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How Social Media Can Shape Our Appreciation of History

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Earlier this month, the University of Cambridge made another discovery. It may not be up there with DNA or embryonic stem cells, but it nonetheless plugs into some central questions for our information age.

While updating the university's Facebook page, a member of staff noticed that the site's 'Timeline' tool only extended back to the year 1800. For an institution that recently marked its 800th anniversary, this would not do. After some string-pulling by an alumnus who worked at the social networking service, the university became one of the first organisations in the world whose 'Timeline' reaches back before the nineteenth century - let alone to the 13th. Users can now comment on the foundation of Peterhouse or 'like' the publication of the Principia Mathematica.

This small but noteworthy change underscores the burgeoning role of social media in history education. History is, by nature, a chronological discipline. News feeds and alerts, the staple of social networks, are chronological tools. It follows that historians can deploy these tools to reconstruct the events and even the moods of historical periods - and, through doing so, reaffirm a vital aspect of history too easily taken for granted: the sense of time passing. After all, what word evokes history more readily than 'timeline'?

E.P. Thompson, seminal historian of the English working class, once criticised sociologists who "stopped the time machine, and with a great deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down into the engine-room to look". History, he said, was about process: class was "not a thing, it is a happening". This applies to the historical discipline as a whole. When historians start to analyse, they all too frequently risk losing sight of the passage of time, the subject's bricks and mortar.

In The King's Peace 1637-41, about the prelude to the English Civil War, eminent scholar C.V. Wedgwood said her aim was to "restore the immediacy of experience". The Civil War is exactly the kind of fast-moving event for which chronology is paramount. It is easy to see retrospectively a "high road to civil war", but the atmosphere in the late summer of 1641, when many believed that revolution had been peacefully averted, was markedly different from that of the autumn, when the Irish Rebellion electrified Westminster.

The sequential nature of tweets means it is now easier than ever to grasp the peculiar character of a discrete historical moment. Indeed, we can see this in the recent trend of real-time Twitter accounts. Amid the recent Titanicmania, The History Press live-tweeted the ship's journey through an account called @TitanicRealTime, which used hashtags such as #captain and #crew to indicate who was providing the update. Last year, Oxford history graduate Alwyn Collinson began @RealTimeWWII, which as I write has 236,470 followers. The account helps us comprehend the period's uncertainty: the elation of victory, the deflation of defeat.

Real-time tweets are not only relevant for times of catastrophe; they can give us insight into day-to-day life. In August 1809 future US President John Quincy Adams set out to St Petersburg, where he was to be based as Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. The Massachusetts Historical Society noticed that his diary entries during that period consisted of one line each day - making them ideal for Twitter. The account, @JQAdams_MHS, is a mesmerising glimpse into political, social and diplomatic life two hundred years ago to the day.

Admittedly, not all such attempts have been as successful. The charmingly named iTweetus, a project by a Carlisle museum to educate schoolchildren about the Roman invasion of northern England, is a case in point. The account narrates the diary of legionary Marcus Julius Latinus, sent by Vespasian to march on northern Britannia. The idea, however, has an essential failing: Marcus Julis Latinus did not exist. As a result, the account comes off as contrived (a sample post reads "At 5ft10" I used to tower over my siblings, in the Roman army however, my height is standard. I strain to see past others in to the distance") and even anachronistic (it uses Anno Domini, a dating system only devised in the sixth century). The John Quincy Adams account, critically, stuck to the evidence; iTweetus shows the perils of deviating from the record.

Historical approaches that emphasise contingency and chronology have the tendency to become ideologically charged. For Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, for example, an approach that emphasises short-term incidents appeals to their individualism and scepticism of long-term reform. The debate about 'narrative' in the British history curriculum consistently throws up the question: 'Whose narrative?' I am not arguing for narrative history to predominate: some topics lend themselves better than others to sustained analysis. However, even where these subjects are concerned, social media can provide historians with the grease to keep the time machine running - rather than icily examining the engine room.

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