Ian Milligan

History is Always About Context (or why a history degree equips you to understand the context of a tweet)

A BOMARC missile (public domain image)

It would be “fantastic news,” wrote the New Leftist leader in 1962, if the nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles – potentially housed in Canada– could be re-directed by the Soviet Union after launch to destroy their own bases. I read these documents in the McMaster University archives while writing an MA course paper in 2006 (which would later grow into my first book).

This nuclear-missile letter helped me to understand the context of the New Left, as well as the cultural divide that was manifesting itself between New Leftists and mainstream Canadian progressive politics.

What if that missile quip had been a tweet? A college student tweeting something like that today could quickly become the focus of an outrage campaign. But how could a historian make sense of something like that in the future?

Generated using PrankMeNot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this during the latest “dig-up-old-tweets-to-take-them-out-of-context” scandal, where The Verge’s (soon to be part of the New York Times editorial board) Sarah Jeong saw tweets from 2013 and 2014 used as part of an alt-right campaign to discredit her. I’m probably not the only person to have thought about the hidden treasures sitting in my own Twitter timeline, and wondered about how they might be misinterpreted by others – say, a historian in the future, using social media as a historical source.

Nick Ruest and I wrote an article in 2016 about Twitter, both adding to the conversation around Twitter as a historical source as well as providing technical details on how we mined and analyzed the content. We were pretty bullish on the great things it might offer: “Consider what the scale of this dataset means. Social and cultural historians will have access to the thoughts, behaviours, and activities of everyday people, the sorts of which are not generally preserved in the record.”

So how will historians use Twitter? Some timelines might be deleted, but I suspect the vast majority of us will carry on and not delete our histories.

Good historians will continue to understand the context that shapes the documents that they read, whether they are archival documents from 1962 or tweets from 2018.

Consider my former graduate student self, researching the Canadian New Left. I could have jumped on the table (well, not really) and began to shout about my outrage. I’d just “discovered”[*] evidence that a prominent Canadian New Leftist was overjoyed at the prospect that North Bay, Ontario could have been obliterated in a nuclear attack.

Why didn’t I? First, that document I read in 1962 was written in a particular historical context: mutually assured destruction, trying out outrageous ideas, a private letter between two comrades, an ongoing debate about Canada accepting nuclear weapons on its territory, and more generally attempts to figure out the place of youth in this new world on the brink. Second, the creator itself – relatively young, also trying out new ideas, in a climate where as I noted above, ideas are flying around quickly. I made the right call, and I’m certain almost every single professional historian would go through a similar thought process when exploring these documents (even if they might come to different conclusions than I). A good historian doesn’t look for “gotchas,” but rather instinctually contextualizes documents in terms of both who wrote them but also the environment, culture, and beyond that they were produced in.

I think that’s kind of reassuring. If a historian in 2035 decides to look at my timeline from 2011 and sees tweets about the “Stuff White People Like” website, they’ll hopefully look at the context. What might my timeline have looked like? What else was happening on Twitter? What URLs were I linking to? And they won’t collapse the context around the tweet.

It also makes a case for historical education. Historians get context. We get nuance, complexity, messiness, etc. What better skillset for working with these new digital sources?

[*]And yes, I “discovered” that document in a box that was clearly marked “correspondence.” 😉