Thursday, August 25, 2016

2016-08-25: Documenting the Now Advisory Board Meeting Trip Report

On August 21-23, 2016, I attended the Advisory Board Meeting for the Documenting the Now (DocNow) project at the Washington University in St. Louis.  The DocNow project is funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation "aims to collect, archive, and provide access to social media feeds chronicling historically significant events, particularly concerning social justice."   In practice, this means providing a friendly interface for interacting with trending events on Twitter (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter and affiliated hashtags).  This is significant because tools like twarc (created by Ed Summers, the technical lead for DocNow), a widely used Twitter archiving command line tool, are not within the scope of non-expert users. 

The DocNow has a strong project team and a diverse advisory board, of which I am honored to be a member of.  The team has been pretty active on github, slack, Twitter, etc., but those are no substitute for an extended f2f meeting.

The day began on the 22nd with a welcome and a contextualization for DocNow by the first panel (Jessica Johnson, Mark Anthony Neal, Sarah Jackson).  The session were recorded and will be released within the next week or two (video), so I won't try to completely reconstruct the discussion here, but some of the highlights that I noted include: 1) archives are necessary to create the context in which to evaluate content (the example was #FreeWakaFlocka being confused as a Sesame Street reference), and 2) real-time, self-reflection / self-awareness of  Twitter being a communications channel and archival record, and 3) a preview of the ethics involved in processing personal redaction / take down requests.  Some of the resources I noted were: Research Ethics for Students and Teachers: Social Media in the Classroom, Hijacking #myNYPD: Social Media Dissent and Networked Counterpublics, and African American celebrity dissent and a tale of two public spheres: a critical and comparative analysis of the mainstream and black press, 1949-2005.

Panel #2 featured the personal reflections of activists Reuben Riggs, Kayla Reed, Alexis Templeton, and Rasheen Aldridge, expertly moderated by Jonathan Fenderson.  I'm certainly not going to try to summarize their compelling contributions -- you really need to watch the video.  One resource I noted was the story of the Palestinian woman giving notes to Ferguson protesters about how to deal with tear gas.  I also noted that the activists' use of social media was, at least initially, not entirely focused on Twitter.  This has implications because as researchers, we tend to focus on Twitter exclusively, largely because it's the easiest to interact with.

Panel 3 (Yvonne Ng, Stacie Williams, Alexandra Dolan-Mescal, Dexter Thomas) resumed the ethics of discussion from the end of Panel 1 (video).   Yvonne worked through a set of examples about archivists / reports including videos (e.g., from YouTube) with PII (see: Ethical Guidelines for Using Video in Human Rights Reporting).  The mood in the room at the time was definitely trending to protecting / anonymizing.  I asked the question of how to reconcile this level of editing with the guidance from Panel 2, which included (in so many words) "be sure to document everything, including the ugly".  I don't think we really successfully addressed this question.  Stacie covered the story of aggregating  various #WhatIWasWearing tweets and getting consent from the authors.  Dexter echoed the issue of consent, drawing from his experience at the LA Times.  Alexandra even went as far as saying "it's a surveillance tool", and questioned the archiving process in general.

I was on Panel 4, along with Brooke Foucault-Welles and Deen Freelon (video).  I went last and was so focused on my upcoming presentation my notes for my co-panelists are uneven.  Deen discussed some of his open source tools, and briefly mentioned the problem of disappearing tweets.  I did write down Brooke's closing three points: 1) "data storage is cheap, data usability is expensive" (with some stories of her "data wrangling"), 2) "tradeoff between parsimonious vs. inclusivity", which summarizes nicely as the "stegosaurus problem" -- apparently they were relatively rare but preserved well, and 3) "diversifying data", including the context of the larger platform itself and the observation that the Twitter of 2009 is not the same as the Twitter of 2014.

 I talked about why we need multiple, independent web archives:

Panel 5 had Brian Deitz, Jarrett Drake, Natalie Baur, and Samantha Abrams, discussing documenting a community (video).  Samantha discussed her work as a "guerilla archivist", quasi-officially archiving #theRealUW (see her blog post "On establishing a web archiving platform").  Brian's echoed some of the same points, and contrasted #ChapelHillShooting vs. #Our3Winners.  Natalie discussed creating an archive around the time the US normalized relations with Cuba, and Jarrett discussed #OccupyNassau.

The final panel of the day featured Sylvie Rollason-Cass, Ilya Kreymer, Matt Phillips, and Nicholas Taylor (video).  Ilya gave a demo of, and I believe everyone else had slides even though I can't find them: Sylvie covered the range of services and projects from Archive-It, Matt reviewed and other projects at LIL, and Nicholas talked about the WASAPI project.

The second day was a half day, and wasn't recorded.  Alexandra lead us in a User Story Map exercise in an effort to further flesh out user requirements.  She had four defined user types defined (I didn't write them down), but there was discussion about adding a fifth: the "authority" persona that would use the archive to expose and punish the participants.

We concluded the day with Dan Chudnov giving a short demo of the current tool.  I won't really go into details since it is likely to change significantly (they were adamant about it being an early discussion piece), but it is far ahead of tools like twarc for supporting guided exploration.  2016-09-01 Edit: a temporary prototype of the tool is now available:

I think the meeting was very successful, and I'm grateful to the organizers (Desiree Jones-Smith, Bergis Jules, et al.) for including me on the Advisory Board and inviting me to St. Louis.  I'll add the video links when they're uploaded  (2016-09-12 edit: 4 video links added), and in the mean time you can rewind the #docnowcommunity hashtag to get a feel for the many things I missed (Samantha is keeping a list of resources shared over #docnowcommunity).


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