One of my latest adventures in the Digital Humanities seminar I’m taking this semester is to look at and reflect on a digital humanities project that is germane to my own work. Since my current work focuses mainly on Twitter, I was impressed by Kenya-Tweet, a project by graduate student Brian Geyer that came out of MSU’s Matrix lab and Cultural Heritage Informatics graduate fellowship.
Because Kenya-Tweet is not currently working, I’m drawing my knowledge of the project not just from the project’s official website (which has just enough documentation to be helpful), but also an email exchange with Brian, and the YouTube video I’ve posted below, which is a presentation he made about Kenya-Tweet. I’ll let the (short) video introduce the project:
With that background in mind, it’s time to ask some questions about the project:
What are Kenya-Tweet’s strengths and weaknesses?
I think that the strengths and weaknesses of this project are not only very complementary to each other but also representative of one of the big struggles in DH (at least, as I understand it). On one hand, Kenya-Tweet has a really high “cool factor.” It’s an amazing combination of technologies that represents data in a really compelling way, and I think that the methods used to create Kenya-Tweet could easily be applied to many different sets of Twitter data of interest for DH researchers. However, this breadth is also one of the weaknesses of the project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the digital humanities, it’s that both of those words are important. While there’s a clear digital cool factor here, I’m not sure I see a compelling humanist question at its core. The ease with which this could be applied to another set of Twitter data without losing much of its impact seems to be an important weakness.
What assumptions does the Kenya-Tweet project make?
In my mind, the first assumption made by Kenya-Tweet is that displaying tweets geotagged as being in Kenya is an effective way of representing Twitter activity in Kenya. My experience with geotagged tweets suggests that this may be wildly underrepresenting Twitter activity in Kenya, and I think that’s important to communicate to people viewing the project.
There’s another big assumption in here, and that’s that public tweets are truly public (i.e, that those composing these tweets would have no objection to having them being publicly displayed in a research project like this). As the Association of Internet Researchers (among others) has pointed out, the notions of public and private get mighty tricky once the Internet gets involved. Kenya-Tweet isn’t necessarily showing unethical behavior, but there are some assumptions at play here that other researchers might challenge.
What is Kenya-Tweet’s primary audience?
The primary audience for this project is surprisingly multi-layered. On one hand, it could be considered to be an audience of one, since Brian suggests that he’s doing this project in part for himself as a proof of concept. However, he also suggests that his original conception of Kenya-Tweet was as an “applied anthropology” project meant to help safari drivers in Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. That original conception didn’t work out, though, and Brian suggests in his presentation that he was hoping to find a way to make this applicable for researchers (even if he didn’t know exactly how he was going to do so).
How easy is it to use Kenya-Tweet?
Very. Granted, this is partly based on guesswork, since the project isn’t currently functioning and I’m making some assumptions based on the video, but I still feel pretty confident about this. The website is bare-bones and minimalist, but it’s meant to be that way—it even looks like it employs responsive design so that it can be easily used from a phone or tablet without too many problems. However, Kenya-Tweet’s ease of use feels related to its unclear humanist focus. It’s easy to look at “live tweeting” from Kenya, and even easy to be impressed by it, but if there were something to do beyond that, I imagine that it would be harder to do.
How does Kenya-Tweet connect to other work, either in DH or in its disciplinary field?
I get the sense that Kenya-Tweet’s connections with other work is mostly on a methodological level. I know that other DH Researchers at MSU (for example, Dr. Liza Potts and Kristen Mapes) have used TAGS (the enhanced Google Sheet that provides tweet information for Kenya-Tweet), and that Dr. Ethan Watrall has used some of the same mapping software to create an atlas in one of his archaeology classes.
What does Kenya-Tweet contribute to the larger body of knowledge in its disciplinary field? In the interdisciplinary field of digital humanities?
I think the biggest contribution that Kenya-Tweet makes to both digital archaeology and digital humanities is an invitation: How could archaeologists—and humanists more broadly—use these methods to answer important questions in our fields? Even if this project is (currently) more digital than humanities, it is a really, really compelling use of the digital, and I think it’s worth figuring out how to bring the humanities back into it.
Could I see using Kenya-Tweets as a model in my own work?
Absolutely. Kenya-Tweet is exactly the sort of DH project that I needed to shape my thinking about what I could produce on my own. On a very basic level, it’s helping me transition to thinking about projects rather than articles‐while I’ve toyed with a couple of ideas of how I could archive or represent some of the Twitter data I’ve studied, I’ve never let any of those thoughts come anywhere near fruition. The first thing that Kenya-Tweet is helping me do is to consider what researchers and (especially?) practitioners in my field could gain from a DH-style representation of educational Twitter data.
That said, I know that to do so effectively, I’ll have to respond to the invitation that I left myself responding to the last question. What important question(s) would “live-mapping” the tweets I study solve? Or could I remove the “live” part and still gain something from an interactive map that captures a slice of teachers’ (or Mormons‘) tweets over a certain period of time?
I think there are questions out there, but—like Brian—I don’t entirely know what they are. So, onward and upward! Time to start brainstorming what I could accomplish if I were to adapt Kenya-Tweets for my own work.