One If By Land, Two If By Tweet

BY Katelyn Polantz  December 7, 2012 at 5:00 PM EST


Paul Revere may have spread the news differently if were he alive today. Art courtesy the collection of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

John Quincy Adams is reading sermons. George Washington is monitoring intelligence on the war. Paul Revere is not telling his tweeps his exact location.

Among the millions of faces that make up Twitter and Facebook, these men are some of the more active resurrected colonial political leaders online. They tweet as if they were alive today, recounting their daily agendas and thoughts in real time.

It’s common for history buffs, bloggers and museums to launch tweet-by-tweet re-enactments of major events, such as the Second World War. But to tweet in the voice of a person long dead but well remembered — that’s a rarer occasion, and one tackled by a few museums and other historical groups.

The Paul Revere Memorial Association runs the midnight rider’s account, @paulrevere1734.

Its overseers write as Revere from an omniscient point-of-view — as if he remembers everything from his lifetime as well as all the history that’s happened since then. The association doesn’t know of any diary Revere kept, so Education Director Emily Holmes and her colleagues make educated guesses about what he would say. Since 2009, they’ve pegged his tweets to real events, such as the births of his children and his work to spread news of the Tea Party to New York.

The account also gives the association’s staff a way to monitor who’s talking about Paul. You’d be surprised how frequently he comes up in the collective pop culture memory, Holmes said, in band names or songs.

“A lot of people say if Paul Revere were alive today, he would use Twitter instead of the ride” to shout that the British are coming, Holmes said. “That comes up a lot.”

But Revere isn’t nearly the most innovative 18th Century figure officially on Twitter. That honor goes to Benjamin Franklin, who in a nine-month experiment wrote as if he were a 13-year-old with a bad habit of using abbreviated text-speak. His handle: @BFFFranklin.

The Minnesota Historical Society started the feed in November 2009 to coincide with an exhibit on Franklin that the group revived and that now tours the country.

The niece of one of the society’s staff members asked her uncle how Franklin would text if he were in high school today. Rowan Garrigan, who is now 16, said she’d commit to the project, write the tweets and do the research herself. The society’s media relations manager, Jessica Kohen, supported her.

“In marketing, we try things earlier, and then the educators are on board,” Kohen said. “We were just throwing things against the wall and seeing what would stick. If you’re delivering good historical content, why not be fun?”

Kohen asserts that Franklin would have loved the project, given his background as a publisher.

But does the modernist approach offend more reverent historical minds? I called George Washington. Or rather, I called Dean Malissa, the official and only person who portrays the first president at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens.

“The story of the formation of this country has been hijacked,” he said. “It needs to be told with the clarity of the men and women who originally lived it.”

Malissa wouldn’t dare presume to write on social media as if he were George Washington without using Washington’s verifiable words. He posts under the handles “Geo. Washington” on Facebook and @POTUSWashington on Twitter a few times a month, sharing diary entries, other writings and Revolutionary War artwork.

Washington’s speech is often too long and flowery to fit within Twitter’s 140-character limit. Facebook suits Malissa’s mission better in that sense, though the easy-to-use comment interface on the site poses one problem. Malissa prefers not to engage with readers who ask Washington questions, such as “Why don’t you run for office?”

“Most of their responses are very 21st century,” he said. “I don’t want to go into an entire lecture in Washington’s voice. One does not ‘run’ for office. One must stand for office. ‘Running’ connotes an overarching ambition for the office. It smacks of self-interest.”

John Quincy Adams agrees on the policy of accuracy. He tweets nearly every day with support from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“He can really summarize the exciting things going on for him professionally,” said Nancy Heywood, the historical society’s digital projects coordinator. “He talks about his walks, and he talks about what he’s reading.”

Heywood and her colleagues have drawn from more than 14,000 pages Adams wrote in his diaries to give the sixth president a voice online. Among the many volumes he journaled, Adams kept one seemingly made for Twitter. He called it his “line a day” volume.

The entries are often short enough to fit as single tweets, yet detailed enough to show what Adams was doing exactly 200 years before. This year, he’s recounting his third year as the United States’ minister to Russia.

So far, the response from readers has been overwhelmingly positive.
His tweets stir emotion, help him to seem like a real person and master the art of Twitter, followers wrote. One of his 17,000 followers honored his style.

That’s exactly the type of interaction the historical society hopes to spark. For Heywood and her colleagues, Adams’ new life online helps fulfill the mission of preserving history and making it accessible to all.