Publication Date

March 26, 2012

Not long after the Modern Language Association (MLA) published its protocol for how to cite a tweet, its executive director tweeted that she’d gotten four calls in one morning from reporters asking about it.* It would be nice to think that this was a demonstration of an abiding concern in the journalism profession on getting it right, and citing it right, but as the MLA statement lays out, even when you want to cite a tweet correctly it can be difficult to do so.

The MLA statement on how to cite tweets points to a number of problems with getting it right. The statement explains that it is sometimes impossible to know precisely who the original author of a tweet was, and often impossible to discover the actual time and date of a tweet. These are vital bits of information to historians, bits that can often determine whether the information can even be used, how much weight to give it if it is used, and ultimately what meaning it really has. The trained historian must sift through all of these details and more before even deciding whether to cite, never mind how. (For an inspiring discussion on using Twitter to teach source analysis, see Krista Sigler’s 2011 Perspectives on History article, “Teaching Twitter: The History of the Present.”)

Raising many of the same concerns, the current issue of The International Journal of Digital Curation offers up “Requirements for Provenance on the Web,” by Paul Groth, Yolanda Gil, James Cheney, and Simon Miles, which provides three complex but plausible scenarios in which a professional researcher or organization must establish some basic facts about the information streaming to them from the wilds of the web. They start with examples of questions that will be familiar to any historian:

From where did this tweet originate? Was this quote from the New York Times modified? Daily, we rely on data from the Web, but often it is difficult or impossible to determine where it came from or how it was produced.

The authors are attempting to theorize an eventual automation of this process (more on this here), but historians will be interested in the flows of confirmation and decision they map out in the article. Some of these scenarios may even be adapted into lessons to demonstrate the complexity of working with sources.

Megan Garber at the Atlantic Monthly provides a number of good links to articles on the debates over provenance, attribution, and curation, and conveys some wariness about the project. Garber provocatively calls provenance “the creation myth of a piece of information” (emphasis added), hinting at a skepticism over how much we can ever really know about the origins of the information we use daily.

Historians might understandably feel a little uncomfortable wading into these discussions and telling tweeters and bloggers how to organize their data, but they might also be interested in what others are saying about interrogating a source (or the futility of doing so). These discussions will almost certainly have an effect on public perceptions of historical practice, and will ultimately help determine how historians are received in the public square.

*Feal, Rosemary G (@rgfeal). “Fourth call from reporters on #MLA decision to give protocol for citing tweets. Who knew World Domination starts w Twitter?” 9 March 2012, 11:35 a.m. Tweet.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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