Digital History Questions-3/1, This All Feels Vaguely Orwellian

First, I apologize for how late this is, I had some trouble understanding the more technical aspects of the material.

The first article, Social Media and Academic Surveillance was an incredibly interesting read. Dorothy Kim describes how in the digital age, the issue of privacy, how ethical it is to use data that researchers do not have explicit permission to access, and how women of color are treated in the digital world. She begins her article by talking about Twitter as being similar to the panopticon, but it’s her description of Twitter as being inhabited by digital bodies, and thus, being afforded the same freedoms as people would be afforded in the physical public that is compelling, and I agree that data ethics needs to be addressed. In talking about these ethical dilemmas, Kim uses a few examples.

The first couple of cases are more recent. The study on “Black Twitter” at USC Annenberg, was troubling in how the researchers, rather than informing students involved with the study that their Twitter feeds were being examined, declined telling them. This led to obvious backlash, and a response from the students who had their information taken. The next case, which involves a website being plagiarized by students attending the California College of Arts. In this instance, the students claimed that the project, developed by the Save Wiyabi Mapping Project, was their own, when it really wasn’t. While the group that originally created the project was able to get the CCA work taken down, it was still able to win an award.

The third case relates to a woman named Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who had cells harvested from her while she was battling cervical cancer. The cells, which were harvested in 1951, eventually became the basis for many advances in medicine (including the polio vaccine). This information was hidden from Lacks’s family until the 1970s, as the harvesting was done without the consent of Lacks or any of her relatives. The resulting controversy eventually led to a change in the NIH’s rules and guidelines, adopting an “informed consent” model.

Kim concludes her article by going back to the earlier parts of her piece, stating that while Twitter is still a digital panopticon, it has the ability to respond.

The second set of articles are about creating connections between people through the use of metadata, in this case, Paul Revere. Writing from the position of a data analyst in the 18th century, Kieran Healy, an associate professor of sociology at Duke. This is where things started to get confusing, at least for me. It seems that, instead of creating a social “networke” in a more traditional way, Healy worked with colonial membership rosters as a way of creating connections. This led to him finding Paul Revere, who bridged a number of various groups when the data was compiled. This shows that while connections may be difficult to find, they exist if one knows where to look.

The next set of articles relates to the program Gephi, and they provide tutorials on how to use it.First, as way of visualizing data, Gephi is pretty interesting. It takes spreadsheets and makes them into colorful diagrams, which can be hard to decipher (if I’m being honest). Seeing the connections as a visual is also useful, and much easier than sifting through data. The tutorials were helpful for starting the program, but I did run into problems finding certain functions on my end. If I can get over these issues, I’m sure Gephi will be useful in the near future.

The final set of articles deals with information similar to the previous groups. In the case of Dr. Kane’s “A Company of These Women”, she examines the interactions between female members of the Iroquois and other Native Americans and European settlers. She begins by giving some background on how Native history is presented, especially as it relates to families, and how the structure of family changed after colonial settlers arrived. She then goes on to describe the difficulties in studying indigenous history, which is the lack of significant data. What follows is a reclamation of Native history from a settler narrative that barely acknowledged it.

The first of three sets of data that she uses provide a glance into how important Iroquois women were to connections between different groups of people. While the author, Evert Wendell, declined giving women much agency (either leaving them unnamed, or being the wife of someone), this doesn’t affect the connections between the women and others, and in fact, they are central to different networks. The second set, the Ulster Network, is similar to the Wendell network, except that women (with the exception of one) don’t occupy roles as bridges between groups like they do with Wendell’s. It’s actually the opposite, with husbands being more influential than their wives. The final data set, taken from an Anglican Church register, is the largest of the three. There are problems with this data, as the narrow scope can be both enlightening and limiting. Women have similar amounts of influence, but they occupy a larger variety of positions.

The final article examines data relating to the marriage of Etienne Hebert, a French immigrant to America, and Elisabeth Philipe, the half-French, half-Native American daughter of an established farmer. What follows is an interesting examination of the different kinds of connections that were made when these two people got married. Much of the article is about the debate about the true use of social network analysis. Morrissey, the article’s author informs the reader that rather than being used for understanding an individual, SNA relates more to the actual network it represents.

1. Why are actions on Twitter more likely to be used against academics than actions in the physical world? Is posting a tweet that might be controversial any different from attending a protest or rally that deals with a similar issue?
2. As seen in the USC Annenberg case, where is the line drawn in how far we should go to get information that may be relevant to a project?
3. Obviously, metadata can be a useful tool for an historian, but it is not without faults. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using metadata?
4. How useful is a program like Gephi in organizing and displaying data? Are there any drawbacks to the program that might cause issues (other than the technical ones that I mentioned)?
5.How can digital history be used to remedy gaps in historical narratives, especially as they relate to women of color?

2 thoughts on “Digital History Questions-3/1, This All Feels Vaguely Orwellian

  • March 1, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    I would argue that there are several reasons academics are called out for their actions on social media more than on what they say in the real world. The biggest is audience. Normally an academic is restricted to either their students or peers. With social media, they have access to a much wider swath of people and if they can also assume that anyone who follows them on Twitter likely agrees with their political and social positions. Based on my own personal experience i.e. times that I have posted obnoxious things on social media, one is much more likely to push boundaries when you believe that you are only talking to people who share your views. Sometimes others who may not be the intended audience see this and, rightly or wrongly, take offense.
    Also, people are not always comfortable with what academics have to say, especially when they are working on hot button issues such as race and gender. While many of us in academia believe that people can be convinced of our arguments through facts and discourse, many people, especially those in a dominant group, do not like to have their positions challenged and will react with vitriol and personal attacks to legitimate intellectual challenges. There is a reason Donald Trump is so popular, and it is not because of his thoughtful nuanced political and social views.
    What is said in an academic setting can also be twisted outside of that setting. I know this all too well working in Jewish studies and specifically working with issues like antisemitism. I have seen multiple examples of very nuanced scholarship surrounding issues such as the founding of the state of Israel or Israeli influence on American politics become twisted to fit political agendas and if the work is twisted enough by the right people it connects the scholar to that position, whether they hold it or not. While this could certainly happen without the internet and social media, these platforms make it much easier.
    Finally and most unfortunately is the gender aspect. While obviously men will confront women aggressively in real life, the internet makes it easier for those who are not so brazen to harass them from the comfort of their own homes.

  • March 1, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    I also had some issues understanding the visualizations created using Gephi. The charts created seem like they have a lot more data than they are actually displaying and the lines between nodes were a bit overwhelming. Although the charts we used previously, like bar graphs and scatter plots, have their limitations they are easy for the average person to read. How often are these charts created in Gephi used outside of academic studies? Are they displayed without corresponding explanation? For example, I feel that without Dr. Kane’s essay describing and analyzing what was shown in the charts, I would never have figured out what to get out of the charts myself. Perhaps that is because they are displaying much more complicated relationships beyond simple connections, like influence.

    The other question I had about the readings might be a bit dumb, as historians use a variety of records created by historical actors every day. But if we did network analysis on historical figures that revealed something about their living family members, would that historian be violating some sort of ethical code? There seem to be more gray areas in digital history than traditional history, but perhaps I am noticing them more now because we discuss them in class so frequently.

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