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Marion Jensen on putting history into context with Twitter

Marion Jensen is something of a social scientist because he experiments with social services like Twitter to help put history into context. He is the founder of TwHistory, a collaborative Twitter project in which participants retweet historical events using original source documents in real time as they happened in history.

He also has an all-time classic blog tagline: “those who forget history are doomed to retweet it.” Marion is also an educator and author of several books. In this interview, you can hear  just how passionate he is about inspiring connections to the past.

Marion Jensen: Like a lot of folks, I found Twitter and had no idea what to do with it. The first time you see Twitter, you just don’t get it and on the second time, you still don’t get it. When they got the search feature, I realized I could follow conferences and all the different people–strangers who I have never met before–I could follow them through these tags. I found that it was almost like being there. You could see this running stream of tweets and you got a sense that you were actually there.

And I thought, from the author side in this, that you could tell a story from that. Just come up with your different characters and tweet out a fictional story. And then I thought, you know “That’s too much work.” And then of course, the idea hit that you could take history and take different journals of people who are at the same event and you could give that sense of presence even though it was an event that happened a hundred years ago.

I started out with the Battle of Gettysburg and kind of that as a proof of concept and it turned out really well. It went from there.

Jeff Guin: Obviously you have a very strong interest in history. Where did that start?

Marion Jensen: I did my undergrad in Political Science and there is a lot of political history and I’ve always kind of have a love for history. I ended up going to education route with the focus on technology but I’ve never lost that interest in history. And for me, the real interesting part is when you dive in to the people’s stories. You know its fun sometimes to read a history book that it kind of covers a wide expenses but when you find out that one character and how they lived their life, to me that’s interesting.

And that’s what TwHistory, “Twitter History” allows you to do is get that feeling of not just, you know these things happen generally but this is what happened on Thursday morning. You know: “I woke up and I had beans.” To me, that makes it all the more real.

Jeff Guin: This question maybe a little obvious but I am going to ask it anyway. How did you settle on the name, TwHistory?

Marion Jensen: You know it’s hard to find a URL. All the good ones have been taken but with where it was kind of a Twitter History, I just shortened that up. We pronounced it TwHistory but you could also just pronounce it Twitter History and that URL was available so we grabbed it and ran with it.

Jeff Guin: I know you began the project began in 2009 but can you give us a little bit more history about how it got started?

Marion Jensen: In spring of 2009, I located the journals of 15 Civil War soldiers and we ended up doing the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg. So that was the first official kind of kick off with the site at the end of April 2009.

Jeff Guin: And there were other people involved with this as well, correct?

Marion Jensen: What I would do is wake up and I would have read through the journals for that day and you know most of these people wrote you know during their lunch time or at dinner and would write in past tense. So, “we woke up at 6:00 o’clock and we had breakfast.” So I would take those daily events and then create tweets and tweet them as if they were happening right now. So instead of saying, “I had beans for breakfast.” I would say, “I’m eating beans for breakfast” and I would tweet that at the appropriate time and on the appropriate day. Then as you can imagine for 15 soldiers that became pretty overwhelming.

Jeff Guin: How did you coordinate it?

Marion Jensen: I’m a doctoral student at Utah State and have some great friends who are interested in the project so several, we just found several volunteers that would take one or two journals and they were in charge of that person and they would tweet out the events.

Jeff Guin: Now story telling on the web is nothing new. In fact it’s been around since the early days of listserves. I wonder if you had been involved with anything like that before?

Marion Jensen: Yeah in fact that was one of my–I have had many dissertation topics–that was one of my early ones. It was a collaborative composition. You know we have seen with Wikipedia that a group of people, in fact a group of strangers can come together and write a good article about a certain topic and my question was you know could you do that fiction and I actually with my second book I posted the entire thing online and invited people to combine helping write it. I didn’t have that many people come by but we did have some. So you know I have kind of dabbled in it here and there, I am a big fan of fan fiction. I think sometimes we give our students (this is the educator in me) we give our students a blank paper and tell them to write a story and that’s difficult to do. But if we can give them a world, if we can say well write in the Simpson’s world or write in JRR Tolkien’s world, they have the worlds already done, a lot of the character are done and they can focus on some of the smaller aspects of bringing the story versus have to worry about the entire thing. So I am a big fan of collaborative composition and think it’s a good way to learn how to write.

Jeff Guin: In what ways is TwHistory different that collaborative story telling? Because you are taking the original source documents from history and you are tweeting them but not verbatim. I am wondering how much room there is for creativity in this process?

Marion Jensen: I have thought a lot about that question, I have a brother who is a historian and so I understand what historians For us to say, “well we didn’t mention what they have for breakfast so I am just going to make it up.” There is value in that but to me that’s more moving into the realm of historical fiction and quite frankly I think that’s an exciting realm to move into. There is a lot of events that we just don’t have detailed enough records but we can kind of guess as to what happened and we don’t use a verbatim out of the journal simply because they didn’t write in 140 characters. But if they didn’t say what they had for breakfast we don’t make it up. We try to stick as closely to what they said. One of the things we do have to make up unfortunately is the time because they have already said we had breakfast at 6:47 in the morning. But as closely as possible we try to convey the events as they happen so we people follow these events, they are getting a sense of what really did happen.

Jeff Guin: So what’s the ultimate benefit for this project?

Marion Jensen: I think there are two benefits to a historical on Twitter. One benefit comes to those who have followed the event. And what happens is they really get a sense of the event as if that were happening. So for example, when we did Gettysburg was a two and half month event. Usually when you study history you sit down maybe you are watching a film and you understand the battle, a three-day battle you get in three hours. Or you read a book and you get it in bits and pieces here and there. What TwHistory does for the followers is they get a sense of how long it took and what happened on each day. I will forever remember Chancellorsville took place in the spring because when I followed the feed it was spring in my world, I mean it was raining. It really gave a feel for how the events transpired and what the people went through, so that’s one benefit.

The second benefit, and this is the exciting part for me again as an educator, is after we did Gettysburg we had a high school teacher said hey, this is great, I am going to have my students do and they tweeted the Cuban Missile Crisis. So these high school students went out poring through White House documents, original sources and then extracting the tweets. So just a fantastic educational opportunity instead of just reading about any event they created it, they reenacted it and the teacher was very pleased that how it turned out, how involved the students got and how to engage them.

Jeff Guin: Now this must require quite a bit of focus not just from you but from the other people who are tweeting because all of these tweets are kind of interdependent. I wonder how you attract the people with the dedication and reliability for lack of a better term to carry out a project like this over you said three months right?

Marion Jensen: Yeah, what I did was a you know was a volunteer project and I was doing the entire thing at first. As it became overwhelming I kind of just cast the net out and said hey I am doing this project anybody like to hope out and I had a quite few volunteers and then a couple of them fell out and stopped doing it. But I found that the ones that did stick with it  helped me out quite a bit and so I you know I made my life easier. That is one of the challenges, that these events are pretty hard to coordinate, these smaller events not as much so.

The TwHistory group is working on a set of web tool to try to make this easier because the way it sets, the way the project works now is it, it does take quite a bit work and it was, there was a big effort by this high school teacher. We would like to simplify that, we would like to make these original documents available so that a teacher could come and just pick up say the Continental Congress package. We would have all the documents there they needed, the characters and they could just kind of do the fun stuff but it is a difficult thing to do.

Jeff Guin: Now you mentioned earlier that you collected all the journals and the research for this project initially I am wondering if that’s going to change in as this project becomes little more collaborative?

Marion Jensen: You know that’s an excellent question because I am not a trained historian and historians everywhere will you know roll their eyes in how I did my research because basically I went over to the university library and found Civil War section and pulled off book after book after book. And if it was a journal and that soldiers at their at Gettysburg and I took it. I am sure that I missed a lot of good sources and I would love a Civil War historian to pick up what I did and to see what I have because like I said we only followed fifteen sources and I know there is more than that. I would love to see the battle of Gettysburg become a more complete story. But you know I am a big fan of Wikipedia. I should mention that’s one of the hallmarks of the tools we are creating, these feeds that we are creating are open and free for anybody to use. We license  material and we have under a Creative Commons license and encourage others to do the same.

Jeff Guin: Now you eluded to earlier your first experiences with Twitter and that you and actually I think it was, it’s been a common perception of people in the heritage field in general that Twitter is kind of inane almost and that there are not a lot of redeeming qualities to it. What actually lead you to the process of seeing the possibilities of where this could go and how it could be used as an educational tool.

Marion Jensen: When I first signed up for Twitter I followed a few of my friends and I got updates like, “Hiding My Cat” or “This Yogurt Tastes Good,” and I just did not see the value of Twitter at all and there has been a lot of that criticism. But then as I mentioned the thing that changed it for me was when Twitter included their search capability. The best way I explained it is that Facebook is really good for having random conversations with specific people. Twitter is really good for having specific conversations with random people. So for example if my sister breaks her leg I want to know about that. It’s a random event in her life that because I know her and I care about her, I want to know that.

If somebody breaks their leg and I don’t know them, I don’t much care about it and that just don’t mean but that’s with our goals. So with Facebook I talk about any topics with people who I have known to care about. But Twitter allows me to, can talk about specific things with random people that I have never met. So I can go on and talk about Civil War just by typing that the search term “Civil War” and I can be introduced to experts and to various different people. So for me that’s when my life went off and said okay if I want to talk about a specific topic then Twitter is a good way to go.

Jeff Guin: I have never heard that explained better. Seriously, I think in those terms about Facebook versus Twitter, but I have never heard it articulated so well. Now you mentioned earlier that you were in academia, can you give us a little more of your background there?

Marion Jensen: My undergraduate was political science. In my senior year I went to back to D.C. and did an internship and promptly came back and changed my major. Actually I graduated but immediately went on to something else. I love and still to this day I love politics but I did not want to be involved with that level of bureaucracy and what not.

So I came back and went on to get my master’s in Instructional Technology, went out and made my way in the world but I missed my school days. Ended up coming back to the Weber State University and started teaching and really enjoyed that and thought I wanted to get my PhD so that I could teach for a living. I started working for the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, I became the director of their Open Courseware Project and that led me to a lot of social media learning environments and eventually learned TwHistory.

Jeff Guin: So what social media tools did you use either professionally or personally?

Marion Jensen: I have dabbled in just about, all right I shouldn’t say all of them, I dabbled in many of them. I used Twitter regularly, Facebook, LinkedIn… I am a big geocacher, which is a kind of a kind of a mix of a virtual and the real world. I love all of the Google tools; I’ve used Media Wiki. There are just so many ways in that to hook up with people in just about any topic.  I have got an Android phone and now I have an application where I can leave messages at certain places and other people that come along from can read those messages. The golden age of social learning and social interactions.

Jeff Guin: Okay, as you looked toward the future of where you are going to take TwHistory do you foresee using any of those tools to maybe augment the experience and specifically I am talking about things like using historical photos from Flickr to use along with the tweets?

Marion Jensen: Absolutely and that’s an excellent question. We’re doing the Mormon Pioneer Trek. So several of the Mormon Pioneers who crossed America. We are also doing the Louis and Clark Trail which is a very big project, its about three years. We have every intention to use Google maps, Flickr or some iteration of that to show where these people not just what they tweeted but where they were when they tweeted it. I think that will offer an edge with the Louis and Clark as they describe some of these places, we can upload pictures of what it looks like today. For somebody following that the Louis and Clark feed, if they can pull up on a map and see where they are, when they are tweeting it, we hope they will better be able to remember and kind of comprehend that information.

Jeff Guin: Interesting, well I am just thinking out loud here, I wonder if there is any potential for this to serve as kind of a travel guide of sorts. You mentioned Google maps earlier would it possible for folks who were following the tweets to actually follow along the journey–kind of serve as a heritage tourism experience?

Marion Jensen: Yeah you know one of my other dissertation topics was geo-tagging and that’s the idea of taking content that’s relevant to a specific location and somehow making it available for people. So we had Wikipedia and that’s great, I love Wikipedia and I can go learn about anything on Wikipedia. But as soon as I close my laptop and I step outside, all of that information is lost, its back in my house. How cool to be hiking in amount and then come across the a strange rock formation to be able to pull out your cell phone and listen to a video from a local geology professor who explains how that outcrop was formed.

The project that I was working on just before TwHistory was a virtual game that takes place in a living museum close to Salt Lake. The problem they had was they had a lot of volunteers who were helping to interpret the site but if this volunteers weren’t here the visitor who had come to the site here had missed out on a lot of information. So we created a game that sat on a GPS and they would actually interact with the GPS and as they came to certain location that a message would pop and say if you see a bear what are you going to do? If they have the gun you could maybe try to shoot the bear. If you didn’t, you had to run away and find something that had a gun. So by doing this it became interactive; it wasn’t just an interactive game on a computer but it was an interactive game with a location and the content that we presented was relevant because of the location that we are at. So I think TwHistory eventually–you know it would be great to go to the Gettysburg National Park and to be able to follow what happened those three days with the GPS device maybe, maybe we tie in our tweets in a condensed version but you can go through and see where people were at different times.

Jeff Guin: Yeah and that actually ties into what we hear so much about with augmented reality these days and it being the next evolution of social media, which I am sure if you have an Android phone then you see that Google is taking things in that direction. Reading your blog one of the things that really interested me was your participation in an UNESCO event. Tell me a little bit about that experience?

Marion Jensen: That was a fortuitous meet-up. Tom Caswell was at a conference and Tom, I used to sit right next Tom and we were doctoral students together. And he was at a conference and it happened to start raining. So he kind of took the shelter under this one even somebody else came and joined him and it someone that was attending the conference and they started talking and he brought up TwHistory and as it turns out she was, she was in charge of this international seminar of UNESCO in Barcelona. And she thought the idea was great and invited both of us to come out and speak and that’s just been fantastic.

We were able to go there and present our idea. A couple of the keynotes speakers were there and they actually tweeted what we were doing and that went out to three or four thousand followers and that lead to a brief article in the Chronicle of Higher Education so this kind of made more people aware of what we are doing. And so far all the response we got back has just been very positive. People are excited about the idea and we would like to help build further.

Jeff Guin: And so do you actually have people volunteering to help you do that to take this concept to the next level?

Marion Jensen: Yeah we do, one of the biggest challenges we see right now for is a website that provides all of these tools and makes the process easier. Because if I am a high school teacher I can’t take four or five hours getting to know all of these various different tools in your various different locations to put this together. I happen to work with two great developers that have done some really unique things and their specialty is social learning, social environments and they have, their list of projects that they have worked on is very impressive. If there is one plug that I would put in, we are currently, we have started our fund raising campaign on kick starter and we are asking for donations, we might take those donations and build out this site the way it should be done. But that’s the next step and those are kind of the volunteers I guess on the developers side.

For our upcoming events I have kind of just, I run a personnel blog with several friends and a lot of them are setup and have volunteered their time. Its kind of like Wikipedia but you know Wikipedia is not a full time job it can be done in little bits here and there and these volunteers can sit down for 30 minutes on a Saturday afternoon and do a couple of week to work through a content. So that’s kind of the extended volunteer that we are looking at right now. One, on one side it’s the folks doing the content, on the other side of the developers that can make this site what it needs to be.

Jeff Guin: Okay well what kind of help do you need, if there is someone out there listening to this that has some type of specialized skill and would like to contribute, how do they volunteer?

Marion Jensen: I don’t know if our site conveys this very well but we consider ourselves along the same lines of wikipedia. So we are creating content, we are generating this TwHistory events but we don’t want to be the only ones that are doing it. We would love for high school groups, for college groups, for heritage center organizations to say, “Hey look we have got this event. We have got some great documentation on it, lets create our own TwHistory feed.” We would be more than happy to show you how to do it and then we can push those out from our site. We get quite a few visitors to our sites so it’s a good way to advertise maybe your heritage center or you know just for the educational experience. But we would love more volunteers coming to us and saying look lets redo the Cuban Missile Crisis lets do the Continental Congress, lets do just about anything and we would love to see more content.

Jeff Guin: Well you mentioned heritage centers, I mean one of the ones that’s mentioned prominently on your side as the American West Heritage Center. Tell me a little bit about your involvement there?

Marion Jensen: I have always enjoyed technology so I have a desk job and always in front of the computer, I always have my phone and sometimes I just need to go away from it all. So about two years ago my wife signed this and volunteered the American West Heritage Center which is a fantastic place. And I grumbled the entire way, we got out there and absolutely fell in love with it. It’s a living museum, so we would dress in 1917 farm clothes. We would go out and interpret as if we were a 1917 farm family. We would milk the cow, we would plow and harvest and run the garden with 1917 tools. It was just a wonderful,  wonderful experience for me and my family. So I have got different ways in technology for a little bit.

Jeff Guin: Well another one of your interesting projects is something called “Where I Go” and these are actually games that you are developing. They are not related to TwHistory though right?

Marion Jensen: No they are not related. I mentioned earlier the interactive game we have created for the American West. We used the platform Where I Go to create those and those that runs on a Garmin GPS. So we were able to secure some funding for the American West Heritage Center to buy six of these GPS devices and then we have created this interactive game that we went up and the visitors on this site can check up these GPS devices and go and play the game.

We thought it was a great way for visitors who come to the site to interact with the site itself. So you know they can go to the various sites, they can see the farmhouse, they can see the Native American Center. But if there aren’t any volunteers who are there to help them interpret the site this GPS kind of gives them additional information. And we found that children especially enjoy it because they you know instead of just going to the Native American section and see the teepees, now they have got this virtual character on the GPS. A Native American who they talk to and that they actually help. So it’s kind of a fun way you know we played interactive games on the computer before. It’s kind of the same thing except you are actually out of the site so instead of just clicking with your mouse and never moving, you are walking all over the site gathering berries to one place and dropping them off at another place and visitors found it very enjoyable.

Jeff Guin: There is a question I ask almost everyone I interview. It’s about how you find balance in your online of life. Social media offers so many new ways to connect and to do important things but it can easily end up distracting you from your mission. How do you find that balance?

Marion Jensen: I am distracted all the time by technology and if I see a thing, I run off and play with it, which is why I have had multiple dissertation topics. It can be distracting. One of my colleagues compared Twitter to the Borg. The Star Trek Borg have all these voices going in their heads, and when one gets cut off, it says its “just silent.” You know sitting on my computer I have these little pings from my Twitter but it says you got another you know another message so it can be distracting. My wife asks me all the time how I find time to do all of this and the fortunately I find something new and I can’t let it go so right now I am working on  TwHistory. I have also got another book that I’m marketing. I do some curriculum development for an online high school. But for me, especially with TwHistory, it’s so intriguing to me to be able to follow an historical event as if it was happening to follow this in real time that I can’t let go this one. so we are trying to push it as far as we can. The downside is that I don’t see any business model to it, so it’s not like if I make this work I can quit my day job. But we are hoping that if we can get the volunteers, I won’t have to quit my day job to generate all these content that we can get a lot of good high-quality feeds getting out there without it costing one person a lot of time and energy. It can be done collaboratively.

Jeff Guin: All right well in your blog post “Gatekeepers and Holes” you mentioned the importance of losing the middleman in publication and how that promotes the expression of ideas in literature. How do you think that same concept could be applied toward heritage preservation?

Marion Jensen: Yeah so I am an author and one of the things that authors have a privilege of doing is trying to get their work published. And in order to do that you have to find an agent, you have to find a publisher and it can be very difficult to do. One of the beauties of the internet is that it has taken out some of those I called them “Gatekeepers” and then a lot of times you could say that that’s not a good thing. But I think it is a good thing. I was in college when the Napster Revolution kind of took place and I saw all of these songs just given away for free and I thought you know that’s horrible all these musicians, how are they going to make money? And you know of course the record industry starts suing people and we have seen that battle go on for years but a lot of the savvy musicians have said “you know what I am just going to give my music away and then people come to my concerts and I can sell them tickets or I can sell them T-shirts or surprise people still want to buy CD’s because they want to support me.” So there is this whole wave of musicians that bypassed their record industry and went direct to their fans and as an author I have always wanted that same ability but its kind of a different meeting, that’s hard to sit down and reading the entire novel on the screen.

But I do think this idea of hooking up artists with consumers and in our case say heritage museums or people with a historical content, directly with people who have an interest, it is very powerful. So I might say hey look I have got the journals of my grandfather who was in World War II, he wasn’t in anything famous battle so you know a lot of people might say we don’t have interest there but there are some people out there who would find that very interesting and I can share that directly you know I don’t have to find a gatekeeper or a publisher. Twenty-five years ago if you wanted to get your message out you had to on the television station or a newspaper or magazine and now all you have to do is set up a blog. So I think it’s a powerful way for consumers to hook out with the people with the content and we are just, I think we are just starting to see a lot of the benefits that are coming out.

Jeff Guin: Now you mentioned that you are an author tell us about some of the things that you have written?

Marion Jensen: I have written three books. Two of them have been published. They are for young adults and they are kind of based loosely on my childhood, I would call them humorous fiction. And then my latest book is kind of speculative fiction for young adults, it’s about super heroes.

Jeff Guin: Okay well I am going to put you on the spot for a little bit, because I want you to define what an author is these days. You have got the traditional books the publications that you write and you also blog and you tweet. So what, in your mind, is the difference now?

Marion Jensen: Yeah you know kind of in the author circles people say “well if you write you are a writer, if you have been published you are an author.” And that was it, you know that was an easy limpness test twenty years ago when being published and that you had a book. But now you know if you have a blog what does that mean, you know how many followers so you have to have before you are considered an author. So I kind of just lump it together and said you know what if you are creating contents and people are consuming or enjoying that content then hats off to you, that’s what we need: more good stuff out there.

Jeff Guin: What would be your advice to people or organizations who want to get on the web and have conversations about heritage topics. How do they get started?

Marion Jensen: Well first one we just say that we are more than happy to help anybody through the process whether they want to do a TwHistory event or just some other way they can come to our site: TwHistory, TwHistory.org and just there was a “contact us” form, just drop us e-mail we would be more than happy to help you out. The one thing I would like to tell people you know there is that movie, the famous line “if you build it they will come”: Field of Dreams, that does not apply here.

If you send up a website and put great stuff on there, people are not necessarily going to come. So that’s the real challenge as finding you know where do people already come and then how can I get my message out through those means. Yet now it is possible to start a blog with the generally a lot of followers, it’s a lot of work to get people to come to your site, a lot of work to build followers but it is possible. If you can find sites that already provide this service and use those channels especially if those services are you know free and open and in groups there. That’s why Twitter is good. When we first started TwHistory we could have started our own you know broadcast mechanism–that wouldn’t be hard to do. But people already use Twitter, and it’s very easy for them to just sign up and follow us. So that would be my key piece of advice: to find out how people are already using technology and then use that technology in an effective and efficient way to help getting message across.

Jeff Guin: Is there anything else that you would like to add about either your current projects or what you are planning for the future?

Marion Jensen: I guess the only thing other thing I would say is that if anybody would like help using some of these new social tools with their heritage projects we are more than going to help out. We enjoy technology, we enjoy heritage and we think that the marriage of the two is a good thing.

Jeff Guin: Marion thanks for being on Voices of the Past.

Marion Jensen: Thank you.