Capturing History, 280 Characters at a Time

people gathered in street holding hands People stand in prayer after marching to the police station to protest the shooting of Michael Brown, August 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Source: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

When massive protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 in reaction to the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson, a duo of archivists were inspired to explore how to preserve social media posts as a means to document history for the ages—and to empower social activists to take control of their own narratives.

Just five days after the shooting, Bergis Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, and Edward Summers, lead developer at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, both happened to be attending the Society of American Archivists Conference in Washington, DC. The Ferguson protests, led by members of the Black Lives Matter activist movement, were in full swing, patrolled by police outfitted in riot gear and employing tear gas. It quickly became clear to Jules and Summers that what was unfolding on social media—a veritable flood of tweets, photos, and videos of the demonstrations as they were happening—was a crucial part of how the world understood the events.

Like everyone else, we were glued to our TVs and to Twitter, trying to figure out what was happening on the ground, because so much information was being shared, especially on Twitter, about what was going on in Ferguson,” Jules recalls.

While walking out of a conference session together, he and Summers wondered aloud how Ferguson would be remembered years into the future.

“We are building tools and designing processes for people to [build archives] ethically.”

While the protests were getting plenty of media attention, “the reason why that media attention was drawn there was because of what happened on social media,” says Summers. “And so we were, as archivists, thinking about those tweets, that those social media posts were really relevant for documenting what actually happened.”

It struck them that if they were to somehow archive tweets that fell under relevant hashtags like #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown, the collection could serve as a modern-day historical ledger.  In creating and using a tool called Twarc that collected tweets and their metadata, Summers began archiving tweets using hashtags, keywords, and locations related to the Ferguson protests.

Within two weeks, he’d collected about 13 million of them. Eager to share their results, Summers wrote a blog post about their Ferguson collection and their thoughts on social media archiving. But the response from the archiving community was overwhelmingly negative, cautioning them about the ethics of what they’d done.

“Folks were rightfully questioning whether we had permission to collect the tweets and the associated content,” Jules recalls. “And also questioning how we were applying care to archiving traumatizing content. And that really stuck with us. We forgot the human beings in the process.”

They realized that, much like physical archives involving books and ledgers, social media archives needed some basic protocols: they ought to ask for Twitter users’ permission, because even if the tweets were shared in a public forum, many users would not anticipate that their tweets could be saved for all posterity. What’s more, Jules and Summers recognized that they should somehow curate the most important tweets so that they were creating a collection of value, rather than hanging on to every single item they found. And finally, they wondered who should have access to the data collected? For example, what if law enforcement or other government entities wanted to use archived data to monitor activists’ activity?

shrine of assembled stuffed animals, posters, and flowersA makeshift memorial near where black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, MO in August 2014. Courtesy of iStock.

To answer these questions, the duo applied for Foundation funding to create what has become Documenting the Now—or DocNow for short—a collaboration between UC Riverside, the University of Maryland, and Washington University in St. Louis. The DocNow project, awarded with a two-year, $517,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2016, strove to create open-source tools that would empower activist communities to create their own social media archives of historically important events, in recognition that Twitter had become a major platform for discussion about Black Lives Matter and other movements such as #JeSuisCharlie, #ICantBreathe, and #BringBackOurGirls. They hired a team of software developers and project coordinators to create a simpler, more user-friendly Twarc tool that gathers tweets according to various search terms.

In the interest of ethics, DocNow also maintained a Slack channel so that the public could chat with them about digital archiving, and they organized public events in the archiving and activist communities to figure out best practices. For example, in December 2017, DocNow held a two-day symposium in the town of Ferguson called Digital Blackness in the Archive which examined the experiences of African American people on social media and the web and its intersection with digital archiving. And in March 2018, DocNow partnered with the digital arts organization Rhizome on the National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web.

In 2018, the Mellon Foundation awarded DocNow with a second grant of $1.2 million to continue their work, which will now be carried out at the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. Jules emphasizes that DocNow isn’t aiming to build its own archive, but to arm communities to do it themselves.

“We are building tools,” he says, “and designing processes for people to do it ethically.”

The need to build digital archives of websites and social media interactions is a uniquely 21st century predicament to have, but one that scholars predict will be increasingly important as people continue to live so much of their lives online.

“There is an abundance of digital information out there,” says Donald J. Waters, senior program officer for Scholarly Communications at the Mellon Foundation. “And what we can capture of it is going to be the basis of future scholarship.”

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