Reflections on Twitter as a Historical Source

Last week, I detailed my clunky and ad-hoc method for collecting and analysing old tweets. I have now finished my data collection (I read almost 26,000 tweets in total), so it seemed like a good time to reflect a little more on the experience of the process and what I found, rather than just how I did it. The tweets I read were all written during 4 days in November and December 2010. During this period a nationwide campaign was trying to persuade the British government not to make dramatic changes to the way that higher education was funded, which included raising university tuition fees to up to £9000 a year.

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The Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010 are the most recent case study in my PhD, which has presented methodological challenges as well as opportunities (Photo: Urban75).

The Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010 is the only one of my case studies (the others are the Gordon Riots (1780), the Hyde Park Railings Affair (1866), and the Battle of Cable Street (1936)) that I lived through and participated in. I have my opinions about the issues contested in each of the other case studies, but researching events that you yourself experienced is very different. I was a second year undergraduate in late 2010, my younger sister would be affected by the proposed increased fees, and I cared very much about what happened. Reading through tweets from the four days of protest in London brought back a lot of emotions; the desire to do something; hope that we could make a difference, disbelief that anyone thought the proposals were a good idea; betrayal at the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn; anger at those who dismissed students as ignorant, lazy and apathetic; all soured by the knowledge that we didn’t change anything. Compounding this is the tendency people have to be more arrogant and abrasive on the internet than they ever would be in person. Because of this some Tweets were quite offensive, and it was hard not to take it personally. I found myself fighting the urge to reply to some of the most irritating Tweets, repeatedly reminding myself how strange it would be to get a reply to something written 6 years ago. Reading the tweets caused me to re-live many of the feelings I experienced back in 2010, which meant that this research was often quite draining emotionally.

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Some tweets expressed extreme opinions, which I often found difficult to read.

One of the biggest problems I have faced so far in my PhD research is that the further back in time you go, the less archival material there is which records the perspectives and experiences of ordinary people. This is a challenge for many historical researchers, but it has been particularly difficult for me because the wealthy elites don’t tend to be the people participating in protest and dissent. The internet is relatively accessible, with only 11% of British adults having never used the internet (Office of National Statistics, 2015). This does not mean that 89% of British people use Twitter, but it does give me the opportunity to see what ‘ordinary’ people were saying about the protests, which is a rare treat for me. Twitter revealed some wonderfully fine-grained details about the protests and what it was like to be there. For example, a woman called Rosie McKenna broke her glasses and hurt her leg whilst being kettled by police on the 9th of December. It was great to be able to develop such a clear picture of what it was like to be part of the protests, rather than having to rely heavily on imagination.

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Twitter preserves the experience of protesting in finer detail than traditional archival sources.

Another aspect of the research that I really enjoyed was seeing how various processes present in my other case studies played out through this modern technology. A common feature of protests and social movements is conspiracy theories; people speculate about who the ‘real’ organisers of a protest event are, or who might be manipulating the course of events to suit their own aims. The Gordon Riots, for example, were blamed on the American, Spanish or French governments. Scholars have argued that these theories developed because at that point it was not generally believed that the lower classes were capable of organising themselves in such a manner; they need someone to tell them what to do (Leon, 2011; Tackett; 2000). Conspiracy theories persist, however, despite modern society holding a less patronising view of the working and middle classes.One of the best known events of the 2010 Student Protests was the occupation of 30 Millbank, the building in which the Conservative Party campaign headquaters were housed. The response of the Metropolitan Police on this occasion was rather slow and inadequate. The most likely explanation is that they were surprised by the strength of feeling amongst the protesters, and had not prepared for trouble on that scale. However, it was suggested by some Twitter users that the police had deliberately responded slowly, because policing was facing its own budget cuts under the austerity regime, and wanted to demonstrate their usefulness to the government. The saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ springs to mind…

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Twitter gives modern conspiracy theories related to protest a new platform on which to be transmitted and debated.

After a long period of writing, I really enjoyed getting to doing some research again, and exploring a new source of data. Working with Twitter was tiring, physically as well as emotionally (I had to take regular breaks because of the strain on my eyes), but also very rewarding. It has provided me with evidence to back up my arguments, as well as leading me to develop some new ones, and I feel like my PhD will be stronger because I tried this new (to me) research method.

Sources and Further Reading

León, Pablo Sánchez. “Conceiving the Multitude: Eighteenth-Century Popular Riots and the Modern Language of Social Disorder.’ International Review of Social History 56, no. 3 (2011): 511–533.

Tackett, Timothy. “Conspiracy Obsession in a Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror 1789–1792.” The American Historical Review, 105, no. 3 (2000): 691–713.

#demo2010: Harvesting Old Tweets as a Research Method

The long time scale of my PhD means I have to deal with vastly different sources in my research. For the Gordon Riots (1780), I use mainly eyewitness accounts and court records. For the Battle of Cable Street (1936), I have access to images and videos of what happened. For the 2010 Student Tuition Fee Protests, the choices are almost endless. One of the sources I decided to utilise was Twitter, the social media website that allows its users to post updates of up to 140 characters. Every type of source presents different challenges for the researcher, and I found the unique challenges of Twitter rather difficult to cope with at first. This post is about the method I developed for my research, and I hope it will act as a catalyst for discussion amongst other scholars dealing with similar issues. My research was conducted on a computer with a Windows 10 operating system, and I do not know how well my method would translate to a different operating system.

Whilst there are programmes which collect tweets in real time as they are tweeted, many of which are open access, there are fewer designed to harvest pre-existing tweets. Those there are are aimed at a commercial rather than academic market, and their cost is beyond the scope of my research budget. So I had to develop my own ad-hoc, ‘low tech’ method of harvesting old tweets, using Twitter’s Advanced Search function.

In 2014 Twitter began allowing users to search for tweets more than 7 days old in its Advanced Search function (accessed from the options menu of a bog standard Twitter search result page, or by googling ‘Twitter Advanced Search’. You have to have a Twitter account to use this function). Advanced Search lets you combine a whole variety of search parameters, including date, location, hash tags, Twitter accounts, key words, sentiment (whether a Tweet is positive or negative). You can even input words you don’t want to be included.

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Twitter’s Advanced Search function looks a little like this.

Once I decided I was using Advanced Search, I had to decide on search parameters. The Student Tuition Fee Protests were a series of demonstrations, occupations and marches on both a national and local scale that took place between the 10th of November and the 9th of December 2010. I wanted to see Tweets from the four days of action that took place in London, on the 10th, 24th, and 30th of November, and the 9th of December. I started by searching for tweets that had been geotagged with London on the revelant days. Only a small percentage of tweets are geotagged, but it provided me with an idea of the hashtags and keywords that were were being used in regards to the demonstrations. I used this to decide on my search parameters. For example, for the demonstration on the 9th of December I searched for ‘Any of these words: protester, protesters, students, tuition, fees, protests’ and ‘These hashtags: #demo2010 #dayx3 #fees #solidarity #studentprotest #ukuncut’. For each demonstration, I used a slightly different combination of hashtags and keywords, in an attempt to find as many relevant tweets as possible. I acknowledge, however, that I probably did not find every tweet about the demonstrations. I also altered the dates as appropriate, then started the search.

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This is the top of the search results page I got for the protests on the 9th of December 2010.

Now for the long-winded part. I have not found a way to download multiple tweets at once. You can use your browser’s print function to save the search results as a pdf, but there are several disadvantages to this. You cannot expand the tweets to see what time they were tweeted, and it will only save the tweets that have loaded- you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the search results to save them all, and this can take a long time when searches yield more than a few thousand tweets. I did save the search results as a pdf, so I can go back to them at a later date if I want to, but only once I had read them all.

And that is how I analysed the search results, by reading every single tweet. Any tweets that I thought might be relevant to my research, I saved as a jpeg using the Snip tool, with it’s own individual number (001, 002, 003, 004 etc.). I also pasted each tweet into a word document, so I could go back to them later without having to open each individual jpeg. I coded the saved tweets as I went along, making a note of the tweet’s number and the key theme it related to. I also kept a count of how many tweets I had read as I went along. I wouldn’t say it was very reliable, but I can at least say roughly how many tweets I analysed for each demonstration. For example, I read almost 8000 tweets related to the demonstration on the 10th of November 2010.

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The Snip tool allows you to make an image from your computer screen. It works a little like print screen, but you are able to select a particular area that you want to capture, like this tweet from the 9th of December 2010.

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Sometimes, the simplest way of doing things is the best. I counted every tweet I read, and coded the most relevant ones using a good old fashioned notebook and pen.

So there you have it; my ad hoc, low tech (for Twitter!) method for collecting and analysing old Tweets for academic research. It is a rather clunky method, and I suspect that someone with more technological know-how than me could improve it dramatically, but it has allowed me to see how social media was being used during the 2010 Student Protests in London. If you have experience with this sort of research, or just have an opinion on it, then I would love to hear from you!

Protest Stickers: New York City 2, Part 2

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Stickers obscuring a road sign in New York City (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Street art is everywhere in New York City, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. For those of you that are new to Turbulent London, I am especially interested in stickers, particularly those with political subject matter. So on a recent trip to New York City, I took my camera and my habit of photographing random bits of street furniture to see what protest stickers I could find on the streets of the city that never sleeps. This is the second time I have visited NYC since I started photographing protest stickers, and the first time I struggled to find many. This time however, I found so many stickers that I have decided to do two blog posts, hence the slightly awkward title (the first post, published last week, is here). In the last post, I looked at the different kinds of issues which protest stickers address, the different types of stickers you can find, and some of the most common themes in the stickers I found. This post is far less organised I’m afraid, its just everything else that I wanted to include!

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Some American industries. including the building trade, still have very strong unions. Builders in New York tend to plaster their hard hats with stickers, so that they become a walking representation of their unions and the causes that they consider to be important (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Last week I talked about some of the most common themes that came up in protest stickers, police brutality and the upcoming Presidential election. Animal rights was another common theme; this sticker contains the web addresses of meatvideo.com, which shows abuse at factory farms, and In Defense of Animals, a group which campaigns for animal rights, welfare and habitat (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also references meatvideo.com, but it is not quite as well made as the last one. I remember seeing this sticker design when I was here in 2015, so there’s a chance this particular sticker has been there quite a while (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker criticises people who wear fur. The picture is unclear because the sticker has been wrinkled by rain, but the message is still pretty clear thanks to the huge red writing (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Feminism was a less common theme, but it did crop up now and again (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I found this sticker on some scaffolding right outside our hotel when we first arrived- I took it as a good omen for the trip! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The East Village is one of the ‘coolest’ neighbourhoods on Manhattan, and some stickers are local to this area. The Shadow claims to be New York’s only underground newspaper, and is published from the lower East Side. It was started in 1989, after local people were disillusioned by the mainstream media’s coverage of the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988. I featured one of The Shadow‘s stickers last time, but didn’t know the story behind it until this trip (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, which is located in a squat on Avenue C. The Museum is volunteer-run, and focuses on grassroots campaigns to keep communal spaces in the city out of corporate hands (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The clenched, raised fist is a common symbol of dissent (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker has been partially obscured, but it reads “We stand with Texas Women, and we won’t sit down!” It was produced by Ultraviolet, a group that campaigns for women’s rights. This particular campaign is about preventing attempts to restrict access to abortions in Texas (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Being a millennial myself I find this a little harsh, but everyone is entitled to their opinion I guess! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The SEIU is the Services Employees International Union, and 32BJ is the local New York branch. It represents cleaners, security guards, and others whose work involves the maintenance and servicing of buildings (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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New York City has rents comparable to London, and it must be difficult for small businesses to survive. Save NYC is a campaign to “preserve the diversity and uniqueness” of New York. This was in the window of a dry cleaners in the East Village (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker has adapted the design of the one dollar bill to call for the legalisation of cannabis (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This stickers celebrates the actions of Edward Snowden, a whistleblower who leaked information from the National Security Agency in 2013 which sparked intensive debate about the balance of individual privacy and national security. PeaceSupplies.org sells stickers, shirts and patches related to various campaigns (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker promotes Save Stonewall, a campaign to create a national park to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, which took place in Greenwich Village in 1969 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Parent Team is a group which supports parents of children dealing with drug or alcohol addiction. Here they are calling for free childcare for all, which doesn’t quite match up with their main purpose, but is an admirable goal none the less (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is a sticker produced by the street artist and anti-war activist Jef Campion (a.k.a. Army of One/JC2). He used his art to emphasise the ill effects of war. He passed away in 2014, but his memory lives on in his street art (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This photo illustrates how the location of a sticker can influence or reinforce its meaning. This sticker was placed on the stop sign at a pedestrian crossing, emphasising its anti-gentrification message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The International Museum for Activist Art is a website which displays art that aims to raise awareness of the issues facing society, and I would definitely recommend having a browse through it (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I found this in Washington Square Park on my last day in New York. It uses the story of Goldilocks to call for the preservation of our planet. Earth is ‘just right’ for human habitation, a rare attribute that we shouldn’t take for granted (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Protest Stickers: New York City 2, Part 1

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A doorway in Greenwich Village with a high concentration of street art and stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

New York City has a thriving street art culture. Almost every neighbourhood has walls covered in art, both official and unofficial. There are also a lot of stickers, of all kinds- I spotted one sticker advertising a new novel, which is something I haven’t come across in London before. Lots of stickers generally means lots of protest stickers, and during the week that I was there in early March I found loads. I wouldn’t like to say whether the amount of protest stickers is increasing, or I have just got better at spotting them since I visited last time, but it certainly felt like there were a lot. I found so many in fact, that I have decided to split this post into 2 parts, with Part 2 being published this time next week.

Protest stickers are a great way of seeing what kinds of issues are important to the people of a city. Some themes crop up again and again, whilst other topics just appear to be a particular bug bear of one zealous stickerer (I am still looking for a less clumsy way of referring to people who put up stickers!) Stickers are just one of the ways in which protest imprints itself onto the physical fabric of a city, but they can also be one of the most long-lasting, although their transience is one of their defining characteristics.

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As in London, gentrification is a contentious issue in New York City. These stickers are drawing attention to the issue in a tongue-in-cheek manner (at least I hope it is!) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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You can find stickers about a whole range of issues, relating to a whole range of scales. The relevance of this sticker is confined to New York City (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some stickers refer to national scale issues. The upcoming Presidential election is just about all anyone can talk about in America at the moment, and this obsession is reflected in New York’s protest stickers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some stickers are about international scale issues. In case you can’t read the top line, this sticker says “Stop Iran- We Stand with Israel” (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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There are some stickers that defy scale; this sticker doesn’t refer to any issue in particular, instead advocating a more forgiving attitude that could probably help a lot of contentious situations (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker also takes an abstract approach. It is by a street artist called @ApillNYC who, despite the @, has very little information about them on the internet (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some stickers are not even remotely relevant to New York City. This sticker comes from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, which seeks justice for the 96 people who died in a crush at Hillsborough Football Stadium in Sheffield in the United Kingdom. I have seen these stickers before in London and I was very excited to find them here, on the viewing platform at the top of the Rockefeller Centre (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As well as relating to a whole range of scales, protest stickers come in a whole range of forms. This sticker is basic, and was probably quite easy to make (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Whereas this sticker blurs the boundary between protest sticker and street art, and likely took a lot longer to produce. This sticker, which I suspect was pasted to the wall rather than being stuck with its own adhesive, is by someone called Individual Activist (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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One of the most common themes of protest stickers in New York City is policing. There has been widespread controversy in America over the past few years over the treatment of civilians by police officers, particularly when it comes to ethnic minorities. Rise Up October was organised by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker plays on the idea that the police should protect citizens, rather than pose a threat to them. In reality, the police can pose a threat, particularly to members of ethnic minorities (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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To serve and protect is another phrase commonly associated with the police. This sticker is implying that the police serve and protect property, rather than people (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is advertising a different demonstration against police brutality. I think that #Octresist was also organised by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, in 2014. If that is the case, then this sticker is getting quite old! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Garden State Ultras are a sports fan group with a radical edge. ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) is part of the international radical language (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker wouldn’t win any prizes for subtlety, but sometimes that is the best way to get your message across (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As I mentioned before, the Presidential Election is a hot topic in America. Donald Trump is a controversial figure who nobody seems to like, yet he keeps doing well in the primaries (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Most New York stickerers seem to be fans of Bernie Sanders. A democrat, he has been called America’s Jeremy Corbyn, he has been giving some people hope that politics can be done differently (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker was produced by The Personal Stash, which sells marijuana-themed accessories and promotes the reform of laws relating to marijuana (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker comes from Bernie Sander’s official campaign. Sometimes, the line between protest and formal politics can become blurred as radicals attempt to reform the system from within (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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And just to end the post on a positive note…(Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2 of Protest Stickers: New York City 2!