Voyant and visualizing new paradigms

Courtesy of xkcd

I have a confession: I’m not good at reading the directions. That’s not always a bad thing, because sometimes I learn more, and better, about how to use a tool by teaching myself than by following the instruction manual to the letter. However, this week was different. Using Voyant, an online tool for digital text analysis, without a concept of distant reading, text analysis, visualization, and their implications for studying history only resulted in me not getting the point. At all.

Voyant homescreen

Voyant has a very basic setup, and was clearly built by someone with a very different brain cell structure than mine. There is no obvious tutorial, but only a “find out more” link to a fairly technical user manual. It’s not really a tool for a casual user; you have to be willing to sit down and read through the methodological theory and case studies for using Voyant before you really get the point. At least if you’re me. However, after I read through the user manual (actually, it’s a book), and after reading Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees, what I got was this: Heremeneuti.ca, the overall project that Voyant is a part of, is about applying computing to humanities research, allowing scholars to use the kind of tools previously thought to be the mien of NASA scientists and macroeconomists to research and think about fields like history and literature.


Rabbit or duck? Duck or rabbit?

The whole field of digital humanities sometimes reminds me of those perspective-bending images where at first you see one thing, but then, if you look closer, it appears to be something completely different. The rabbit-duck illusion specifically comes to mind when thinking about distant reading, digital humanities, and the possibilities of using big, powerful technology to research history. I think many mainstream academic historians are accustomed to looking for the metaphorical ducks when doing research that the only tools they use are breadcrumbs and the only place they look are ponds. So often, historians miss the big fat rabbit sitting in the middle of their garden, because all they’re looking for is ducks.

This analogy is getting away from me, but what I’m trying to say is what most digital humanists have been (once again, metaphorically) shouting at the top of their lungs: “We built this for you! You can use it! It does really cool stuff if you’ll just read the manual!” And it’s true, Voyant does really cool, really valuable stuff. For example, I looked up the lynching data that the Equal Justice Initiative recently released, and found that the EJI had not only their data, but links to several different websites that reported on their findings. To test Voyant out, I entered the URLs for the lynching report as well as several news stories from a variety of different media outlets, mainly liberal and conservative and U.S.-based and foreign (though all English language). Voyant returned a fascinating analysis of the words used by the news stories as compared to the original report, tracking and comparing frequency of language usage. Though my little project didn’t constitute a hugely comprehensive analysis on how the news media reports on a really atrocious piece of American history, it did demonstrate how useful a tool like Voyant is to humanities scholars.

The analysis of news reports on the EJI's findings
The analysis of news reports on the EJI’s findings

I have to say, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities open to historians who aren’t afraid to explore digital resources and look for rabbits where their colleagues are seeing ducks. Tools like Voyant offer a paradigm shift that’s badly needed if historians want to stay (become?) relevant to this brave new world where previously unimaginable loads of data are available to almost anyone with an Internet connection and enough spare time. Truth is, we need historians to get on board, as they have the training and skills to really do something beautiful using digital technologies. So come on, historians: let’s hunt some rabbits.

The Future Has Arrived

In these first months of 2015, many of us are reflecting on just how much the world has changed since the turn of the twenty-first century. Strangely, even though it’s here, 2015 still seems like the future, a place where we might someday zoom around on hovercrafts and interact with holograms and live in smart houses that can cater to our every whim. Although our hovercrafts, holograms, and smart houses aren’t quite ready for mass consumption, I’ve still found 2015 to be a pleasant surprise. We have unprecedented access to one another through the Internet and our smart devices, 3-D printers that can print food and scanners that can reconstruct pyramids, geospatial and mapping technologies used for much more that getting from A to B, and a host of other really cool tech. Best of all, we have a culture of collaboration, innovation, and excitement in using these new, futuristic technologies to study and share the past.

From Colonial Williamsburg’s exquisite site packed with interactive features that teach visitors about early America to a Twitter account that posts events from World War I in real time one hundred years later, all manner of public historians use digital tools to do history in unique ways. Luckily for the field of public history, digital humanities scholars and developers are constantly collaborating to create new tools that allow historians to do their work better.

One of these tools, Historypin, is one of many sites and apps that rely on crowd-sourcing content and information to create collections, tours, and stories that document the history of communities around the world. Historypin is a project of nonprofit company Shift in collaboration with Google. The basic premise of the site is that users “pin” images, video, or audio to locations using Google Maps. Historypin approaches digital public history from a very egalitarian perspective: anyone can create an account and start pinning to create collections and tours. It took me less than a minute to register using my existing Google account.

While I’m instinctively drawn to Historypin’s ease of use and intuitive structure, those very features also cause concern. It’s an interesting case study of the pros and cons of collaborative digital history, as well as for the theoretical debate between history and memory. Ultimately, a resource like Historypin raises questions of what public history is and who can be a historian. As Cohen and Rozenweig write in Digital History, one must evaluate digital tools as a “techno-realist” and learn to maximize the advantages of these resources while minimizing the disadvantages.

Historypin’s advantages are fairly obvious: it’s free, it’s easy to use and connect to one’s existing web site, it’s cross-platform and easily accessible using mobile devices, the features are built with the needs of public history institutions in mind, and it allows for almost limitless collaboration and sharing with one’s user base. Institutions and individual users can do anything from posting a few interesting images with captions to creating elaborate tours with image, audio, and video content. Multiple parties can collaborate to create collections based on common historical themes, time periods, or locations.

However, some of these advantages can also turn into disadvantages. Free, open, and easy to use means anyone can use this resource, not just established historians and cultural institutions. While Historypin maintains a content management team and actively moderates the site’s content, it’s practically impossible for the moderators to keep every bit of content one hundred percent relevant, factually correct, or copyright-compliant all of the time. (This issue is, of course, not limited to Historypin; any time content is placed online there is some risk it can be used inappropriately, and any time a site is open and user driven there is a chance irrelevant or inappropriate content will be posted.)

As crowd-sourced and collaborative history projects continue to grow in popularity, public historians and developers alike will need to keep evaluating digital resources and their problems and possibilities. Accessibility, flexibility, and interactivity, while allowing for unprecedented access to historical resources, will also constantly test the boundaries of historical professionalism and influence. Quality and authenticity become major issues that don’t have easy solutions. The future has arrived, and with it come new opportunities as well as challenges for public historians.