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Twitter Treasure

UMD Researcher Eyes Tool to Unearth Historically Important Tweets

By Chris Carroll


After a police officer killed an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, observers and participants in the resulting tumult sent more than 13 million related tweets within just two weeks.

The unfiltered reactions of anger, sadness and determination—along with the shared logistical details of mounting a nationwide grassroots campaign against police violence—formed a trove of raw material for scholars and historians.

Making sure that material isn’t buried beneath the digital sands of time is the aim of “Documenting the Now,” a UMD-affiliated research project supported by a two-year, $517,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project, a collaboration between the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), Washington University in St. Louis and the University of California, Riverside, aims to develop software called “DocNow” to archive Twitter data from historically significant events, with Ferguson the initial target.

Currently, accessing historical Twitter data is hit or miss, and software available to scholars only captures broad swaths of tweets for a few days before they’re obscured, says Ed Summers, MITH lead developer and project co-primary investigator.

“There are a number of prominent researchers trying to study social media use around these issues, but it’s difficult,” says Summers, a Ph.D. student in the College of Information Studies. “We’re working… to give them a tool that’s an open-source Web application so they can begin doing data collection.”

Twitter’s unvarnished, in-the-moment nature can be a source of deep insight for researchers, says Bergis Jules, university and political papers archivist at UC-Riverside.

“Scholars can use the Twitter data around Ferguson to study how the public and activists on the ground communicated about the event, how those communications affected the larger media narrative, and how police and the federal government responded to the activities,” Jules says.

In addition to digging up old tweets, DocNow will help Internet archivists monitor the ongoing flood of messages to help identify important content to save for posterity, Summers says. Researchers will also study the ethical and copyright implications of hoovering up social media data.

“Social media is providing a view into part of our society that didn’t have much visibility before,” he says.

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