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Retelling history, 140 characters at a time

Twitter is known for real-time reporting of events. But now, a number of projects are doing "real-time" reporting of historical events like World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Twitter has become a terrific place for people to re-tell historical events, like World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Illustration by James Martin/CNET

Spoiler alert: The Cuban Missile Crisis ended without the United States and the Soviet Union launching even a single nuclear weapon, and the Allies won World War II.

You're no doubt well aware of those ultimate outcomes, but what if you don't remember, or never knew, the myriad individual moments, big and small, that led to those famous conclusions? There are plenty of thick history books you could pick up, but maybe you're someone who wants a more dramatic sense of what happened -- even, perhaps, to feel like you're right in the thick of the drama.

To be sure, there's no time machine that can take you back to London during The Blitz, or to the White House Situation Room as JFK stood firm against belligerent military leaders wanting to engage the Soviets over surreptitiously putting nukes in Cuba. But these days, in little 140-character snippets, many of those moments are being played out for the whole world to see. And if you close your eyes, you can almost imagine you're there.

Welcome to the world of historical retelling, Twitter-style. With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- which lasted from October 16 to October 28, 1962 -- upon us, and a never-ending, unquenchable thirst for information about World War II, Twitter has become a great way to learn what happened during those two great dramas at the same, one-day-at-a-time pace as people who actually experienced them. Without the threat of being blown up, of course.

For years, Twitter has been well-known as a place where events large and small play out in real time. From political standoffs in the Middle East to baseball games to presidential debates to reality TV shows, no medium has proven to be more effective at creating a worldwide conversation around developing events than Twitter.

But the microblogging service is also increasingly being used to tell stories. One man, for example, has been using his account to tweet the contents of each of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Others have taken to Twitter to create their own narrative for the characters from TV dramas like "Mad Men." And Twitter itself recently announced its first-ever Fiction Festival.

Still, telling stories in real-time means different things to different people. There's the traditional meaning -- spelling out developments exactly as they happen. And then there's historical real-time, meaning telling stories as if it's, say, 1962. Consider:

"Low level surveillance over San Cristobal shows heavy tire tracks suggesting missile readiness drills," a tweet posted to the Cuban Missile Crisis Twitter project yesterday read. "US Ambassador Stevenson shows intelligence photos of [Soviet] missiles to UN Security Council," read another, both adding a new piece of the puzzle.

Or these, from the RealTimeWWII Twitter project: "German U-boats now based in ports in north-west France - letting them sail straight into the Atlantic to hunt shipping." And, "News of French President Petain's meeting with Hitler has reached UK - where Petain's emissary is secretly meeting with a furious Churchill."

James Martin/CNET

The Cuban Missile Crisis project is the work of "Foreign Policy" magazine and Michael Dobbs, the author of "One Minute to Midnight," a 2008 book that dives deep on the 13-day showdown between the Soviets and the Americans that many thought could lead to a nuclear war.

To Dobbs, his Twitter project is a chance to tell the story of the crisis that he explained in depth in his book with a sense of urgency, and to do so at a time when a lot of people are paying attention. "As the 50th anniversary approached, I thought a tweet feed was a good way of reaching a different audience," Dobbs said. "I wanted to show the missile crisis from many different perspectives: American, Cuban, and Russian [and] what was happening on the ground as well as what was happening in the White House and Kremlin. [My] choice of tweets reflects this."

For his part, Alwyn Collinson has embarked on a six-year project to tweet the countless details of World War II, starting with the events of 1940 and continuing, day by day, through to the end of the global conflict in 1945. Like Dobbs, Collinson is tying his tweets to events that took place on the same calendar day -- but 72 years earlier. Both liberally pepper their tweets with links to photos and, when possible, video, that illustrate the story.

"I was inspired by the way social media is being used for news reporting [with] things like the Arab Spring," Collinson said. "I thought if Twitter could be used in those sorts of ways to talk about the present, and make people really engaged about events on the other side of the world, it could be used for history as well, to tell a story."

While Dobbs is mainly tweeting based on personal expertise and research for his book, Collinson's posts are based on a wide variety of source material, including the letters and diaries of people who didn't survive World War II. "The amount of material that's been written about [World War II] makes my job tremendously easier," Collinson said. "I can read about events that happened on every single day of the war. There's so much video footage that brings home what it must have been like to live through such momentous events."

And that ability to make decades-old events seem contemporary is something that clearly resonates with followers of the projects. As Sevaan Franks, whose Twitter feed alerts more than 26,000 people to his frequent blog posts about history put it, "You can almost put yourself in the shoes of someone living at that time. It's almost like the headlines you might see....It builds a much bigger picture, and makes it a much more real experience. It's immersive.

9/11 fiasco
With a year under his belt, Collinson has generated a substantial audience interested in keeping up with the complex daily developments of World War II. To date, 261,447 people follow the project, and he's posted more than 4,300 tweets. Dobbs hasn't generated quite as much interest -- just 4,574 followers. But his project has attracted interest at high levels -- the National Security Archive, for example, has embedded Dobbs' tweets.

Another real-time Twitter history also got people very worked up about its contents. Last year, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Guardian UK launched a similar project, called 9/11 Ten Years Ago.

Launched with a tweet that read "Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari board American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston Logan airport," the project proceeded to march methodically through the events that led to that day's eventual tragedy. But some felt that even ten years wasn't enough time for wounds opened on 9/11 to heal.

According to the English tech news site The Inquirer, the plug was pulled on the 911 Ten Years Ago project after little more than an hour. One upset reader's tweet summed up the negative reaction to the project: "Sorry, Guardian, but @911tenyearsagodoesn't feel right to me. There's a difference between remembering and reliving."

The project's 16th -- and final -- tweet read, simply, "This account of the events is now ending."

Lived forward and understood backward
For Collinson, pursuing his project -- he intends to keep doing it every day for nearly five more years until he reaches the end of World War II -- is his way of helping to keep the events of that great conflict alive. "If we don't remember these things now," he said, "they may slip entirely out of people's memories, and that would be a tragedy."

Clearly, a lot of people are listening to what he has to say. And in some cases, his followers are echoing what he writes. For example, he recalls a tweet about how the Nazis had banned Germans from wearing new gold wedding rings, instead mandating iron rings. "Someone sent me a photo of their grandmother's iron ring," Collinson said. "I just found that tremendously inspiring and powerful."

What's also powerful is that even for people who are clearly aware who won World War II, Collinson's in-depth exploration of extended events, such as specific battles keeps his followers coming back. "Every day, I see tweets from people saying, 'I don't want to look this battle up on Wikipedia," he said, "because I don't want to know how it ends."