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Twitter for the long attention span

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I’ll be honest: When I first heard about Twitter, I thought it was the stupidest idea anyone had ever come up with. Why would anyone want to try cramming thoughts into 140 characters and firing them off into the ether of the Internet? It seemed absurd. The idea that someone could do anything worthwhile with the technology was mind-boggling. Thanks to smartphones and the Internet, attention spans are shorter than ever. Wasn’t this going to just make it worse?

I’ll be the first to admit that I lacked vision.

It didn’t take long for me to jump on the bandwagon and join up. My use of Twitter resembled a method of public group text messaging with my friends. Then I discovered I could start following newspapers and magazines to get the latest headlines. Then Big Shiny Robot! needed a Twitter account to post headlines with.

Soon I was interacting with people I’d never thought possible; it was helping me book interviews and talk to all sorts of people I would have assumed were out of reach. In short, it helped amplify the voice of Big Shiny Robot! like a megaphone.

But even that isn’t what Twitter does best. I’ve seen this simple little online and mobile application do some amazing things. It’s been partially responsible for the entire Arab Spring; it helped spread the word of the Occupy Movement; and it has been amazing at disseminating information to constituents of all kinds from a local level (@SLCMayorsOffice) to a national level (@BarackObama).

All of these things, though, fit into that short-attention-span mold. That’s what the Internet is all about. But I stumbled upon something that’s playing a long game, using the short bursts to show me something that will take years to unfold—and as a result, Twitter has allowed me a new perspective on things that I previously thought I had a handle on.

My favorite account to follow right now is @RealTimeWWII. It’s exactly like it sounds: It’s World War II in real time. At the beginning of this year, they began tweeting day by day from 1940. Along with being a comic-book and sci-fi geek, I’m also a history geek, and the World Wars are one of my favorite subjects. But World War II is often crammed into a box that ranges in size from a couple of hours watching a movie to a couple of days reading a book. You never get a sense of the scope and the time it took for the war to actually play out. But thanks to Twitter, you no longer have to wonder what it felt like to watch things happen.

I was hosting a pub quiz a couple weeks ago, and I checked my phone for text messages. The most recent was from @RealTimeWWII. The Germans had launched a sneak attack into Belgium. I was shocked, hit on a visceral level. Things in the war had been going so tepidly, and the invasion was the last thing I expected. I even got on the mic and announced the invasion (then quickly explained the account, and that it happened in 1940).

A few days later came the invasion of France. It was devastating.

The operators of that account to tweet links firsthand accounts, videos, newsreels and photos, giving you a full sense of what was going on. And we’re still more than a year and a half away from Pearl Harbor and American involvement. Thanks to these 140-character missives, I’ll be able to experience this entire moment in history over the next five years. How’s that for a short attention span?

You should follow @RealTimeWWII (and me, if you feel so inclined: @Swankmotron).

Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.

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