In the last 10 years, the fields of digital history and social history have exhibited explosive parallel growth as significant fields of historical study, largely in part to the growing influence of the internet. With social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, historians now have the digital tools to record social histories like never before. Following the occurrence of an important historical event, millions of responses are instantly posted to the internet, allowing historians to gauge a cultural or social reaction to an event that has never been previously possible. Furthermore, with sites like Youtube or Ustream, people can post videos live to the internet as events transpire, giving us the chance to witness historical events secondhand through the eyes of those that film them. It becomes important than, given the noise generated by the sheer volume of internet communications for Historians to develop the skills to sift through the mountain of superfluous information, and get to the meat of the topic or event they are researching. This becomes even more urgent when the issue of server life is considered. Large amounts of information are stored on servers for extended periods of time, but they are not kept around forever. Unlike physical sources, which persist regardless of their relevance at any given time, the ephemeral nature of sever storage means that once a server goes down, the information it contains is likely lost forever. This creates an impetus on historians to find and curate important digital and social sources responding to an event before the information they need becomes difficult or impossible to find. This was particularly true following the events of September 11, 2001, which shocked the nation, and changed life in the country forever. Given that the internet was just emerging as the place for cultural exchange, and social media was not yet in full swing, finding and saving information detailing the reaction to the attack was more difficult than it would be now. Understanding the incredible tools becoming available to document the social and cultural history of the world, Historians made a focused effort to find and save important sources that reacted to the event, such as newspapers, blogs, and forums. This became known as the September 11th Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org/) which chronicles the response of the world to perhaps the most significant terrorism attacks in modern history. Additionally, historians have used the site to record the accounts of eyewitnesses of the event, making even more valuable information available to future generations.
The events set underway by the acts of September 11th have had a profound impact on the United States as well as the rest of the world. Widespread changes have been enacted as to how security and intelligence are operated, an multiple wars have been fought due to the events of one single day. Cataloging the responses individuals to that day was an extremely important undertaking which will prove useful to historians researching the event for decades to come. Years later, with the rise of social media, digital history has become even more pervasive and accessible. Twitter has has both an active role in the active in its use as a historical actor and as a catalog of the responses of millions of people to an event. Following the events of September 11th, Osama Bin Laden become the number 1 enemy of the United States. Following a manhunt that stretched countries and decades, in 2011 the United States of America was able to locate and eliminate Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Despite the highly clandestine nature of the mission, and its execution in the dark of night, it did not go unnoticed. One of Bin Laden’s unknowing neighbors, hearing a commotion in the night, actually live tweeted the raid from his home without realizing. Reporting the noise and gunfire he was hearing, the individual went from relative obscurity to world famous overnight.
This shows the relevance of Twitter as a historical platform, as one individual was able to tweet a major world event, an act which was reported on by news agency around the globe. From now on, the casual postings of a previously anonymous twitter user will forever be linked with the most significant missions to eliminate a terrorist to date. Even more recently, cultural uprisings in countries like Egypt or Lebanon of been cataloged on twitter. Oppressed peoples have used it as a tool to not only organize in ways that governments can’t prevent, but in to inform the world around them of what is happening, so that injustice and mistreatment can’t be swept under the rug by despotic leader. During the revolution in Libya, rebels even used twitter to help coordinate airstrikes with NATO. This makes sites like twitter not only catalogs of social history, but at times an active agent in shaping it.
This is an incredible development for historians in the cataloging of history. Now, instead of gathering sources ancillary to an event, historian at times will be able to follow events exactly as they happened, thereby granting them unprecedented access to historical information. Additionally, through studying the use of twitter as a social an political tool, Historians will be able to learn a tremendous amount about how these movements work, where previously their isolated nature may have prevented such study. The application of twitter as an agent of social change, compared with the ease of accessing information relevant to the process, will continue to keep twitter relevant for years to come. Another important aspect of social media than just the tracking of responses to a tragedy or in social movements, is helping to catalog events in which a nation s particularly divisive. Recent events in Ferguson Missouri have become a hotbed issue across the nation, with people vehemently disagreeing with one another and speculating on the guilt of Officer Darren Wilson.
With such a divisive issue dominating national headlines, twitter becomes an important source for recording the varying opinions of the general public. People argued non stop about the issue, and following the decision by a grand jury not to indict, twitter ignited with positive and negative responses to the decision. This sparked outrage by some, and sparked rioting in Ferguson and other cities across the nation. Seeing these events unfold, many individuals rushed to the scene, and recorded or live streamed events on the ground as they happened.
This live recording of the event was an unprecedented documenting of a major event. Never before have events been recorded this extensively, and it is hugely significant for historical study. Access to multiple personal recordings of an event, largely free of institutional bias, is extraordinary in the context of historical study. This will allow historians studying the event to understand it to a degree that has not been possible in the past, as they will be able to watch it and peoples reactions unfold simultaneously. In the increasingly digital age, we’ve seen the rise of social media as a huge influence in our daily lives. While some resist its popularity, it has undoubtedly become a large part of social culture. Because these sites exist in the online realm, they have unlocked incredible new avenues in the pursuit of social history. From the reactions of the general public, to primary source evidence, to live interaction, online resources are becoming increasingly relevant to modern history. As they grow more pervasive, the internet is going to be an absolutely dominate force in the study of both social and digital history, much to the benefit of Historians and students alike.