Distributed social networks are not well-known, but their tumultuous history offers a range of opportunities and challenges to public historians on the web. Distributed networks, such as GNU Social, Diaspora*, or Friendica, exist as an alternatives to more popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, which are centralized networks. Each centralized network exists on a single website, owned and controlled by a single business with whom all users of the network must register accounts. Distributed social networks, by contrast, run on free community-built software that can power any number of different access points. This allows users to join the network from their choice of sign-on providers, or even to access the network by creating a server of their own, without relying on a single centralized authority.
Public historians can learn from both the aspirations and failures of distributed social networks. For historians who aim to collect digital history, these fragmented, privacy-conscious networks pose a dilemma about how to preserve online communications while respecting user privacy. For museums and cultural institutions who aim to build sociability into online exhibits and collections, distributed networks offer an ethical model for open development, interoperability, and privacy protection — as well as case studies in the difficulty of attracting engaged users.
History of Distributed Networks: GNU Social, Diaspora*, Friendica
Distributed social networks began to appear around 2008-2010 in response to fears that centralized networks threatened their users’ privacy and autonomy. The companies that own centralized networks like Facebook or Twitter dictate lengthy terms of service that can change at any time, freely utilize users’ data to sell advertising, and create a single point of failure giving users little recourse if the company suspends an account, merges into another company, or goes out of business. Distributed networks promise to give users the ability to access a network without being locked into a single company’s product — just as a telephone user with AT&T can call someone with Verizon, or a Yahoo! Mail user can send a letter to a friend at Gmail. This empowers distributed network users to choose the provider whose terms they like best, to switch providers while still being able to socialize with the same contacts, and even to set up their own service for fine-grained control over their personal data.
Online exhibitions and digitized collections provide many new ways to collect, author, and share history. Planning these digital projects involves many considerations, some new, but most familiar. Digital history is still history, after all, and I would argue the best digital projects follow many of the same planning procedures as analog ones, even if specifics vary.
Putting Mission First
The first step for any public history project, even before considering technology, should be to determine the project’s purpose and set out its intended audiences and outcomes. What is the theme of an exhibition? Is digitization intended for preservation, accessibility, research, or to provide resources for educational materials? How does the project fit with the institutional mission?
These are basic questions, but it is vital that digital history projects stay focused on real human outcomes. When museums and archives rush toward a new technology without having a clear idea of how it furthers their mission, the “gee whiz” impact of new media and the dictates of the platform can distract from these institutions’ core historical materials and programs. Technology should be a tool to support the institutional mission and project goals, not an objective in itself.
Twitter has become a popular platform for sharing history since its launch in 2006. Although it is only used by about 23% of online adults, more often in urban than rural areas, Twitter is a useful resource for connecting with segments of the online public. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Ohio History Connection were among the first big history institutions in the Midwest to embrace the platform. A casual comparison of their current Twitter profiles illustrates some best practices while revealing how these organizations differ in using Twitter to advance their missions.
Minnesota Historical Society (@mnhs)
The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society is “Using the Power of History to Transform Lives.” This is an ambitious mission, but the society’s Twitter use appears to work towards it.
The society’s main Twitter profile, @mnhs, was created in August 2008 and now has 14.9 thousand followers. Its popularity attests to its longevity and its content. While the Minnesota Historical Society uses Twitter to promote its own programs and collections, it also connects these promotions with interesting or informative content such as trivia and historical images, as in the tweet below:
A class at Richfield HS, 1955. Don't forget to visit Suburbia and get 2-for-1 tickets w/ the code word "Richfield!" pic.twitter.com/Pn1AJg5lMT
In addition to self-promotion, the Minnesota Historical Society frequently retweets or promotes related material from other history and news organizations in Minnesota and even beyond, such as the following item about the New York Times’ Black History archive first tweeted by PBS’s Frontline:
Minnesota Historical Society’s willingness to share content from beyond its institutional walls makes its Twitter profile a general hub of discussion for history and its present relevancy in Minnesota. Despite the breadth of its content, however, the society keeps the number of tweets on this profile to an average of 3.1 a day (according to Twitonomy), a steady but manageable volume.
In addition to its primary profile, many of the Minnesota Historical Society’s divisions have their own Twitter accounts and followings. The Minnesota History Center, for instance, promotes its events and programs at @mnhistorycenter. Another profile @MNopedia, tweets facts and historic images from the society’s online encyclopedia. The society press shares news on its publications at @mnhspress. The institution facilitates programming for teachers and students at @historyedmnhs and @mnhistoryday. Many MNHS historic sites also have a separate profile.
How do other Twitter users engage with the Minnesota Historical Society and its many profiles? The graph below shows the network of tweets that mentioned or replied to one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Twitter handles during the week from January 28 to February 5, 2016. Activity varies from week to week, so this sample is too small to make scientific conclusions. Still, it provides a quick impression of how Twitter users discuss the society. Lines connect accounts to the other profiles they mentioned (or to the accounts that mentioned them). The more mentions an account made of other users in this network, the larger the circle representing it appears. Accounts are colored according to their modularity, which helps distinguish different communities of users.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s mention network is sizeable, but although several different conversation groups can be distinguished, they are mostly well connected. The large size of the @mnhs profile in this graph indicates that it is not only being mentioned, but also mentioning, retweeting, and replying to other users — a healthy sign of two way conversation between the institution and its constituents.
Media do more than relay messages — they can wield power over perceptions, relationships, and people. Patricia Crain’s essay “Children of Media, Children as Media” illustrates this point. Crain shows how the idea of the optical telegraph, a media innovation of the French Revolution, influenced new theories of childhood education that spread far beyond use of the telegraph itself. At American Indian mission schools in the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the optical telegraph promised to discipline Indian children into messengers of white “civilization,” becoming an instrument of colonial power.
A distant precursor to the electric telegraph, optical telegraphs rose like mutant windmills across the countryside of Revolutionary France in the 1790s. Each optical telegraph featured large mechanical shutters that moved into various positions to display semaphore code. French semaphore lines located a telegraph tower every ten kilometers (6 miles), allowing operators with telescopes to receive and then replicate short messages down the line faster than a rider on horseback. By the early 1800s, semaphore lines linked Paris to most major French cities, speeding long distance communication and linking the nation under centralized military command. Optical telegraphs saw more limited use outside France, but Patricia Crain argues that the idea of the visual telegraph in public discourse had wider influence than its actual implementation.
For Joseph Lancaster, an English educational reformer, the metaphor of the visual telegraph held the key to making public education more efficient and widespread. Rather than small classes of students working closely with a teacher, Lancaster proposed the “Monitorial System,” which allowed a single schoolmaster to supervise hundreds of students by appointing advanced pupils as “monitors” to replicate lessons for smaller study groups. Lancaster recommended spacing these groups throughout a large hall around instructional posters that replaced textbooks and allowed many students to share simultaneously in a lesson. A simplified visual “telegraph” made of cards bearing short commands such as “SS” for “Show Slates” allowed the schoolmaster to quickly send instructions throughout the class. Obedience was rewarded with prizes, while those who disobeyed faced public shaming by wearing labels that telegraphed their misdeeds to their peers.
Welcome to publichistory.media. My name is Joshua Wachuta, and I’m a PhD Student in U.S. and Public History at Loyola University Chicago. I’m also a bit of a geek, assembling computers and spinning up Linux virtual servers in my spare time. My interests in history and technology intersect in HIST 479, the Public History New Media course at Loyola. I’ll be blogging here about my experiences taking this course through the Spring of 2016, and I look forward to discussing the possibilities and challenges that new media can bring to public historians. You can find out more at the About page.