The Buzz

Twitter experiment celebrates Tom Thomson online

Categories: Art & Design, Social Media

@TTLastSpring@TTLastSpring has pulled tweeps into the mystery of Tom Thomson's death. (Twitter)

A distinctly Canadian social media experiment has unfurled over Twitter this summer, uniting fans of artist Tom Thomson across the internet, as well as those simply curious about the enduring mystery surrounding his death.

Inspired by Sherrill Grace's 2004 book Inventing Tom Thomson as well as a Twitter feed revisiting the Second World War through posts mimicking real-time updates, @TTLastSpring has cultivated a bright and inquisitive community of followers (including award-winning columnist and writer Roy MacGregor, author of Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him).

The account has transitioned from realistic Thomson-inspired musings (about everything from fishing trips to painting to personal relationships, all expressed in first person) to a more sombre, omniscient voice observing from beyond the grave that emerged after the anniversary of Thomson's July 8, 1917 disappearance and death.

Tom ThomsonThe @TTLastSpring tweets transitioned into an omniscient voice making observations from beyond the grave. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

After compiling an e-book chronicling all @TTLastSpring's tweets, retweets, mentions and replies through July 21, the inescapably melancholy initiative is winding down for now.

The still-anonymous, self-described "good Ontario boy" behind the extensively researched project is taking a break -- well deserved after his full immersion into Thomson's world for the past eight months.

In an email interview with CBC News, the mind behind the Thomson digital diary looks back over the project, shares what surprised him most and discusses plans for the future.

Q: You mentioned in our earlier exchange that you'd had a powerful reaction from Twitter users who you "followed" as Tom Thomson. Was there a change in reaction as the date of Thomson's death approached?

A: I discovered (and was pleasantly surprised) how people got drawn into the Twitter feed. An art teacher had her whole class follow along. It was the real-time aspect that I believe really gripped everyone.

I received a lot of replies from followers that said they were dreading the actual date of Tom's disappearance (July 8th) and felt that they were losing a friend.

Everyone seems attached to the character of Tom and they have got to know him quite well over the past few months. I've had many comments (including some from artists) that they better understand his work based on the insights gained from the feed.

Q: What prompted the e-book?

A: It has always been in the back of my mind to produce a book from the resulting Twitter stream... I saw several comments about people coming late into the stream and wanting to read the entire story. I thought by producing the e-book, it would give them the opportunity to read it like a book. This project was not about producing content, but rather a collective experience of Tom.

Q: Did this turn out the way you had expected?

A: It really gave me an insight into Tom's interior thinking. For the past eight months (since Nov. 28, 2011), every day I would think 'What is Tom thinking or doing right now?' I had to imagine and construct the context and then do the research to ensure it was reasonably consistent with the historical reference. I also consulted literary references Tom would have been reading at the time.

The experience has taught me how to build a real virtual community versus a bunch of followers. I've been granted the privilege of being the voice of Tom.

Q: What's next? Have you been approached by galleries, filmmakers or authors to collaborate on Thomson-themed projects?

West WindA visitor looks at Tom Thomson's iconic paiting The West Wind at Russia's Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2004. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

A: I am in discussions with an artist to commission some original work, where I've directed him to think of what Tom might have painted now, after 95 years have passed... This is still in the planning stages.

I have noticed that numerous publishers, authors and film houses are following @TTLastSpring. I haven't actively pursued anything, although several followers have suggested I do so.

I'm not being proprietary about this at all. We'll see where this goes... Keep in mind that in 2017, it will be the 100th anniversary of his death, so the interest will continue to build.

Q: You previously mentioned the possibility of continuing to harness social media, fleshing out the timeline before Thomson's death and perhaps even working towards solving the mystery. Is this still your intention? A lot of people seemed genuinely thankful to you for creating and sharing this online journey.

A: I am taking a break for the remainder of the summer and deciding what the next phase will be.

I have already asked a couple of followers to help me out on some tasks and gather information... It is a hell of a lot of work, so I am still deciding what to do.

In the end, the fun thing about this endeavour is building a community around a Canadian icon and mobilizing it. It is also rewarding, when someone provides something interesting, to retweet it to the entire following... That's the big motivator: to feel like a part of something that is larger than you.

The free @TTLastSpring e-book can be found here.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

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