Web history and popular memory

I’m posting this from the ICA conference in Seattle, where this morning we had what felt like a very successful panel on Web History and Popular Memory (following on from an awesome Memes panel that I was privileged to be discussant for). Our panel featured work on the history of personal media practices from Civil War Diaries to tweets (Lee Humphreys), the aesthetics and design logics of the early web in the context of the dot.com boom and bust (Megan Ankerson), and the continuities of mass media monitoring with contemporary personal metrics (Alice Marwick).

I’ve had a number of requests for the paper Nancy Baym and I presented on our Twitter Over Time study. The written paper is still in draft and will hopefully see the light of day as a journal article very soon, but in the meantime I’m sharing our powerpoint slides and the original abstract.

Twitter Over Time: Approaches to the dynamics of change in social media

Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research New England

The dynamic, ephemeral and proprietary characteristics of social media platforms present particular challenges to researchers. In this paper, we address the general methodological problem of how to study processes of change in social media, with a specific focus on Twitter’s affordances, user practices and cultural norms. The paper provides a proof of concept for multi-method, user-centred approaches to this problem, drawing on the methods and findings of the Twitter Over Time project.  In the project, participants were asked to download their own Twitter archives, and to use them to reflect in interviews on how their uses of the platform had changed. Alongside the interview data, we drew on web and news media sources to reconstruct a timeline of Twitter’s emergence and the co-evolution of its business model, technical features and media representations. The paper highlights how these two ways of constructing a ‘history of Twitter’ can be read alongside and in counterpoint with each other, and how mixed-methods approaches allow us to account for the changing materiality of social media platforms while taking user perspectives seriously.

I’m also posting Gerard Goggin’s very kind remarks as discussant which I think sum up the session very well overall – and I am personally very appreciative of the care Gerard took with this task.

Gerard Goggin respondent comments on panel Web history, social media and popular memory

Congratulations to Jean Burgess for organizing this rich and timely panel.

In the present conjuncture, these papers open up a panorama of ways to document, represent, conjure with, quantify, and qualify the past. And also, of course, suggest important ways and techniques to activate the longue durée, interpret the cultural dynamics, social relations, and politics of the present, de- reify the facti-ness of the future.

Lee Humphreys has traced for us the connections between a formative period and mode of self-fashioning, the 18th century diary, and contemporary practices we find in Twitter. The diary turns out to be an enduring form, not just relevant to blogs – which diaries are explicitly reference – but to a wider range of digital media forms. In a very interesting shift, Lee moves to another set of historical parallels — 1860s Civil War military diaries compared to more temporal proximate Iraq War blog of an American soldier in our lifetime. Lee vividly illustrates the need to reconstruct and engage with the ‘long histories of new media’ (as Dave Park, Nicholas Jankowski and Steve Jone’s recent collection put it). Lee’s work reminds us also of the importance of thinking about the question of which history, and which duration.

The nineteen century is also generative for Alice Marwick in her genealogy of personal media metrics. Alice retraces the development of audience measurement, from a plurality of ways of gauging media’s success, influence, or connection to the emergence of measurable information in the early 20th century, and audience measurement science, through advertising especially, in the 1930s, leading to the dominant of ratings by mid-20th century. Much of this is familar to us from accounts of media audience, but Alice provides the surprising missing link for us to make the conceptual leap to grasp the striking yet pluzzling features of today’s personal media.

This lies, Alice shows us, in the little noticed and researched histories of media monitoring – the clipping services that provide channel and industrialize the democratic scrapbooks of the nineteen century. The forms and affordances of the clip service, media monitoring, and database logics of Lexis-Nexis are reconfigured into Google Alerts and Social Media mentions and metrics. Broadcast and measure yourself. Alice convincingly and suggestively offers us a way to understand these complex shifts at the intersection of audiences and notions of the self. And it would be very interesting to hear about what kinds of governmentality, if I can set the Foucault alert off another time, the personal mobilisation of media measurement in our social lives entails.

Duration and historiography are things Megan Ankerson also takes up in her paper, with her genealogy of financial discourses, with key, determinative moments also in the eighteen century and nineteenth century. The discourses she deftly analyses in the 1998-2003 period of the dot.com have their prefiguring in much earlier cultural formations, just as they have their afterlives and mutations in the key moments afterwards. We might wonder about how far back we go, into the early modern, for instance, or, after the spirit of Innes and others, especially to grasp the international range of internet histories to the ancient underpinning of empires.

Megan provides the evidence for the deceptively simple proposition that we always need to challenge the will-to-linearity in the emplotment and chronologies of web and other internet histories. How we figure and figure out the different key moments when the network is up for grabs, and grasp and decipher the different visions in play – the potential social imaginaries and different worlds and trajectories they embody – takes some doing, and Megan has showed us how to do it.

She cuts to the chase to make the point that financial crisis discourse – with its weird, displaced yet all too real relationship to economic hardship – does important work, in the case of disciplining and ordering. We see this in the extraordinary gendering that recurs in the fundamental imagination of culture and economy in the web’s dog (rather than cat) days, feminized exuberance needing to be bridled by rational market calculus. Megan also provides a new way for us to situate the important intermediate zone of our time where different orders of things get worked on things, bodies, technologies, and money, namely design.

Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym set the clocking ticking on twitter. Like the other papers, they use a creative range of methods to understand the history of the practices and platform they are studying, and to decipher its evolving social function. In a different way from Lee’s paper, the figure and biography of particular users appear. The personal interviews give us rich life histories, images, tropes, and fragments of discourses that show us Twitter is animated through the lived experiences and projections of its users. Which, of course, involves dealing with the fact that ‘personal’ histories have public, narrative shapes and plots – not least, when it comes to technology, the plots of one’s career as a user.

A different kind of history comes into sharp relief with the wonderful analysis of the sociotechnical evolution of Twitter as a platform, not least via the careful attention to the biographies of its (software) objects. Much of the necessary material for the historical reconstruction of – for instance, the hash tag, or the taken-for-grantedness of the retweet – is lost. But the evanescent nature of history is axiomatic, and nothing new for historians; it’s just tough to find nuggets of information, hence we often turn to the press (off and online) or the fragments of digital information in internet archives for documentation and representation of these events, as Jean and Nancy, and other panellists do. On the side of the historians of internet and digital cultures, as we have seen today, is the new textualism. At the whim of the social media titans, like the capricious gifting that shapes all archives, we are afforded the ability to download all our tweets — Jorge Luis Borges would have wept! So at the intersection of personal and collective use, text and platform, oral history and public history, we gain a sense of the terms and conditions of new media transformations.

All the papers in this panel show the fundamental importance of the heritage of cultural, social, and media concepts, theories and analysis for understanding these technologies — but especially for the histories of Internet and social media we so sorely require, to use and abuse in understanding communication today and into the future.

Gerard Goggin

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