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.

Twitter Advanced Search

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.

Twitter Search Results

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!

Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film

This Monday, I went to a talk at the Birkbeck Cinema called Breaking the Peace: A Century of London Protest on Film given by  Professor Ian Christie, part of a series of events exploring London on film in association with the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Over the course of an hour and a half, Professor Christie showed us footage of the Suffragettes (1910-13), the 1926 General Strike, a 1932 Hunger March, the Battle of Cable Street (1936), Anti-Vietnam War protests (1968), the disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, the 2003 Anti-Iraq War demonstration, and Occupy London (2011). I had a great afternoon watching the footage, looking out for all the things that have (and haven’t) changed about protest in London over the last one hundred years.

NUWSS Rally Trafalgar Square Pathe Newsreel

A National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) rally in Trafalgar Square. This is a still from newsreel footage owned by British Pathe, and is available on YouTube (Source: British Pathe).

Apart from fashion, one of the biggest changes that stood out was the development, and democratisation, of film technology. The afternoon began with grainy, silent, black-and-white newsreel footage,  and finished with colour and sound, probably filmed by amateurs with handheld cameras. As film technology has developed, it has also got cheaper, allowing wider excess. In the 1960s the new TV production company Granada started making World in Action,  a hard-hitting news programme that presented London protesters in a more balanced light than older, more established sources of news. By the 2010s, the Occupy movement were making and editing their own films, presenting themselves exactly the way they wanted. Organisers of protests want their message to reach further than the people who witnessed the protest directly, and the more control they have over the communication media that spreads that message,  the more successful they are likely to be in getting that message out.

World in Action Anti-Vietnam Demo

A still from World in Action‘s coverage of the 1968 Anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London. The distinctive shape of the fountains makes it obvious that this is also Trafalgar Square. This video is also available on YouTube (Source: World in Action).

One thing which has not changed much is the language used by outsiders to describe protest. In almost every example there was the perception that a largely peaceful protest had been subverted by a small minority of ‘criminals’, ‘anarchists’, or ‘hawks’ (I particularly liked the Cold War terminology creeping in here). Protesters were also frequently described as ‘converging on London’, giving the impression of disgruntled Britons descending on the capital from all corners of the country. London is the political and economic centre of the country,  it is no surprise that it is chosen as the site of many national demonstrations.

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A still from the BBC’s Witness series about the disruption of the 1970 Miss World Competition in the Royal Albert Hall (Source: BBC News)

The tactics of the demonstrators themselves has also remained largely the same. The content and methods of production may have changed, but banners and placards are still an integral part of protest marches, as is costume. The protest march itself has also changed little since the women of the suffrage movement proved it could be done with dignity and respectability. Scholars sometimes talk about ‘repertoires of resistance’- the specific set of tactics available to demonstrators to make their point. These repertoires are often shared between and within communities, including on a national scale. This means that many protests utilise similar strategies. There is also a tendency to take inspiration from what came before; the anti-Vietnam demonstrators may have mimicked the successful strategies of the Suffragettes, for example.

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A still from a YouTube video about the demonstration against the Iraq war in 2003 (Source: Kino Kast).

Another constant throughout the films was London itself. Both Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square are described in the newsreels as ‘the home of free speech’, and landmarks such as Nelson’s Column act as a familiar backdrop to events. London is no stranger to protest. Due to its role as the political and economic centre of Britain, the city is full of buildings which can act as symbolic stand-ins for intangible power structures (the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England, and foreign embassies are some examples). The fact that places like Hyde Park have become known as the home of free speech also attracts more protest groups, reinforcing the city’s reputation for protest.

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A still from a film made by Occupy London about the protests outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in 2011 (Source: Conscious Collective).

The purpose of this series of events organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and Professor Ian Christie was to think about how film can be used for research. There is a vast amount of film of London protest available, much of it more accessible than ever thanks to resources such as YouTube. Whilst it is important to be wary of possible biases (the early newsreels are almost entirely concerned with the preservation of law and order), film is a perfectly viable source to use for investigating historical research. It’s just a shame half of my case studies occurred before the invention of film!

Scrolls, Vikings, and Dragons: Representations of the Archive in Children’s Television

'Riders of Berk' is a television spin off of the popular 2010 fil 'How to Train Your Dragon' (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

‘Riders of Berk’ is a television spin off of the popular 2010 film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

As long as you promise not to ask me how I know about this example, I wanted to discuss the portrayal of archives in children’s television. DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk is a spin-off from the 2010 DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon. It may sounds surprising, but the show does contain archives, and the ways in which they are represented actually speaks well to the use of real-life archives.

'Bork's Archive' contains all the knowledge that the vikings of Berk have collected about dragons (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

‘Bork’s Archive’ contains all the knowledge that the Vikings of Berk have collected about dragons (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

Academics have argued that children’s films and TV shows are actually quite powerful cultural products, perhaps because they are dismissed by adults as insignificant and harmless. However they arguably play a significant role in shaping how children understand and interpret the world around them, so they are actually quite influential. Riders of Berk could very easily be a child’s only encounter with an archive, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

Berk is a village on a small island of the same name, populated by Vikings with names like Hiccup, Snotlout and Fishlegs, and dragons. At the beginning of the film, Vikings and dragons are mortal enemies, but with the aid of an injured dragon called Toothless, Hiccup manages to prove that both dragons and Vikings can profit from working together, and by the time the TV show begins, dragons are firmly integrated into the daily life of Berk. In Riders of Berk, a group of teenage Vikings, led by Hiccup, fly around on their dragons, having adventures and learning more about all the different types of dragons. However, all is not well in the land of the Vikings, and there are villains, set on destroying the peace between dragons and Vikings, or stealing the Hiccup’s dragon-training knowledge for their own dastardly aims.

Dragons and Vikings used to be enemies, but now live together in harmony (Source: 'We Are Family Part 1' Dreamwork's Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

Dragons and Vikings used to be enemies, but now live together in harmony (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamwork’s Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

In the finale of the series, entitled “We Are Family,” Hiccup is entrusted with a chest containing Berk’s collected knowledge on dragons, know as “Bork’s Archive.” As the premier authority on dragons, Hiccup is given this “part of our [Berk’s] history” so that he can continue to develop their knowledge. From the way responsibility is passed on, and Hiccup’s reaction to the task, it is clearly a great honour. The knowledge is obviously valued by the community, and he is told to guard it carefully. Hiccup wastes no time in starting to search through this “amazing” archive, demonstrating how useful archives can be.

Hiccup feels honoured when he is given the job of 'archivist' (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk).

Hiccup feels honoured when he is given the job of ‘archivist’ (Source: ‘We Are Family Part1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk).

Later in the episode, Hiccup learns the valuable lesson that not all sources in the archive can be trusted, simply because they come from the archive. Hiccup’s loyal companion Toothless is a rare type of dragon called a Night Fury. No other Night Furies are known to exist on Berk or the surrounding islands. In the archive, Hiccup finds a map to an island of Night Furies called “The Isle of Night,” and promptly sets off to find more of Toothless’ kind. The map turns out to be a fake however, planted in the archive to lure Hiccup into a trap by the evil Alvin the Treacherous. This highlights the importance of finding out as much as possible about where a source comes from, and why it was produced, in order to assess its reliability and possible biases.

The fake source that leads Hiccup into a trap (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

The fake source that leads Hiccup into a trap (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

So from this one episode of a children’s television show, a lot can be learnt about the value of archives, as well as the precautions that must be taken with them. Although Bork’s Archive is a lot smaller than most archives I have come across, I would argue that it is quite representative of archives as a whole. The people of Berk value Bork’s archive as a source of collected knowledge, and are aware of the archive’s ability to help contemporary knowledge progress further. However, Hiccup learns that just because something is in an archive, doesn’t mean that it is ‘true’ or authentic; the archive can be deceptive. This may seem like a bit of a silly post, but in all seriousness, I think it is important to talk about archives and the methodology of archival research as much as possible, and why shouldn’t we do that through the medium of children’s television? So, if you need a light-hearted teaching aid for archives, or just something fun for your next tea break, you could do worse than checking out Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk.