An Invitation to Study Ferguson


These are some brief remarks I prepared for a 5 minute lightning talk at the Ferguson Town Hall meeting at the University of Maryland on December 3, 2014.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here this evening. It is a real privilege. I’d like to tell you a little bit about an archive of 13 million Ferguson related tweets we’ve assembled here at the University of Maryland. You can see a random sampling of some of them up on the screen here.

The 140 characters of text in each tweet only makes up about 2% of the data. The other 98% includes metadata such as who sent it, their profile, how many followers they have, what tweet they are replying to, who they are retweeting, when the tweet was sent, where the tweet was sent from, embedded images and video. I’m hoping that I can interest some of you in studying this data.

In a Democracy Now interview back in August, hip-hop artist and activist Talib Kweli characterized the Ferguson related activity on Twitter in what I thought was a deeply insightful way:

I remember a world before the Internet. And I remember what it really takes to have movement on the ground. Someone tweeted me back and said, “Well, you know, back in the day they didn’t have Twitter, but they had letters, and they wrote letters to each other, so…” I said, “Yeah, but ain’t nobody saying that the letters started the revolution.”
When I look at the Green Revolution, when I look what happened to Egypt, when I look at what happened to Occupy Wall Street, yeah, the tweets helped — they helped a lot — but without those bodies in the street, without the people actually being there, ain’t nothing to tweet about. If Twitter worked like that, Joseph Kony would be locked down in a jail right now.

Of course, Talib is right. It’s why we are all here this evening. In some sense it doesn’t matter what happens on Twitter. What matters is what happened in Ferguson, what is happening in Ferguson, and what is happening in meetings and demonstrations like this one all around the country.

Talib’s comparison of a tweet to a letter struck me as particularly insightful. I work as an archivist and software developer in the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities here at UMD. Humanities scholars have traditionally studied a particular set of historical materials, of which letters are one. These materials form the heart of what we call the archive. What gets collected in archives and studied is inevitably what forms our cultural canon. It is a site of controversy, for as George Orwell wrote in 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

Would we be gathered here tonight if it wasn’t for Twitter? Would the President be talking about Ferguson if it wasn’t for the groundswell of activity on Twitter? Without Twitter what would the main stream media have reported about Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice? As you know this list is long…it is vast and overwhelming. It extends back to the beginnings of this state and this country. But what trace do we have of these events and these struggles in our archives?

The historian and social activist Howard Zinn said this when addressing a group of archivists in 1970:

the existence, preservation and availability of archives, documents, records in our society are very much determined by the distribution of wealth and power. That is, the most powerful, the richest elements in society have the greatest capacity to find documents, preserve them, and decide what is or is not available to the public. This means government, business and the military are dominant.

This is where social media and the Web present such a profoundly new opportunity for us, as we struggle to understand what happened in Ferguson…as we struggle to understand how best to act in the present. We need to work to make sure the voices of Ferguson are available for study–and not just in the future, but study now. Let’s put our privilege as members of this academic community to work. Is there something to learn in these 13 million tweets, these letters from ordinary people, the thousands of videos and photographs, and links to stories? I think there is. I’m hopeful that these digital traces provide us with a new insight into an old problem…insights that can guide our actions here in the present.

If you have questions you’d like to ask of the data please get in touch with either me or Neil Fraistat (Director of MITH) here tonight, or via email or Twitter.

An Invitation to Study by Ed Summers, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Originally published at inkdroid.org on December 3, 2014.