By Jesse McDowell
This post springs from a doctoral seminar discussion on New Media, Public History, and Digital Humanities at Loyola University Chicago with Kyle Roberts.
In most of my discussion posts about media, I tend to draw on historical parallels to conclude how our New Media remediates the past in colorful and not all completely new ways. That is, what is it about the media we use that most likely has a technological antecedent in history? These kinds of comparisons can often facilitate fruitful theories on historical similarity and change when considering the history of writing, the history of the book / the history of media. For instance, I have written about the similarity between medieval scribes and twenty first-century coders, I have written about Books of Hours and the understanding of the modern calendar, and I have written about the ingenuity presented by Benedictine monks’ usage of sign-language.
When it comes to Twitter, is there another moment in media history with which it most likely parallels? Or, should we not ask this question altogether? The first examples in the last century that come to mind are the radio and television broadcasts used by political leaders in the U.S. and the U.K. during and after World Wars I and II. King George VI, in his radio addresses to a fearful nation facing the rise of Hitler, certainly was forced to utilize the benefits of mass communication in the form of audio broadcasting. Americans everywhere who were able to view FDR’s first inaugural address in 1932 certainly benefited in a similar collective way: the voice of a strong leader reassuring them, despite their real fear about real danger, that all would be well.
Now, it is most helpful to view Twitter in the tradition of its mass-media forebears only to underscore the ‘New Orality’ of Web 2.0 that Walter Ong famously coined. Ong’s characterizing of Web 2.0 relates to the uncontrolled nature of Web 2.0, and its inherent ability to be so many things to so many people all at once. Its status, unlike mass media of the recent past, is not a fixed one: the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and Donal Trump all used Twitter for completely different purposes, and successfully. A brief looking back to the history of the Internet will show us that blogging and websites often blur the line between private and public, between real and hyperreal, such that we don’t quite know how to fully appropriate these new media into our human language without resorting to already known words and nomenclature. Simply, a ‘website’ is truly nothing more than a casted association of binary code behind a glass screen, organized in such a way that our human eyes can recognize and make sense of it. Moreover, all of our new digital media remediate the typological logics of print media. As an example, the default font used in this blog post on WordPress remediates the wonderful fonts of print books that were developed over centuries, with clearly defined ascenders and descenders, linear systems of reading, and paragraphed, almost paginated-looking presentation.
Twitter is a highly public social media outlet, but still offers us as users the imaginative possibility of privacy and control. Twitter is a hyperreal (more than real, as we talk about it and use it but cannot ‘go’ to it or ‘hold’ it), environment wherein users can choose to be members of the public discourse communities but also members of smaller more specialized communities with completely alternative visions of their own telos of Twitter. In other words, is there a common purpose, or nature, to Twitter? I wonder what Aristotle would say. Would he be as overwhelmed as I am intruding to deduce Twitter’s telos, its ‘true nature,’ such that we can then determine any user’s ‘correct usage’ of it?
Now that I have gotten past the ontological problems (not bad problems) of defining Twitter, I will look at how a couple of medieval scholars and manuscript curators use Twitter. Perhaps one of the most telling examples comes from the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and their use of Twitter: @SIMS_Mss. The tweets, to my guess, mostly come from Dot Porter, one of their well-known digital curators for manuscripts and someone who has developed innovative digital tools for manuscript study (see my post on LJS 101 and digital visualization collation). In the past, Will Noel (Director of the Kislak Center and Schoenberg Institute) and Dot shared that Twitter allowed for many discoveries about manuscripts not available before. Like many other academics and institutions, they use their Twitter account to promote events, link out to interesting discoveries and cutting edge research, but also as a core part of their overall commitment to Open-Source content on the web. They use Twitter to not only connect to the public by teaching folks about their manuscripts, they also make high-resolution images of their collections completely open and free online. Twitter is one conduit that connects the inner-archives to the learning public. It’s a strategy that I find refreshing in a world where cultural artifacts have been ‘safeguarded’ from open access.
One segment of their feed that I find consistently interesting is Manuscript Monday.
This is a ‘segment’ within their overall purview with their Twitter that simply relays the content and known history of a given medieval manuscript. The tweet comes aided usually with a ‘video orientation’ (as seen above’) that shows Dot turning the folios and commenting on the MS content or codicological structure. Those who view these tweets may be students, yes, but many are scholars. Some scholars have even contributed to the information known about certain codices by viewing the Institute’s Twitter feed. Say a scholar in France recognizes a colophon not knowable to any of the curators, and thus determines the identity of the scribe from her desk across the Atlantic. This has happened, and its likely to happen again as curators’ jobs are to know as much general knowledge as possible about a given collection. They cannot know everything because of the randomness of how institutions acquire books and manuscripts at auction. Collections can be essentially a mélange of cultural artifacts that are connected to similar artifacts acquired by other institutions across the world.
Many other academics use Twitter for a host of other reasons, but this small example shows how Twitter can be used for a discoverable end not available to scholars before.