YouTube Time Machine

The post from last semester, “Bringing Historical Order to YouTube,” focuses on a website designed to bring together the emotional and nostalgic feelings of a given year through a collection of YouTube videos. is a fairly user friendly website that allows a visitor to pick a date, from 1860 to 2012, and the site will generate a playlist of videos (with recent years numbering in the thousands of videos) in the categories of Video Games, Television, Commercials, Sports, Current Events, Movies, and Music. Chronology of the videos is dependent on content rather than upload dates, differing it from YouTube itself.  In the words of site founders, the site was intended to make the user feel like they had traveled back to a certain year, to feel for example “it was 1996…the feeling of being in 1996…the intangibles of that year” without “getting bogged down in the specifics and having to make CHOICES…”  The site promises to give you a flavor of a given year, and for the later half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, the site delivers.

The original poster, Tom, commented that as a tool for the collection of public memory successfully hits the nail on the head.  However, he ends the post with a question: “What other ways could be used as a historic tool?”  The commenters reacted fairly positively to the site, with Ethan Klapper going as far to say that “Quite honestly, a trip to should be required for any historian studying one of the periods covered on the site. Not to look for something specifically, but as a sort of cultural immersion.” Tracie Peterson agreed that “ certainly has the potential to become a useful historical tool.”

Personally, I have deep reservations that it should be “required” for historians studying anything from the Civil War forward to visit the site.  Perhaps just an off-handed comment, it fails to understand what I believe is YouTube Time Machine’s proper role in the field of digital history.  As a site for collective memory, I think is great. I also think it can be very useful for amateur historians, or even more usefully as a teaching tool for middle school and high school students.  Even in a college 101 history course, the website would serve as a great jumping off point for studying the 20th century.  It’s fun, interactive, and transmits information in a method (YouTube videos!) with which most students are already very familiar.   Most importantly, it takes the boring textbook out of history.

That being said, professional level historians, whether on a graduate or post-doctorat level, most likely know more about their given time period that yttm could possibly hope to teach them.  It’s great for nostalgia, and perhaps an individual’s personal interaction with history, but I fail to see any historian genuinely citing the website.  Even if some one did find something of note on here, they would most likely go back to the original source of the video (whatever archive or collection said material came from) to more accurately analyze the source.  Another original commenter brought up the issue of videos that contain content from different periods.  For example, there’s a Charlie Chaplin video that was edited to include music from The Cure.  As the author of the post stated “you’re talking about footage that was shot sometime in the first quarter of the twentieth century, music that was made in the 1980s, and that was edited together sometime in the first decade of the twenty-first.”  Categorization on the website doesn’t appear to be concerned with the potential historical dilemma such a video creates.

Overall the website is fun.  Who wouldn’t marvel at using a 2011 MacBook Air to watch a 1984 Apple commercial for the Apple IIC?  (And the number of stacks of 5 inch floppy disks it could store…)  That alone brought back memories of the giant Apple computer that dominated the back of my second grade classroom!   Hands down it could be utilized in a middle school or high school classroom for a great interactive lesson and/or project.  As a serious analytical tool for history research?  I have too many doubts.  I don’t see what the website could bring to the table that could not be more authoritatively proven via journal articles, books, and the primary source materials from their original collections.    What are your thoughts?

Kirschenbaum’s “What is Digital Humanities . . . “

Out of curiosity, was anyone else disappointed with Kirschenbaum’s article?  I felt like the article left me with more questions than answers, and not in a good way; indeed, I felt more frustrated than intellectually challenged after reading his work.  In a nut shell, Kirschenbaum traces the growth of “digital humanities” as an area of scholarly study since the late ’80s and shows how it has gained credence as a legitimate topic for serious intellectuals to both analyze and participate in themselves.  Ultimately, Kirschenbaum defines “digital humanities” as “. . . a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online.” (p. 60).  I appreciate that his definition is fairly precise, but in the end I think it fails to adequately answer the “so what” question:  why should we study digital humanities in the first place?  What makes it “special” or worthwhile?

To me, at its most basic level, “digital humanities” simply refers to the digitization of scholarship, or the uploading of academic writing, research and evidence onto the world wide web.  The most obvious benefit of such scholarship, as Kirschenbaum aptly notes, is that uploading scholarship onto the Internet allows researchers’ ideas and writings to spread to a much wider audience than could be attained through printed academic journals or other traditional forms of scholarly communication.  In theory, this wider audience can advance scholarship by bringing more people into a certain debate and adding more ideas to the discussion.  However, Kirschenbaum leaves me wondering if there are other benefits to digitizing scholarship.  If so, what are they?  What are the downsides?  What makes digital humanities complex and worthy of debate?  How is it more than the simple uploading of material onto the Internet?  For me, Kirschenbaum failed to adequately answer these questions and his inability to do so is a source of consternation.

I did enjoy how the author detailed the development of different organizations devoted to the study of digital humanities.  It surprised me a little to discover that the digital humanities have been around since the 1980s.  The article also led me to wonder where the study of the digital humanities is headed.  What new questions are scholars debating within the discipline?  How will new technologies continue to change the ways we think and learn?  If nothing else, I think Kirschenbaum did a good job of provoking readers into considering these questions, as well as others.  Hopefully, most other readers were just not as frustrated by this article as I was.



5 Project Ideas from Caitlin Miller

1.)    An analysis of amateur historical event movies that people post on youtube; would probably have to narrow to a specific event.

2.)    A study of how quickly inaccurate historical data is edited on Wikipedia, with attention paid to what types of information and types of articles are policed more rapidly.

3.)    Something involving historypin and American University Archives collections.

4.)     An analysis of certain word groupings and their frequency of use over time on google Ngrams.

5.)     Last and my favorite thus far: Write a blog that helps the non history-major recognize historical data through visual cues.   For example, a series of posts could focus on how to date a building based on architectural features.  Another could focus on dating a movie or portrait by costuming choices.

The Promise in “Shakespeare by the Numbers”

The works of Shakespeare have been performed, studied, and marveled over for long enough that you might think it impossible for scholars to find anything new to say about them.  “Shakespeare by the Numbers:  On the Linguistic Texture of the Late Plays” however, is proof that, at worst, modern software applications give scholars new ways to validate old ideas, and at best, give scholars entirely new ways to generate meaning from well-known sources.

In this article, Michael Witmore and Jonathan Hope describe how the textual analysis software “Docuscope” was used to test the theory long-held by Shakespeare scholars that the Bard’s late plays are in some way stylistically different from his earlier tragedies, comedies and histories-constituting a coherent genre unto themselves.   To quote Witmore and Hope, this type of analysis “calls attention to a heretofore invisible set of dramaturgical strategies at work in the late plays, strategies that mobilize language so consistently and on such a pervasive verbal level that their effects have gone unnoticed by more traditional genre criticism.”[1]

Docuscope works by first categorizing word sequences in the text of Shakespeare’s plays into distinct groupings that begin with three broad clusters, narrow to families, and finally to distinct and specific “Language Action Types”.  Docuscope then compares the relative frequency of these word-pattern usages to their frequencies in other genres, providing insight into the specific language choices Shakespeare made that differentiate genres.  Using this tool, Witmore and Hope are able to perceive patterns of evidence that are nearly impossible to notice without assistance.

Docuscope helped Witmore and Hope discover that the late plays do indeed share distinct language choices that also differentiate them from earlier tragedies, comedies and histories.  More meaningfully, the features that Docuscope highlighted provide insight into what thematic choices Shakespeare focused on in the late plays; as a group “they make way for inner life and revelation through memory and recognition …they subordinate the declaration of actions present and past to the stillness of judgment.”[2]

Never fear, if Shakespeare or scholarly articles aren’t your bag, the radio show/podcast RadioLab featured a similar type of inquiry in May, 2010.  In the short titled: “Vanishing Words” Dr. Ian Lancashire describes his computer-based textual analysis of Agatha Christie’s works.  In a startling conclusion, Lancashire provides evidence that Christie was suffering from Alzheimer’s later in life, as her 73rd book displays a loss of a fifth of her vocabulary, along with other clues.  This story runs from 2:11-8:28, but the episode goes on to discuss the possibility of recognizing these diagnostic clues much earlier in life; it’s extremely interesting, I highly recommend it, anyway…

Here’s the punchline:  “Vanishing Words” and “Shakespeare by the Numbers” share a promise of possibility for scholars.  Text-analysis software, when programmed to answer historical questions, can uncover hidden meaning in long-studied sources that goes beyond the comprehension ability of a single mind.  As Witmore and Hope put it: “Docuscope may prove instructive to future scholars who want to understand the usefulness of ‘counting things’ in humanistic inquiry- quantity being perhaps one of the last concepts in the humanities which has not come in for rigorous theorization.”[3]

Furthermore, this type of software can augment the capabilities of scholars in an age that will shortly sorely need it, as the same technological capabilities that make it possible to search a corpus for meaning are also allowing for the creation of ever-widening corpuses in a digital age.

[1] P. 136

[2] P. 151

[3] P. 151

Project Ideas

For my project, I’m considering condensing Watergate-related primary source material into one educational website.  Out of all the websites devoted to Watergate, I haven’t found any that simultaneously concentrate on primary source evidence from the scandal and offer a scholarly analysis of the break-in and its wider ramifications.  On a completely different note, it would also be interesting to complete a project related to history and video games but I am not sure as to exactly what that project would look like.