History in short installments

The 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles insurrection is being observed this week in L.A., and to a lesser extent, elsewhere. I was living in another state when the insurrection occurred 20 years ago, but felt tied to the events through a relative living close to the action and through a sense of connection to my hometown. This week, I decided to relive the events by following @RealTimeLARiots on Twitter.

Tweets show the city in crisis

@RealTimeLARiots is published by the local NBC station in Los Angeles. According to the announcement on the NBC-LA page, "Each @RealTimeLARiots tweet corresponds to the actual date and time (sometimes down to the minute) of each major event as it unfolded back in 1992." This reminded me of a similar effort I noted a few weeks previous, the History channel's live-tweeting of the Titanic Voyage at @TitanicRealTime on the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking.

Both the History Channel and NBC-LA used the term "live-tweeting" to describe their efforts, but it's not really an accurate description of either account. What they're doing is more like a dramatic reconstruction in real-time. The spontaneity of a live event is missing, since the events on which individual tweets are based have already occurred.

Although missing the live component, the serial dramas presented in @RealTimeLARiots and @TitanicRealTime nonetheless have the power to spark new emotions as people on Twitter remember, learn about and share the events of the past. In the case of @TitanicRealTime, some younger Followers discovered for the first time that the story of the Titanic was real, rather than fictional. I haven't seen any confirmed instances of people confusing @RealTimeLARiots with the present-day, although that could emerge still.

To kick off @RealTimeLARiots, NBC-LA asked, "What if Twitter existed in 1992? How would social media help tell the story of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots?" Which gets it exactly wrong, because although @RealTimeLARiots can reconstruct the events of 20 years ago, the one thing it cannot do is tell the events of yesteryear as if Twitter existed back then. Reading the recreation of events presented on @RealTimeLARiots is in a way similar to watching an old movie on Blu-ray. The events are being remastered, not remade.

The news experience on Twitter is cacophonous, and never more so than when news is breaking. No one can say how Twitter's chorus of voices might have shaped the L.A. insurrection, even as it narrated its progress. Much has been written about how Twitter enables activism; it is also proving to be a capable tool during emergencies. The hashtag #SMEM, which stands for Social Media for Emergency Management, tracks some of the new uses of Twitter during emergency situations.

The L.A. insurrection might have unfolded differently, as participants shared information online; it also might have been managed differently, with citizens, first responders, law enforcement and military using Twitter to navigate the crisis.

Despite their limitations, @RealTimeLARiots and @TitanicRealTime are successful examples of new media serial entertainment or edutainment. Only time will tell if their popularity or the technology that supports them will last.