Dan Cohen - Digital Humanities Blog

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The Significance of the Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress

Fri, 29/12/2017 - 23:08

It started with some techies casually joking around, and ended with the President of the United States being its most avid user. In between, it became the site of comedy and protest, several hundred million human users and countless bots, the occasional exchange of ideas and a constant stream of outrage.

All along, the Library of Congress was preserving it all. Billions of tweets, saved over 12 years, now rub shoulders with books, manuscripts, recordings, and film among the Library’s extensive holdings.

On December 31, however, this archiving will end. The day after Christmas, the Library announced that it would no longer save all tweets after that date, but instead will choose tweets to preserve “on a very selective basis,” for major events, elections, and political import. The rest of Twitter’s giant stream will flow by, untapped and ephemeral.

The Twitter archive may not be the record of our humanity that we wanted, but it’s the record we have. Due to Twitter’s original terms of service and the public availability of most tweets, which stand in contrast to many other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat, we are unlikely to preserve anything else like it from our digital age.

Undoubtedly many would consider that a good thing, and that the Twitter archive deserves the kind of mockery that flourishes on the platform itself. What can we possibly learn from the unchecked ramblings and ravings of so many, condensed to so few characters?

Yet it’s precisely this offhandedness and enforced brevity that makes the Twitter archive intriguing. Researchers have precious few sources for the plain-spoken language and everyday activities and thought of a large swath of society.

Most of what is archived is indeed done so on a very selective basis, assessed for historical significance at the time of preservation. Until the rise of digital documents and communications, the idea of “saving it all” seemed ridiculous, and even now it seems like a poor strategy given limited resources. Archives have always had to make tough choices about what to preserve and what to discard.

However, it is also true that we cannot always anticipate what future historians will want to see and read from our era. Much of what is now studied from the past are materials that somehow, fortunately, escaped the trash bin. Cookbooks give us a sense of what our ancestors ate and celebrated. Pamphlets and more recently zines document ideas and cultures outside the mainstream.

Historians have also used records in unanticipated ways. Researchers have come to realize that the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, transcriptions from London’s central criminal court, are the only record we have of the spoken words of many people who lived centuries ago but were not in the educated or elite classes. That we have them talking about the theft of a pig rather than the thought of Aristotle only gives us greater insight into the lived experience of their time.

The Twitter archive will have similar uses for researchers of the future, especially given its tremendous scale and the unique properties of the platform behind the short messages we see on it. Preserved with each tweet, but hidden from view, is additional information about tweeters and their followers. Using sophisticated computational methods, it is possible to visualize large-scale connections within the mass of users that will provide a good sense of our social interactions, communities, and divisions.

Since Twitter launched a year before the release of the iPhone, and flourished along with the smartphone, the archive is also a record of what happened when computers evolved from desktop to laptop to the much more personal embrace of our hands.

Since so many of us now worry about the impact of these devices and social media on our lives and mental health, this story and its lessons may ultimately be depressing. As we are all aware, of course, history and human expression are not always sweetness and light.

We should feel satisfied rather than dismissive that we will have a dozen years of our collective human expression to look back on, the amusing and the ugly, the trivial and, perhaps buried deep within the archive, the profound.

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Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship (or Anything Else New in a Large Organization)

Wed, 29/11/2017 - 16:48

I recently gave a talk at Brown University on “Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship,” and upon reflection it struck me that the lessons I tried to convey were more generally applicable. Everyone prefers to talk about innovation, rather than institutionalization, but the former can only have a long-term impact if the latter occurs. What at first seems like a dreary administrative matter is actually at the heart of real and lasting change.

New ideas and methods are notoriously difficult to integrate into large organizations. Institutions and the practitioners within them, outside of and within academia (perhaps especially within academia?), too frequently claim to be open-minded but often exhibit a close-mindedness when the new impinges upon their area of work or expertise. One need only look at the reaction to digital humanities and digital scholarship over the last two decades, and the antagonism and disciplinary policing it is still subject to, often from adjacent scholars.

In my talk I drew on the experience of directing the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Digital Public Library of America, and now the Northeastern University library. The long history of RRCHNM is especially helpful as a case study, since it faced multiple headwinds, and yet thrived, in large part due to the compelling vision of its founder and the careful pursuit of opportunities related to that vision by scores of people over many years.

If you wish to digest the entire subject, please watch my full presentation. But for those short on time, here are the three critical elements of institutionalization I concluded with. If all three of these challenging processes occur, you will know that you have successfully and fully integrated something new into an organization.

Routinizing

At first, new fields and methods are pursued haphazardly, as practitioners try to understand what they are doing and how to do it. In digital scholarship, this meant a lot of experimentation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, digital projects that advanced scholarly theories eclectically tried out new technologies. Websites were often hand-coded and distinctive. But in the long run, such one-off, innovative projects were unsustainable. The new scholarly activity had to be routinized into a common, recognizable grammar and standardized formats and infrastructure, both for audiences to grasp genres and for projects to be technically sustainable over time.

At RRCHNM, this meant that after we realized we were making the same kind of digital historical project over and over, by hand, we created generalized software, Omeka, through which we could host an infinite number of similar projects. Although it reduced flexibility somewhat, Omeka made new digital projects much easier to launch and sustain. Now there are hundreds of institutions that use the software and countless history (and non-history) projects that rely on it.

Normalizing

To become institutionalized, new activities cannot remain on the fringes. They have to become normalized, part of the ordinary set of approaches within a domain. Practitioners shouldn’t even think twice before engaging in them. Even those outside of the discipline have to recognize the validity of the new idea or method; indeed, it should become unremarkable. (Fellow historians of science will catch a reference here to Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science.”) In academia, the path to normalization often—alas, too often—expresses itself primarily around concerns over tenure. But the anxiety is broader than that and relates to how new ideas and methods receive equal recognition (broadly construed) and especially the right support structures in places like the library and information technology unit.

Depersonalizing

The story of anything new often begins with one or a small number of people, like Roy Rosenzweig, who advanced a craft without caring about the routine and the normal. In the long run, however, for new ideas and methods to last, they have to find a way to exist beyond the founders, and beyond those who follow the founders. RRCHNM has now had three directors and hundreds of staffers, but similar centers have struggled or ceased to exist after the departure of their founders. This is perhaps the toughest, and final, aspect of institutionalization. It’s hard to lose someone like Roy. On the other hand, it’s another sign of his strong vision that the center he created was able to carry on and strengthen, now over a decade after he passed away.

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