Hundred years after WW1: Doing Public History with Twitter

 Are social media capable of tackling issues that deal with the past, or do they merely constitute a series of visual icons on web pages that allow us to share what we see and read with a selected choice of virtual “friends”? Could it be that we perceive these logos as also representing a portal that promotes user-generated content and participatory culture?[1] In an attempt to answer this, we will describe the way in which the commemoration of the First World War’s centenary is dealt with on Twitter and observe how Twitter promotes both public activities which center on the past and the expertise of public historians online.

1 Jour – 1 poilu – Mapping of User generated Content

Social Media and Participatory Practices

Social media or social software are also expanding the possibility of producing and disseminating knowledge in the field of history.[2] Social platforms not only represent key elements of interactions between public historians and communities, but they also become virtual places where one can understand, follow, and finally engage with online endeavors which deal with the knowledge of the past. In an ideal world, the role of public historians would be to organize and filter user-generated content and activities by collecting information, experiences, documentary material, and memories shared between users. Social media build online relationships, reinforce identities, and consolidate kinship and communities.[3] However, the ways in which local communities engage with the past made possible through Web 2.0 participatory practices[4] are not necessarily confined to involving professional actors. Despite this, such positive and collaborative efforts on social media can preserve the past. This can be achieved by the public directly participating in inclusive cultural enterprises within communities which build an “archaeological archive” of memories online.[5]

Commemorating the First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution

Today, public history is often dominated by commemorations. This year, the 1917 Russian Revolution has incited the general public and historians worldwide—many of them from Russia—to engage with the centenary of the February and October Revolutions.[6] The #1917LIVE Twitter project recounts the events of 1917 one hundred years later on Twitter.[7] The digital world of social media relays the content of many debates, documentaries, exhibitions and other events which publicly remember how Russia became Soviet Russia—although narratives have often been biased towards personal perspectives about 1917.[8]

However, the events that occurred in 1917 Russia represent a part of a longer on-going remembrance dealing with the beginning of the “short twentieth century”.[9] By interpreting the way in which digital public history projects are currently commemorating the First World War, we are also able to reflect not only on the politics of memory in the present but also occasionally on how we can utilize history in an instrumental way. Digital public history projects, especially in the European Union today, are every now and then concerned with the ability to reconstruct a “useful” past for the present.[10] Indeed, the First World War is often commemorated due to the importance of the peace-keeping effect initiated by the European Union’s integration process after the Second World War.[11]

So far, the First World War has been commemorated in the digital media by different cultural and institutional bodies on a major scale. Via the presence of international public history projects, such bodies have predominantly questioned the public on a regional, national, and international scale, on this specific conflict. These commemorations have produced a significant amount of digital data worldwide, online material, and interactive user activity.[12] Twitter has also been affected. The hashtags #WW1 and #WW1Centenary[13] and in France #centenaire are very popular amongst users. Several social media projects which have explored region-specific memories and foster user-generated content online are largely concerned with how common people and their families passed through this cataclysm of destruction and death.

As is the case with Twitter accounts on the 1917 Russian Revolution, digital public history projects about the First World War on Twitter are often supported by a website or a specific digital publication such as 1914-1918 Online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War[14] or Europeana 1914-1918.[15] The new digital Encyclopedia of the First World War has its own Twitter account that informs its followers about events that happened one hundred years ago.[16] Similarly to the Encyclopedia, the Europeana 1914-1918 project created its Twitter account as early as in 2012.[17] The relevance of Europeana’s Twitter account is highlighted by the declared goal of the project to directly engage with the public by asking them for contributions, the crowdsourcing of memories, and documents.[18] The Europeana Twitter account relays the website’s activity and contributes to the online collections of sources and documents.

In the United States, where Twitter is currently commemorating the centenary of the American entry into the war in 1917, the Twitter account of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City represents a project which has encouraged public discussion. The account which was created in March 2011[19] helps to promote the museum, and by May 2017, its Twitter account had published more than 8,446 tweets to more than 27,000 followers.[20] The Twitter account for the network of museums which form the Imperial War Museums in Great Britain[21] was created in March 2009 and is extremely popular with more than 104,000 followers and 20,400 tweets published.[22]

Twitter and the First World War

In the United Kingdom, war institutions and museums have created Twitter accounts for special events, but the battlefield seems to dominate as a topic. Alternatively, French accounts focus more on the life and death of soldiers (the “Poilu”). Of particular relevance are the following two national projects which contrast greatly with one another: The first is a teaching project created at the University of Luxembourg with an international scope (@RealTimeWW1), whilst the second is a French project which fosters crowdsourcing activities and is dedicated to the memory of each individual soldier who fell during the war (@1J1poilu).

@RealTimeWW1 represents an innovative pedagogical project. Its goal is to teach and research how common people lived in Europe during the First World War. On a daily basis, history students study the war, consult digital primary sources in archives or online, and apply critical methods to new tweets. One particular method includes the digitalization of sources, testimonies of what happened on specific days, and documents about how soldiers and civilians were affected by the war. @RealTimeWW1 publishes daily tweets about events which are not about the past but rather the past into the present.[23]

The French project, 1 Jour – 1 Poilu,[24] aims both to establish a narrative of the French history of the war[25] and to make use of the dynamic nature of social networks for the sake of creating a national catalog of memories centering on the French soldier as an icon. This project attempts to educate the wider public about the Mission du Centenaire which was launched in 2013 in an effort to coordinate all commemorative activities regarding the First World War.[26] It is related to Mémoire des Hommes, an ambitious public project of the French Defence Ministry.[27] 1 Jour – 1 Poilu “unites the energies of everyday internet users to create a full transcript of 1,325,290 records dedicated to the memories of those who died for France.”[28]

 

If we are to draw conclusions about Twitter’s role in the commemoration of the First World War, we may acknowledge the following: As a result of Twitter, witnesses speak directly in the first person—often through a re-enactment of the past or an oral account—and indirectly—through links to autobiographies, personal diaries and other ego-documents. A chronological approach to engaging with commemoration is commonplace on Twitter, where one can mention what “happened today.” This bears great similarities to websites where a timeline is often a primary choice for the site’s layout, such as with the Italian website lagrandeguerrapiu100.it from the University of Trento.[29]

Finally, we may state that a critical approach to interpreting the available evidence displayed is often absent on Twitter. On a regular basis, Twitter publishes historical photographs which intend to provide an alternative narrative about the past. This is the case with the American Twitter project History in Pictures, which narrates the past by “sharing the most powerful and entertaining historical photographs ever taken,” although the captions provided are inadequate due to the limited amount of characters allowed in a tweet.[30]


NOTES

[1] For a critical approach to participatory culture see Christian Fuchs, Social Media: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2017), 65-84.

[2] Tatjana Takseva, ed., Social Software and the Evolution of User Expertise: Future Trends in Knowledge Creation and Dissemination (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2013).

[3] Stéphane Levesque, “Should History Promote National Identification?” Public History Weekly 5 (2017) 10, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2017-8533.

[4] Serge Noiret, “Digital History 2.0,” in Contemporary History in the Digital Age, eds. Frédéric Clavert and Serge Noiret (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2013), 155-190.

[5] See Alessandro Bessi, Mauro Coletto, George Alexandru Davidescu, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, and Walter Quattrociocchi, “Science vs Conspiracy. Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation,” PLoS ONE 10/2 (2015), DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118093.

[6] On the memory turn in Russia, see Alexander Khodnev, “Memory Studies ‘Boom’ in Russia,” Public History Weekly 4 (2016) 11, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2016-5767.

[7] “‘Digital time travel! Best thing on Twitter!’ People praise ‘highly addictive’ #1917LIVE revolution,RT Question More, March 18, 2017, https://www.rt.com/viral/381264-rt-1917-revolution-twitter-reenactment/ (last accessed 7 June 2017).

[8] The Russian Telegraph. Current news from Russia, @RT_1917 (more than 31.000 followers in May 2017); Tweets from 1917, @1917Bolshevik, (“Tweets from 100 years ago about the Russian Revolution, the greatest event in history!”, 4000 followers in May 2017); Russian Revolution, @rusrev1917 (“A specter is haunting world capitalism: the specter of the Russian Revolution”, 850 followers in May 2017);Russia in Revolution, @revoltingrussia (“Russia in Revolution is maintained by the writers at @alphahistory. We tweet Western press reports about revolutionary Russia, 100 years after publication.”, 1900 followers in May 2017).

[9] A tentative to describe the many ways each EU country and Europe as such, started commemorating WW1 in 2014 has been done by Mélanie Bost and Chantal Kesteloot: «Les commémorations du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale», Courrier hebdomadaire du CRISP, 30‑31 (2014), pp. 5‑63; Mélanie Bost and Chantal Kesteloot: Le Centenaire de la Grande Guerre en Belgique: itinéraire au sein d’un paysage commémoratif fragmenté, Paris, Observatoire du Centenaire, Université de Paris 1, 2016, and Towards Public History: World Wars Representations and Commemorations in Belgium in Serge Noiret (ed.): “Musei di storia e Public History”, Memoria e Ricerca, 1, 2017, pp.41-60.

[10] Ireneusz P. Karolewski, “Narratives of European Union”, in: Public History Weekly 4 (2016) 43, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2016-7979; Serge Noiret: “Public history as “useful history” before voting for Europe, May 22-25, 2014”, Digital and Public History, May 2014, https://dph.hypotheses.org/380.

[11] On EU identity issues today see Bo Stråth: “A European identity: To the historical limits of a concept”, in European Journal of Social Theory, 5 (4) 2002, pp. 387–401; Sharon Mcdonald: Memorylands. Heritage and identity in Europe today., London, Routledge, 2013; Chiara Bottici and Benoit Challand: Imagining Europe: myth, memory and identity., Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.

[12] See: “First World War Websites”, in 1914-1918 Online. The Encyclopedia of the First World War. See also the work presented by Enrico Natale during the 1st conference of the IFPH-FIHP at the University of Amsterdam, The Digital Public History of WW1 in Europe, to be published after the end of the commemoration period in 2019, http://ifph.hypotheses.org/267.

[13] https://twitter.com/hashtag/WW1?src=hash and https://twitter.com/hashtag/WW1Centenary?src=hash.

[14] http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/home.html.

[15] http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/.

[16] @19141918online “is a collaborative international research project designed to develop a virtual reference work on WW1”, https://twitter.com/19141918online.

[17] https://twitter.com/Europeana1914.

[18] “The ‘Europeana 1914-1918’ project aims to collect and share material that relates to the Great War (1914-1918) and those involved in or affected by it”, http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/.

[19] National WWI Museum – @TheWWImuseum

[20] National World War I Museum and Memorial, https://www.theworldwar.org/.

[21] Imperial War Museums, http://www.iwm.org.uk/.

[22] Imperial War Museums – @I_W_M

[23] @RealTimeWW1 https://twitter.com/RealTimeWW1 . See for the presentation of the project, “World War One goes Twitter”, H-Europe, http://h-europe.uni.lu/?page_id=621, and a Press Review, http://h-europe.uni.lu/?page_id=2153. (See also another realtime twitter feed like  @ABCNews1915, “Live tweeting (+100yrs) accounts of  landing from soldiers, nurses, officers, media, politicians”, a centenary Twitter activity commemoration of Australians landing in Gallipoli in April 1915, Shanti Sumartojo: “Tweeting from the past: Commemorating the Anzac Centenary @ABCNews1915”, in Memory Studies, First published date: May-28-2017, DOI 10.1177/1750698017709873.)

[24] The Twitter account of the project is at https://twitter.com/1J1Poilu . The project has been called «1 Jour 1 Poilu, défi collaboratif #1J1P», http://www.1jour1poilu.com. See Jean-Michel Gilot: «Le digital au service d’une cause nationale: l’odyssée d’« 1 Jour – 1 Poilu»», Linkedin, November 26, 2015.

[25] Frédéric Clavert: 1 Jour – 1 Poilu: Exemple De Contribution Des «Amateurs» à la Narration de L’histoire, in Frédéric Clavert: L’histoire contemporaine à l’ère numérique, December 2015.

[26] @Mission1418 “Mission Centenaire, Actualités, publications et informations sur le centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale”, https://twitter.com/mission1418. The mission in Twitter uses the official hashtag #Centenaire and supports the website project 14-18, Mission Centenaire, http://centenaire.org.

[27] Rejoignez le programme d’indexation collaborative et participez à l’enrichissement de la base des Morts pour la France de la Première Guerre mondiale. The project want to foster a collaborative digital transcription of all the hand written records of all individual “Poilus” who died for France conserved in the Defence Ministry. Base de données des Morts pour la France de la Première Guerre mondiale.

[28] http://www.1jour1poilu.com/.

[29] GrandeGuerra+100, @GGpiu100 (550 followers in May 2017).

[30] @HistoryInPics. See Jason Steinhauer: “@HistoryinPics brings history to the public. So what’s the problem? (Part 1)History@Works, and Kevin Levin: “@HistoryinPics Does It Better Than You”.

 


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