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Engaging the Past, One Click at a Time

Social media is a daily staple for most people. It is less common to log on and find a post from Vladimir Lenin lamenting “the ridiculous pacifism of the French,” or one from Tsar Nicholas II complaining about coming down with a cold. Yet that is exactly what visitors will see when they connect with Project 1917, a social media “edutainment” initiative that lets us relive the century-old events of the Russian Revolution—even as it leaves us craving something more.

History in real time

The brainchild of Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, Project 1917 commemorates the fateful year that saw the collapse of Tsarist imperial government and the rise of the Bolsheviks, eventually giving rise to the Soviet Union. Compiled from real diary entries, letters, and other archival material, the project immerses visitors in the thoughts, comments, and everyday activities of key figures from the time period, presented as social media posts that can be “liked,” commented on, and shared. Users can access the news feed through the Project 1917 website, through Facebook, or through a similar Russian social media network called VKontakte.

To watch this content unfold in real time, as The Economist noted, is “to experience people’s inability to grasp the history they are living.” Momentous words and deeds appear side by side with the banalities of daily life for Lenin, Trotsky, Tsar Nicholas, and the other protagonists in Russian Revolution. This awkward juxtaposition reminds us that the past was once the present—as full of uncertainty and anxiety for those who lived it as our own era is for us. The firebrand Lenin, we find, wasn’t even sure his revolution would succeed.

This is the beauty of a project like Project 1917. Besides highlighting the power of social media to bring the past to life for contemporary audiences, especially millenials who came of age in a digital world, it gives sponsors the freedom not to stake out a position and let audiences form their own impressions—a prudent step in Russia at a time when Vladimir Putin’s government has taken an ambivalent stance toward the Russian Revolution.

Making sense of it all

But Project 1917 also underscores the big shortcoming of initiatives like this one: without a larger story to frame and interpret events, we are no better off than Lenin and his comrades, struggling to make sense of the chaos.

That, of course, is what professional historians do, for organizations and for nation states alike. They take the archival hodgepodge of a site like Project 1917 and synthesize it into an overarching narrative that helps audiences understand what actually happened and what it all means. Organizations striving to engage audiences in their stories, then, should consider marrying the emotional appeal of Project 1917 with the explanatory power of historical interpretation and storytelling.

Some organizations have already begun to strike this critical balance.

For instance, the Pacific Institute, a think tank that promotes sustainable water policy, lets visitors explore thousands of years of water-related conflicts through an interactive map. But it also explicitly links the map to its take-home point: that “the importance of water to life means that providing for water needs and demands will never be free of politics”— thus also conveying to visitors what its organizational mission is and why it is vitally important.

Another organization, PBS, engages audiences in the historical content of their American Experience series by linking programming to anniversaries or current events. In a March 1 Facebook post, for example, it commemorated President John F. Kennedy’s March 1, 1961 launch of the Peace Corps by streaming excerpts from its film biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had lobbied for the Peace Corps’s creation in the first place. The American Experience website also invited readers to share their memories of Roosevelt and other First Ladies.

Thus did PBS draw audiences into its historical content: first by showing them a meaningful connection between past and present, and then by engaging them in a conversation about the contributions of historical figures. Yet it also used a larger historical narrative—an authoritative biography of Eleanor Roosevelt—to help audiences understand why those contributions mattered, while at the same time highlighting its own core mission of creating vivid, widely viewed educational content.

Still another organization, the Grant Museum of Zoology in London, combines social media and the “Internet of things” to engage visitors with the objects it displays. Through a technology called Qrator, visitors can enter into dialogue with curators via their smartphones or tablets, discussing the history of particular objects by scanning their QR codes to access related questions and discussion topics. In addition to driving active engagement with the museum exhibitions, the Qrator technology lets visitors experience the museum in a deeper way through complex dialogues about the provenance of certain objects and the moral issues associated with their acquisition and display.

A perfect union?

To some extent, the world still awaits the perfect union of style and substance in the digital age. But for any organization seeking to tell its story in a compelling way, the lesson is clear: Whether it is an interactive world map, a call for readers to share their own stories, or an ailing Tsar’s Facebook status update, the immersive experience of social media becomes all the more powerful when it is paired with a larger, interpretive narrative that gets at the why, not just the what.

And it’s still all just a click away.

Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook consultant with expertise in philanthropic history among other fields. John Seaman, the founder and CEO of Saybrook Partners, is currently at work on the history of a leading private bank.


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