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K-State Today

January 4, 2012



Tweeting through time: History expert says social media connecting younger generations to the past

By Communications and Marketing

A project by a University of Oxford graduate to document the events of World War II in real time using the social networking site Twitter is generating new interest about the war among young people, according to a World War II expert at Kansas State University. The project also highlights the pros and cons of using Twitter as a teaching method.

The ambitious project at https://twitter.com/RealTimeWWII, which began in August 2011, has led to more than 1,000 tweets and a following of more than 175,000 people worldwide.

Generating new interest in World War II is a positive, said Mark Parillo, associate professor of history at Kansas State University. He thinks the use of Twitter in the project is practical for connecting with younger generations but could use refining.

"I think the concept is very good," Parillo said. "But I'm not sure it was done in the best possible fashion. I found it to be somewhat confusing as to what I was actually reading, who was supposedly authoring the Tweets and for whom they were intended."

Because Twitter caps each tweet at 140 characters, it limits the amount of information that can be communicated in each message. The number of tweets in the project varies daily -- each tweet represents a daily event during the war -- and the number of tweets will continue to grow when the project is completed in six years, which was the length of the war.

Though there has been little change recently in the broader understanding of World War II, Parillo believes two important factors have provided a spark for the project.

"The generation that experienced World War II, whether that be as soldiers or on the home front, never spoke about it much because it was such a common experience," Parillo said. "But they reached that point in the 1980s and more so in the 1990s where they began to retire and deal with grandchildren, and discovered there was not a great deal of awareness about it. They begin to set out the record themselves for their families and for others. The other factor is that we began a series of anniversaries, 50-year commemorations and so on, that brought a lot of attention to the war."

Harnessing the increased interest from the Twitter account is of great importance, Parillo said. Changes in students' reading habits from published works to online content have eliminated the editing and vetting process. Such trends have caused changes in Parillo's teaching style.

"I have found that I need to devote more time developing my students' ability to judge the reliability of sources," he said. "We don't really have the safety net of the publication process to weed out the most egregious and salacious of purportedly historical accounts."

The broadened use of Internet content lacking such a safety net suggests a larger issue related to the nature of education, Parillo said, and is applicable far beyond the boundaries of World War II studies.

"Our task as teachers is evolving to where we have to put more and more emphasis on assisting students to develop the criteria and standards for judging what they can and cannot trust among all the stuff that is floating around out there and available to them," he said.

Parillo, a longtime teacher of World Wide II-related courses, is the author of the book "The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II." Some of his other publications include "Burma and Southeast Asia, 1941-1945" for "World War II in Asia and the Pacific and the War's Aftermath, with General Themes: A Handbook of Literature and Research"; the three-volume The Encyclopedia of War and American Society; and "'We Were the Big One': The World War II Generation in America."

His most recent project, "Statesman and Airpower," is due out from the University Press of Kentucky in 2012.

Parillo has served as chair and newsletter editor of the World War II Studies Association. He has also been a presidential counselor for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and a member of the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee.