institutions of the U.S. government have also fully embraced Twitter.2 And of course, for those in need of historical humor, there’s always @historicaltweet. The sheer volume of discussion and news is so enormous that Twitter is voluntarily turning over its archive to the Library of Congress, for future study purposes.

How does this immense arena of discussion apply to history students? The potential for using Twitter in the classroom came to me in discussions with my students about the failed Green Revolution in Iran. As I explained to my students that I had used Twitter to read the postings of a list of Iranians, and as I described the sickening uncertainty with which posts came through, across Iran’s efforts to shut down Net access to the protest movement and the difficulty of sorting out truth versus fiction, my students told me they would have liked to follow these events, too.

So what can we, the educators of history, take from the very present-based Twitter? While few events can be said to be similar to the Green Revolution, Twitter offers students of the past (and of the present) a tool to peek into popular mentality during large events, in particular, societal disturbances. Twitter is a new opportunity to get instant feedback from large groups of people in the vicinity of a news-worthy event. Its search features allow for key word queries; in addition, users have created their own tool to link together common discussions, by prefacing key words with a hash mark (such as #toronto or #g20 for discussion of the G-20 riots). It is, in a way, a highly searchable cross between oral history and traditional memoir analysis. Take for example the June 2010 G-20: A glimpse at my own Twitter friends’ posts during the Toronto riots revealed panic. “Oh, my God, they’re shooting at people,” read one Canadian friend’s report, minutes before the AP Newswire report was posted. “It’s right outside of my work.” Searching Twitter updates from others in Toronto exposed the full confusion going on—from panicked claims of outright murders (of both police and protestors alike), to mass-mobilization efforts to pressure various groups (on behalf of police and protestors alike, again), to the final peace: “I think I’ll be able to go home tonight,” wrote my friend. “Downtown is open again.”

Twitter offers history students a chance at practicing source analysis through an electronic medium. More importantly, though, Twitter reinforces how our historical skills of analysis are vital to today’s WiFi world. Twitter is a significant testing ground of the skills of critical analysis students desperately need in today’s high-speed culture. Twitter, working much like the children’s game of “Telephone,” has no built-in fact check in its system. Anonymity both empowers and limits this tool. Exaggeration, untruths, and promotional agendas are oftentimes clearly at play. Error, in other words, is not uncommon. (As my friend gave proof, claiming she had heard there were “five dead” in those first minutes of the Toronto riots before retracting her comment.) Students must learn, as with all Net technology, how to practice primary source analysis skills on Internet information sources, how to assemble solid conclusions from a mosaic of commentary. In addition, again as with all Net-born information and discussion, students must consider their source base: the percentage of adults worldwide on Twitter is extremely small, largely limited to those with high-speed, constant internet access (typically including a smart phone data plan), and not populated in ratio with the globe’s population. Nonetheless, for all of its inequities and limitations, this popular technology is a provocative means to engage students with real-time history and to work on source analysis skills. For example, students can be asked to take the following steps:

  • To search Twitter for a specific event (#iran, #haiti, #bp, #wikileaks, and so on.)

  • To compile a list of “ordinary” individuals who appear to have been directly affected/involved in the incident.

  • To follow a list of journalists and politicians. For example, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, just one of many politicians on Twitter, tweets from @KremlinRussia_E. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez reports in from @chavezcandanga. President Obama maintains @BarackObama and his administration runs @whitehouse.

  • In addition to the politicians, there are more journalists online than one can count, ranging from lower media in the White House press pool (@NewMediaJim), to the New York Times (@NickKristof).

  • To critically analyze the biases of the various Twitter accounts involved and then to judge what seems most likely or truthful in the given situation. If anyone can post anything—the reality of Internet life—this skill is crucial. This is the true test for students, gauging their ability to apply critical analysis skills outside of the classroom.

  • To then read newspaper accounts of the given incident and consider, as individuals or as a class, how first-person accounts are transformed into larger narratives.

This may appear similar to a traditional primary-source analytical assignment. And that is precisely the utility of Twitter for historical educators: It can allow us to encourage the use of analytical skills across all means of information communication, to initiate discussion of how narratives are constructed, and to remind our students to study the present as well as the past. The skills that serve the dissection of the Gettysburg Address are the same skills that are critical in our increasingly Net-driven universe. While, like many technologies, Twitter has its limitations, educators should not overlook Twitter’s utility to spark student discussion of past and present alike.

Krista Sigler is assistant professor of history at Raymond Walters College of the University of Cincinnati. She is a specialist in late imperial Russian culture and teaches courses in world and European history.

Notes

1. Randall Stross, “When History Is Compiled 140 Characters at a Time,” The New York Times April 30, 2010; online at nytimes.com/2010/05/02/business/02digi.html.

2. Elisabeth Grant, “Government on Twitter,” The AHA Today, June 16, 2009, at http://blog.historians.org/news/814/government-on-twitter.

*Readers should note that Beijing Times is no longer published online, and thus no link has been provided. Because of the fluid nature of the internet, some of the Twitter users mentioned in this article are also no longer accessible, and thus have not been hyperlinked.