The reason why I wanted to do this fellowship was not only to expand my knowledge of computational/digital methods of approaching cultural heritage questions but also to have this methodological knowledge situated in appropriate theoretical and philosophical frameworks. Particularly, something I have noticed often in data-driven approaches to research within my own discipline is the lack of positioning – what does this data mean? How did it come to be, and what does it signify for larger historical, cultural, and social realms?
In fact, what I’ve noticed often in large-scale data analyses is that a lot of descriptive results are discussed but nothing much further than that. Of course, it’s important to know what is out there and what it consists of, but to behave as if a lot of this exists in some suspended digital vacuum is ignoring the larger social and cultural artifacts and ephemera that exist within them. Particularly, in online communities, it’s perhaps not enough to just know what’s out there but rather to understand how it came to be in the first place.
This has gotten me thinking a lot about archives, politics, social worlds, and the discourses of power embedded within them. Digital archives – especially the ones made by members of online communities – hold a wealth of knowledge in them and the choices that are made by the community symbolize a lot more than just mere content. Like all other archives, digital archives curated by “lay-users” (as opposed to laypersons) are imbued with their own discourses of power – what gets chosen to go into the archive to be representative of that moment in time for that particular group? What place does it hold in their larger community, their social world? What is cultural about this data, and how does this data then build and reinforce this community’s culture?
These are all questions that I’ve been thinking about the past month to help me better situate my project. Like Calinadro and others have noted, the virtual is not separate from the physical, and in fact virtual worlds mirror the complexities of relations that exist in the “real world”, and to differentiate them now or to try to establish a divide is no longer representative of the current socio-historical context in which we live in.
Thus, my interest in pursuing digital archives created by users of political groups (on all points of the spectrum) has to be situated within frameworks that attempt to at least describe (to explain is a different endeavor altogether) how these groups, archives, and political discourses came to be shaped. Further, the way that they embed their larger group identity and ideology within their content is of particular note – for instance, I’ve become really interested in political memes and how they’re used not as nuggets of ideology but rather bite-sized visual chunks of identity building. If all we are consists of parts of others and experiences we have had, are memes simultaneously material object and identity builder? How did Pushen the Cat (a cartoon) come to become Pusheen the Lefty Cat, complete with their own pages of memes depicting Pusheen (the chubby cartoon cat we all know and love) as a socialist revolutionary (pictured right)? With this question in mind, places like Imgur that are associated with certain political subreddits then serve as a form of the digital archive if we are trying to use them as spaces of research.u
With this question in mind, places like Imgur that are associated with certain political subreddits then serve as a form of the digital archive if we are trying to use them as spaces of research.
The world is a weird place. The Internet hasn’t made it weirder, it’s rather amplified the weirdness that already existed.