Twitter Circa 1809

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John Quincy Adams Tweeting
John Quincy Adams: A man ahead of his time and ours

You may think Barack Obama was the first U.S. president to tweet, but John Quincy Adams has him beat by 200 years.

This week, President Adams started tweeting from beyond the grave.

Tweeting from the other side

It turns out that our sixth president kept multiple diaries throughout his life. One volume was reserved for one-line journal entries — all of which just so happen to be 140 characters or less.

President Adams kept this one-liner log of his life from 1795 to 1801. After an eight-year gap he restarted his entries to chronicle his trip to Russia on August 5, 1809. And so, exactly 200 years later, The Massachusetts Historical Society began a day-by-day re-tweeting of his life with President Adams’ first public tweet:

Sailed in Ship Horace, Benjamin Beckford, from Charlestown to St. Petersburg.

Every day, the former President will tweet from his diary. Today, from August 6, 2009:

Thick fog. Scanty Wind – On George’s Bank. Lat: 42-34. Read Massillon’s Carême Sermons 2 & 3. Ladies &c. Sick.

Drawing from their audience feedback

The directors of the Massachusetts Historical Society came up with the idea after a student on a field trip remarked that it was as if the former President was tweeting. Light dawned, and the historical society realized Twitter would be the perfect distribution platform to further their mission of educating people about the life of this former president.

On day one, John Quincy Adams had over 4,200 followers. That’s a far cry from the 15-20 daily visitors who go the historical society’s reading room in downtown Boston, where the actual diaries are kept. So with thousands of new followers, leveraging Twitter for this purpose is already a huge win.

The takeaway

The marketing moral? Don’t just run out and start tweeting about your company. Use the right platform for the right type of content. The Quincy diary and Twitter are a perfect match. And that is the reason for the thousands of interested followers. In this case, the medium is truly the message.

If John Quincy Adams, with only a quill pen, can write quality content for Twitter, you can too.

My question to you

If people like President Adams found value in short, 140-character communications 200 years ago, why is there a Twitter backlash today?

13 Responses to “Twitter Circa 1809”

  1. Andrew Davis

    Jim this is a great demonstration of where the Medium IS the Message.
    Nice work!

  2. Jim Cosco

    Thanks Drew. Tomorrow on the Tippingpoint podcast I explore this a little further and have an example of someone who is using it the wrong way. But you should follow President Adams too. I know you’re a history buff like me. It really is pretty cool.

  3. Amelia Vargo

    You see this is where Twitter can be interesting, but when people are tweeting about nothing (I mean the minutiae of their lives may be interesting to them, but its not to me!) its dull dull dull. And how clever of the Massachusetts Historical Society to put this together.

    Great example.

    • Andrew Davis

      Nice to see you posting again. Thanks so much for commenting. Jim’s got a great piece coming in the podcast. Hope you’ll tune in!

  4. Chris Hill

    That was great Jim, very interesting.

  5. Elaine

    Great post! it might be tacky to say, but history repeats itself. Short diary postings are now tweets. In the example above, if John Adams is reading Massillon’s Carême sermons, did he read French? It is hard to imagine sailing to St. Petersburg. Fascinating historical tweets. Interesting how the historical society is prompted to post the diary entries after a student on a field trip makes the comparison. This student is very different from the 15 yr. old intern who produced a report for Morgan Stanley regarding twitter.

  6. Jim Cosco

    Fog. No Observation. Spoke a fishing Schooner from Grand Bank, bound to Plymouth. Read Chantreau’s travels.

    That’s his update today. Elaine, apparently he was an avid reader. Not much else to do on a ship I guess. I can only assume he was reading Massillon’s Careme sermons in French.

    I think the historical society is overwhelmed with the interest. He has over 9,000 followers in three days. They originally were going to try to follow everyone back as a courtesy but they gave up after 2,900 people. More on this in Today’s podcast, which will be posted a little later.

  7. Chris Donaldson

    Great find – and a great analysis of how people can use Twitter effectively to create interest and drive engagement. A simple but brilliant masterstroke by the historical society. You had me at ‘communicating from beyond the grave’.

    Why is there a backlash against Twitter? Most people are so media saturated, they don’t see the value in knowing what you had for breakfast or what song is on the radio right now. Sure, a few people care (your core followers) – but most people don’t have the time. So they laugh at the concept based on this limited understanding. David Letterman perhaps said showed this ignorance best:

    But things like this are marketing inspirations.

  8. Jim Cosco

    Thanks for the comment Chris. Letterman is a funny guy and he’s right, it IS a waste of time, IF the content is of no value- like telling people what song is on the radio “right now.” But there are some great uses for it too. Thanks for chiming in and for the laugh (I didn’t realize Kevin Spacey was so funny).

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    [...] week, The Massachusetts Historical Society scored a huge win by choosing Twitter to publish President John Quincy Adams’s personal journal. Because his [...]


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