Category Archives: Viral Texts

Passing on the Scissors and the Quill

Faithful readers of this blog (all one of you) will notice that I haven’t posted in almost a year. It’s not that I’ve had nothing interesting to say, but rather that I’ve been too busy with those interesting things to write about them for the blog. Here’s a brief rundown.

In the summer of 2014, my family moved to Fairfax, VA, when my husband was hired by George Mason University. For the 2014-2015 school year, I commuted to Boston from Virginia almost every week so I could finish my coursework at Northeastern University. In August 2015, I passed my comprehensive exams and defended my dissertation proposal, officially becoming a PhD candidate. For the past year, I’ve been researching and writing my dissertation, as well as continuing to work on the Viral Texts project.

The Viral Texts project has been part of my graduate-school experience almost since the beginning. I joined the project as part of the inaugural group of NULab fellows in the spring of 2013. I remember sitting around a table with the other fellows, hearing about all the different projects we might be assigned to, and thinking, “I really hope the spots for that newspaper project don’t fill up before I get to choose.” Thankfully, they didn’t. The NULab fellows’ role has changed since then, but I’ve always been able to stay attached to the project, and I’m so grateful.

Over the past three years, I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff with Viral Texts. I’ve taught myself R, Python, a little Ruby on Rails, and a little JavaScript. I’ve read enough 19th-century newspapers that some of their editors feel a little like friends. I’ve made maps, graphs, networks, and a host of other things. I’ve seen our data grow from a few hundred newspapers in a handful of American states, to periodicals on three continents and in multiple languages. I’ve written an article on fugitive texts with Ryan Cordell (forthcoming in American Periodicals). I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades, though perhaps a master of none.

Viral Texts is one of the defining pieces of my graduate school experience. It shaped my understanding of digital humanities, and it stretched me to work in multiple disciplines. It taught me how to work with a team while keeping my individuality. And I learned an awful lot about how nineteenth-century newspapers work.

And now, in true Viral Texts fashion, it’s time for me to pass on the scissors and the quill. Starting in May, I’ll be joining the research division at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I’ll be working with PressForward, Zotero, and mostly Tropy, CHNM’s new Mellon-funded project for archiving and organizing photos. I’m particularly excited about working with Tropy, though I’m a little bummed that my dissertation will (I hope) be close to complete before Tropy is ready for the big time. :)

The projects and tools at CHNM were my first encounter with digital humanities, even before I wanted to embrace the digital in my own work. Throughout my graduate career, I’ve benefited greatly from Zotero and Omeka and other amazing work at the center, and I’m looking forward to helping develop other great tools for myself and others to use.

In joining CHNM and departing Viral Texts, I take these words from the valedictory editorial of Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer: “I cannot close this hasty valedictory, without again expressing the sentiments of gratitude and affection with which I am so profoundly penetrated.” So to everyone on the team—Ryan, David, and Fitz in particular—thanks. It’s been great.

On Newspapers and Being Human

Last week, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times, arguing that the advent of algorithmically derived human-readable content may be destroying our humanity, as the lines between technology and humanity blur. A particular target in this article is the advent of “robo-journalism,” or the use of algorithms to write copy for the news. 1 The author cites a study that alleges that “90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention.” The obvious rebuttal to this statement is that algorithms are written by real human beings, which means that there are human interventions in every piece of algorithmically derived text. But statements like these also imply an individualism that simply does not match the historical tradition of how newspapers are created. 2

In the nineteenth century, algorithms didn’t write texts, but neither did each newspaper’s staff write its own copy with personal attention to each article. Instead, newspapers borrowed texts from each other—no one would ever have expected individualized copy for news stories. 3 Newspapers were amalgams of texts from a variety of sources, cobbled together by editors who did more with scissors than with a pen (and they often described themselves this way). Continue reading On Newspapers and Being Human

Notes:

  1. The article also decries other types of algorithmically derived texts, but the case for computer-generated creative fiction or poetry is fairly well argued by people such as Mark Sample, and is not an argument that I have anything new to add to.
  2. This post is based on my research for the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University.
  3. In 1844, the New York Daily Tribune published a humorous story illustrating exactly the opposite, in fact—some readers preferred a less human touch.