Attending to complexity; or, how do I say anything about Twitter?

(This is part 1, read part 2 here)

When Moya Bailey visited our class I asked a question about her emerging research using Twitter data. I asked about her object of inquiry, and she gave me a thoughtful response about a kind of shifting lens–between analyzing the network as such and more traditional ethnographic methods like interviews. I’d like to tease out a few points here about where my question was coming from, and some follow up thoughts that pertain to my own research.

My interest in this question of the object of inquiry was partly due to having attended Katherine Bode’s talk titled “Digital Humanities & Digitized Newspapers: The Australian Story” (you can view the slides and read the transcript here). After a brief overview of the DH scene in Australia, Bode proceeded to talk a bit about her project. The real contribution, I thought, were the four epistemological principles she described for those doing digital archival research.

  1. Literary works are processes, not singular objects, in time and space
  2. The archive contains multiple systems of meaning
  3. Digital methods for accessing the archive increase the potential for unrealized mismatches between the access we intend and the access we achieve
  4. All data must be published

Bode was talking about her research into serialized novels, but these principles apply to digital archival research writ large. I will try to say something about how these principles may apply to Bailey’s project (I won’t say anything about publishing data, though I do believe that is important and may present issues for Twitter data). First, the hashtag that Bailey is investigating (#girlslikeus) is not a singular object, but a process in space and time. This is something I think Twitter makes readily apparent in ways that printed material does not. But thinking more about temporality of tweets, what does it mean to remove a tweet from its original spatial/temporal context and present it in some other space? Each individual tweet is complexly situated in a moment, but the hashtag as an entity is also complexly situated temporally. That is, if the mass of previously hashtagged tweets that make up a hashtag right now can be described as the context for an entry into this conversation, the addition of a tweet to this hashtag changes the context. The next tweet that uses the hashtag is then responding to an altered context. Another way to say this is that the meaning/context of a hashtag is constituted by every element (tweet) that uses it. This might be obvious. But it also might be important to think about how we can possibly research certain kinds of data. How do you attend to the multiple systems of meaning in an archive (or Twitter)? How can you make interpretive claims about one or the other? This is where, I think, Bailey is right to employ a zooming lens—focusing on individual actors in the assemblage of meanings with shifting methods of scale.

But then, what about the third principle? What are some potentially unrealized mismatches between what one intends to access (by downloading 1% of all Twitter data to examine a hashtag), and the access one actually achieves? What does the network science aspect of Bailey’s project actually afford her? I think it is important here, as Ben Schmidt has argued, to think about the type of data that certain digital methods allow and what kinds of claims can/should be made:

when we look at digital sources, we should exploit them in the direction that they can best expand the conversation. As a rule, there’s reason to think digital sources tend to be worse than the evidence we’re already using for understanding individual stories and individual motivations, but much better than the evidence we’re using for describing large-scale, structural changes. If you want to know what it felt like on a whaling ship, you should go to an archive.* But if you want to understand the patterns of resource depletion that the whaleships engaged in, you will get a better understanding by looking at statistical aggregates than trying to interpret individual results. (Schmidt)

So I guess this is all to say that I’m not sure what kinds of claims Bailey will make based on the Twitter data. This isn’t a criticism, she hasn’t even seen the data yet.

(TOTAL ASIDE: I was also thinking about Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, in which she invokes “untranslatability as a deflationary gesture toward the expansionism and gargantuan scale of world-literary endeavors” (3). While Apter does “endorse World Literature’s deprovincialization of the canon and the way in which, at its best, it draws on translation to deliver surprising cognitive landscapes hailing from inaccessible linguistic folds,” she claims to “have been left uneasy in the face of the entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world’s cultural resources, as evinced in projects sponsored by some proponents of World Literature … [which] fall prey to the tendency to zoom over the speed bumps of untranslatability in the rush to cover ground” (2-3). Here Apter is responding (in part) to Moretti’s distant reading (along with the Wallerstein’s world-systems theory and the Annales School of history from which Moretti derives much of his theories in “Conjectures on World Literature”). Apter’s brilliant book then leverages the tensions in moments of untranslatability–in literature, art, architecture–to slow down and attend to the often intractable complexity that comes with translation. As such, she resists Moretti’s totalizing call to read “the great unread.” How does this work in a DH context? In the case of Bailey’s project, I am interested to see (as the project develops) the extent to which she attends to the complexity of the individual tweet and member in the #girlslikeus conversation/assemblage, in all of its complexity, while also trying to say something about the macro-scale of #girlslikeus as an artifact. Fascinating!)

I’ve thought a lot about this object of inquiry question with regard to Twitter, principally in conjunction with a paper I wrote last semester that tried to develop a methodology for analyzing the curation of born-digital artifacts in a digital archive. This curation was done in the form of student exhibits created for an advanced writing class working in conjunction with Our Marathon (you can check out some of the exhibits here). I was looking at a single exhibit which consists of a series of tweets with explanatory text added by the student. I wanted to get at the question: does the tweet fundamentally change in meaning as it is pulled from someone’s Twitter and added to a digital archive? In order to attend to the complexity of the objects of analysis I tried to combine Actor-Network Theory (from Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social) and a social semiotic approach to multimodal compositions (drawn primarily from new media theorists Gunther Kress and Lev Manovich). My idea was to try to attend to the materiality of the tweets in order to simply describe the social context of the communicative act, the assemblage of actors for the tweet-as-artifact, as it originally appeared and then as it was embedded in a digital archive. I then tried to make interpretive claims (via semiotic analysis) based on the shifting assemblages as the tweet moved into the archive. While the project wasn’t a total success (in particular, the way I employed ANT was super selective and ended up feeling rather arbitrary), it did get me thinking a lot about how we think about using DH methods in the writing classroom. This is something I talk about more in part 2 of this post, as I plan to employ DH methods in a class as part of my dissertation project.

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