Monday, April 16, 2012

Tweeting Titanic

by Anita Mae Draper

This past weekend was historic in more than one sense of the word.
First, because it was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic.
And second because a brilliant person at @TheHistoryPress decided to commemorate the anniversary with a live broadcast on Twitter using real radio messages and updates from the captain, crew, and engineers like they did back in 1912. An added bonus was the fictionalized updates from the passengers.

I didn't sign on right away - mainly because the RMS Titanic left Southampton on April 10th and wouldn't sink until the 15th and I don't have time to sit around doing nothing but tweet for that length of time. However, I followed @titanicrealtime and added it as a column to my Tweetdeck to keep an eye on the action. I soon found out, however, that many followers were tweeting the same updates but at different times because of time zones. So I'd be reading the same tweet by 3 or 4 dozen people. What got me was that some were simply retweeting and some were editing first, either before or after the original tweet. Could I trust that the tweet was even accurate in that case?

That's when I went right to the source and added the @TheHistoryPress column to my Tweetdeck. From then on, I retweeted each tweet as soon as I received it. Well, except those that came in during the night. I did those in the morning with appropriate spaces in between. I don't know if any of my followers were following my tweets, or if they even cared, but once I started, I didn't dare quit, just in case.

Actually, it reminded me of being back in the military where I worked in the underground communications centre where the messages would come in over the teletype machine and I had to process them and ensure a runner from the command post came and got them immediately. And if a message was to go out, I had to type my fingers off getting that message out over the circuit and on its way to NORAD as fast as humanly possible.Yes, that's NORAD as in the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Cheyenne Mountain... the one you see in the Stargate TV shows... Except retweeting is much faster.

As the days passed and the Titanic's anniversary date neared, I stepped back to look at the big picture. Was I getting too wrapped up in an event where so many died? Was I treating their deaths as entertainment? Was I showing a lack of compassion by feeding on the morbidity of the event?

These thoughts crossed my mind many times over the following days, especially when I read some of the insensitive tweets. Followers of the @titanicrealtime seemed to fall into several camps:
- those like me who merely retweeted without comment
- those who retweeted with insensitve remarks
- those who appeared to treat the tweets as real updates

These latter ones reminded me of another broadcasting milestone - October 30, 1938 when Orson Welles narrated the radio drama, The War of the Worlds as a series of news broadcasts uninterrupted by commercials. Listeners who missed the opening or forgot it was the usual timeslot for the anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air took the words to heart and believed a Martian invasion was at hand. In the following days, listeners made known their rage at having been deceived.

But that wasn't the case with the Twitter broadcast of The History Press, right? After all, the reason behind the broadcast was to publicize their Titanic app for the new iPad.

Yet some of the tweets were disturbing. I'm not talking about the ones that retweeted with the 'F' word or other profane language. And I'm not talking about the ones who spoiled it for everyone else with snide remarks that were meant to sound smart but came off as juvenile. Like the *spoiler alert* ones where someone would retweet and add "You think?", "What's a little iceberg?", "I'd swim if I were you.", or "I see Rose and Jack on the bow!"

But the tweets that were disturbing were the ones that made me wonder if the person tweeting was getting too carried away. Such as when I read, "Tell the Captain to quit tweeting and pay attention!", "No! Stay away from the icebergs!", "Why would he increase his speed?", "People are falling in the water!", "The water's too cold for them!" and "Why didn't he steer clear?"

I mean, this is a re-creation, right? Everything has to happen exactly as it did that fateful night. But I could feel the chilling fear and sorrow in some of those tweets as people experienced the awful tragedy of that night in 1912.

The tweets were a bit confusing too, because people all around the world followed and participated. Tweets in many different languages passed my eyes. And in different time zones. Several times I'd retweet and as mine joined the melee of others, the one before it spoke of something that wouldn't happen for hours yet in my time zone and yet the one after mine was hours behind. One person was very annoyed by this and kept tweeting, "What's the matter with them? It won't happen for three hours yet!"

I had set up my Tweetdeck as follows:
Column 1 - the original tweets from @TheHistoryPress
Column 2 - my blogging friends
Column 3 - @titanicrealtime
Column 4 - #1k1hr

Up until noon on Apr 14th, all columns tweeted at about the same pace which is to say one tweet every 10-15 mins. At 1 pm, however, Column 2 stopped tweeting and stayed silent for about 8 hrs. During that time, Column 4 also stopped. Column 1 was erratic. At times, I'd get several tweets in a row with the captain, crew, engineering and passengers all talking about the weather or the meal, etc, then it would stay silent for an hour or so. If it hadn't been for Column 3, I would have worried that Twitter had failed.
Actually, several times, Twitter did fail, but always came back after a few minutes. That column 3 was something to see, though. As the time advanced toward the actual sinking, the tweets flew past at such a quickened state I couldn't even read them unless I clicked to stop the action. Even hubby came to sit in my chair and watch the tweets go by. Different languages. Different time zones. Different emotions. Different smart alecks. Everyone pointing to one tragic event.

Morbid? Perhaps. One person commented that watching the Titanic tweets was dishonouring the dead - making a spectacle of them. I disagree. I likened it to the Remembrance Day services. We hold them to remember our dead and why they died fighting. Except the people who died on the Titanic died so that better safety measures could be put in place in other ships and thousands more lives could be saved. They didn't die in vain although they experienced a horrible death.

And in the waning hours after Titanic lay in pieces on the ocean floor, the tweets carried on, each one spaced out farther than the last, as finally the Carpathian reached the wreckage site and took on the survivors.

A couple hours later, a tweet went out that the Carpathian was on its way to New York with 700 survivors on board. A #crewman tweeted, "700 passengers? That means 1500 were lost at sea..." and you could feel his pain. I felt the pain behind the words, whether real or fiction.

Finally, a tweet went out from @TheHistoryPress thanking everyone for their support for this historic broadcast. I retweeted that one. It was followed by one saying The History Press was giving a 30% discount on their printed material to all followers. I didn't retweet that one. However, I did retweet the one that said all followers with an iPad were entered for a free Titanic app. I mean, free is free, right?

The History Press's final tweet was inviting feedback and asking if we would like to see more similar broadcasts in the future. That received a lot of replies like, "Really great!", "An exciting new way to learn more and revisit history!", "What's next?" and "I have a better understanding of how it could have happened."

One person said that after reading the tweets for several days, they felt like a part of them had died as well. And hours after @TheHistoryPress tweeted their last, one tweet said, "But the survivors haven't reached New York yet." Clearly, they weren't ready for the tweets to end.

Even now Column 3 contines to change as the tweet says, "The mighty ship is gone. All around check their watches..." Which means in that time zone, the surivors are floating around in the boats awaiting rescue. But the pace is slow and soon, even Column 3 will soon stop as the rest of the world's time zones pass the century mark for this event.

Of course, the tweets didn't follow up on the victims, so I'll give you a quote taken from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia which has a special connection to the Titanic:

There were 337 bodies recovered among the icebergs where the Titanic sank. 128 badly damaged or deteriorated bodies were buried at sea while 209 bodies were returned to Halifax. 59 of these were shipped to further destinations for burial.
The largest number of Titanic victims, 150, is buried in three Halifax cemeteries: 19 in the Mount Olivet Cemetery, 10 in the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, and 121 in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery. 44 victims remain unidentified.

Yesterday, the CBC news broadcasted the Memorial Service held on behalf of the victims.

Children stand behind gravestones for each of the Titanic victims buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax. (Sabrina Fabian/CBC)

But back to the Twitter feed, I have to admit that @titanicrealtime was a brilliant ploy to capture our attention. Did I say brilliant? Let me underline that… brilliant. Whoever thought this up is a marketing genius.

And do you know what? I can envision this same method used for other historic occasions. Think... the Hindenberg. Or... wait... what about the Easter story! Yes, can you imagine, thousands of people around the world reading and retweeting Jesus' life from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem until they discover the stone rolled to the side and the empty tomb. Of course, there'll be the snide remarks and spoiler alerts, but think of all those people who'll come to know Him because of all the publicity! Oh, what a wonderful idea. Brilliant, I say, simply brilliant.

Did you watch @titanicrealtime? Did you retweet the tweets? What do you think about the whole affair?


  1. I missed it. :(
    But there is something about that tragic event I never get tired of hearing about. It's just so interesting.

  2. Interesting. I have to admit, I did not catch Titanic fever last week. Other than the Inky posts, I pretty much missed the whole thing. Although my daughter watched our old video tapes of the Decaprio version of the movie with a friend.

  3. Hey Jennifer, the tweets are still coming in. I've read that some people have gone back to the beginning and re-read the whole thing, but I'm not sure how. I tried going back to see some of the comments, but can't seem to get there.

    The History Press runs out of the UK and they've already scheduled the next broadcast for this Aug. They've tagged it @WChapelRealTime... Follow the Whitechapel police investigations of 1888 from the perspective of the detectives, officers and Whitechapel residents. Created by @TheHistoryPress

    I'm not sure, but isn't that when they go after Jack the Ripper? Deb? Where's Deb? She'd know.

    Anyway, Jennifer, I'm with you. Just the name catches my attention. Yet, I think for me the fascination lies not just in the incident itself, but the knowledge of class distinction... of how the 3rd class were locked up below decks so they wouldn't mingle with 1st and 2nd class. Indeed, the sheer opulence of the ship is staggering as is the stupidity of why so many died when the lifeboats weren't full.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. :)

  4. Dina, one thing I noticed... many of the tweets were the same words as the Titanic movie.

    In fact, one tweeter even said something along the effect that he "thought this was supposed to be the real */?! but they're just copying the movie".

    I think they were for the #passenger tags, but I understood the movie used original radio transcripts in the first place.

    All in all, between the movie and twitter broadcast, you had a real sense of the sequence of errors which enabled this tragedy.

  5. Can you believe I wrote a long comment and Blogger acted like I don't have an account? frustrating.

    okay... well, last Monday I listed the many ways interested parties could be part of the commemoration. I did follow Titanic Real Time on Twitter directly with no retweets coming in, so I had no comments other than the very well done tweets sent by officers, captain, crew, and those from each class aboard ship, as well as other ships. I was very happy with the coverage. Sorry you got so much other stuff, Anita!

    I also retweeted a few during the week and this weekend that I thought especially interesting or poignant.

    My friends and I were planning an 'event' to watch the miniseries together but it didn't' work out. We'd planned a menu (From the Titanic's last first class meal) and linen, silver and china. Alas, the miniseries was a disappointment. But many well done documentaries were on this past week and the Titanic Facebook group hosted by Janice Thompson made up for it. Anita and I were both on that loop and the writers who posted as actual passengers put a lot of thought into their 'journaling'.

    I did see that they are going to do White Chapel but I probably won't be part of that. Okay, you know I am not adverse to the gritty but that one, I'm not sure about. If it's just from the police, I might join.

    So, the whole question is how do we honestly label our interest in tragedies? morbid curiosity. Of course, it's just not pretty to admit it. As I posted yesterday, to me it's about the extreme human emotions experience. Like the best fiction but real. My fascination with Titanic 'will go on'.

  6. oh, I think if you go to the 'home page' for Titanic Real Time you can see their list of tweets only, but I don't know how you'd do it to start from the beginning. That's a lot of tweets.

    I've enjoyed (if that doesn't sound to awful) the amount of information online -links to a huge amount of new information and human interest stories.

  7. I was very happy with the coverage. Sorry you got so much other stuff, Anita!

    Deb, you may be sorry, but I'm not. The ‘other stuff’ is the reason I kept it in the prominent Col 3 spot. Although I could have done without the colorful language, I immensely enjoyed seeing everyone’s reactions.

    And I was watching the Titanic Real Time on Twitter in Column 1 except I had it coming in straight from The History Press.

    Yes, I was extremely pleased by the coverage. My post wasn't meant to complain about all the 'other stuff' but to show you how the rest of Twitterdom was reacting to the Titanic tweets.

    I saw one of your retweets come through and wondered how your period party was going. So sorry that didn't pan out.

    As for our continued interest, I believe it's all good. Any human error that causes such a tragedy should be remembered, and because we remember, we can avoid such a reoccurence

  8. Anita Mae, I would have gone bonkers keeping track of all of those tweets. But I can totally see how it was like reliving your military days. It sure was interesting to read your account of it. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Yes, I think it would be pretty awesome to recreate and tweet in real time an event like Jesus' birth or resurrection. It actually gives me goose bumps thinking about it.

  9. Wow! You are so organized, Anita. I couldn't have handled all of the tweets. I would have liked to do more Titanic-related "stuff" but this is a busy season around here.

    I've learned a lot about the Titanic this year, from all of the coverage. I read that most of the bodies recovered from the wreck were buried in Halifax b/c the White Star Line charged a large sum of money to transport the bodies back to Europe.

    And I certainly feel sorrow for the people of Southampton, who lost so many of their own.

    Thanks for the post, Anita.

    Hey, doesn't NORAD track Santa Claus on Dec 24th? ;P

  10. Well, I do hope that the tacky and offensive comments were a very small number! I agree with Suzie, I would have stopped checking if I was getting everyone's remarks. I don't do any fancy tweet deck stuff--I don't want to learn :)
    But you are always on top of all that organized technology!

    the idea of Jesus' life tweeted is pretty interesting!

  11. You're very welcome, Suzie.

    I always liked working in the communications centre. In fact, if I'd been employed to work on the Titanic, I probably would've worked in the radio room. Perhaps that's why I have a photo of old telegraph equipment on the contact me page of my website. :)

  12. Yes, Susie, NORAD does indeed track Santa as he makes his way around the world on Christmas Eve.

    Actually, I remember when I was working in the SAGE complex (the Canadian equivalent to NORAD), the messages would start coming in at 6pm. We'd call up a runner then track the coordinates on our map while waiting for him. It was lots of fun knowing Santa's position before anyone else on base - including the Base Commander. One of my job perks. :D

    Regarding Southampton and Halifax, I read yesterday that many of the descendants of the men who fished the bodies from the cold waters still remember that day. Not that they were there, but stories have been passed down from their mothers and grandmothers about how that one event changed the men, and one man in particular whose countenance changed to stony silence after bringing back the frozen body of an unidentified child.

    It wasn't the first or last tragedy to strike off the shores of Nova Scotia, either. As I recall, a major airliner went down not too many years ago and it was the people of NS who went out on retrieval. I don't think a generation goes by without such an event. I don't know how any seaside port can face the sea on a daily basis like that.

  13. Actually, Deb, I set up Tweetdeck out of necessity. I don't have time to check tweets all the time and this way I see what I need. My usual columns are:
    - blogging friends
    - publishing industry
    - everyone else
    - direct messages to me
    - mentions of me

    then the special lists:
    - #1k1hr
    - #acfwtweets
    - #rwa12

    With those sorted out, I can scan the lists for whatever info I need at the time. For titanic, I just added 2 columns and put them on my 1st page.

    Whenever a tweet comes in it shows up in the upper right corner of my screen just like my email pops up in my lower right. Sometimes I look, sometimes I don't.

    However, some people don't like tweetdeck and use Hootsuite instead.

    Whichever you use, it's just an efficient way of separating the information you really need from all the rest of the 'stuff'.

  14. Actually, Deb, the offensive tweets were only about 1% of the overall total - if that.

    It's just that when someone swears, I sit up and take notice. My friend used to say I go into stun mode. I suppose it's because I don't hear or see it on a regular basis so when I come across it, it's shocking.

    And the stupid tweets were just annoying. I have to admit I laughed when they kept telling the Captain to stop tweeting and steer the ship. So incongruous and yet there I was watching a play-by-play of an actual event that happened a century earlier. Talk about a mixed-up world.

  15. I probably don't " need" any of it but I know ill have to try it someday. It doesn't come in any differently on your ipod does it? (Does it only sort for incoming to your desktop?)

    I linked to a very interesting post yesterday ( on FB) giving stats on what boats went out on recovery and body count. I didn't find out though, why some were brought back while others were buried at sea.

    One toddler was just identified correctly after being buried all these years as an unidentified child.

  16. Deb, from what I understand, the ones that were buried at sea were the ones they had no way of identifying.

    Nowadays, every little bit is brought back because we have the technology to discern who belongs to what. But back then, they did what had always been done and gave the remains a Christian burial at sea.

    Re Tweetdeck - I have it on my iphone too although it wasn't automatically what was on my desktop. I had to set it up. Each column is one screen and I just slide over to the next column like turning a page.


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