Digital Dickens Goes Forth

Apologies for the Droodian ending of the previous post. But no fear, the story continues here of DD-day (that’s Digital Dickens Day). If you missed part one you can find that on Dickens goes Digital. I broke off rather rudely before introducing the final pre-lunch session featuring Jane van de Ban and Xavier Inverarity both from Birkbeck College (University of London) and tech wizzes on all things social media. They graciously opened their session with the following words of encouragement, “there are no experts, just people who’ve been doing it longer than others.”

The internet can be a big scary place and the expert advice they provided was well received by all those tech-literate and those concerned about the difference between a hashtag and a Twitter handle. Contrary to popular belief a hashtag shares no similarities at all with the staple object of a full English (the hash brown) nor does a Twitter handle remotely resemble a door handle. Disappointing I know! For those still baffled with these new-fangled terms, for hashtag think number aka # and for Twitter handle think at, or email addresses, that’s an @. Basically the main difference is a hashtag is aimed at larger numbers of people (I really want this to be the reason that the number symbol was picked but sense it’s not) like with #digitaldickens. A simple search of #digitaldickens pulls up anything relating to that subject as well as a big collection of pre-, live, and retrospective tweets about Digital Dickens Day. But the @ is a lot more specific. A kind of “hey you! Yes I’m looking @you”. A ready made example for us to get a handle on this is the new @Dickens_Day account, though Johnny Depp seemed a more popular example yesterday (I blame his role as Sweeny Todd, given the Victorianist audience..). Essentially if you want to tweet about someone or something that happens to have a handy Twitter account the @ allows you to do this. Anything from “Just chillin’ at @Dickens_Day” to “@Dickens_Day is happening today”, well you get the picture, hopefully. If not consult someone much more tech savvy (or even the OED can tell you what a hashtag is now) and they’ll give you a proper lowdown.

Back to the techy advisors. The panel then treated us to a brief video (which you can check out here) on the importance of social media. I think the statistics which struck me most was the world populations screen, ranking number one was of course China, swiftly followed at position three by Facebook (yes that’s bigger than the USA which comes in at number six), with Twitter clocking in at number ten. The point being that social media, whichever platform is a huge facility at our disposal and well worth using, not just to time-waste (we’ve all sat scrolling meaninglessly through our news feed or home but these resources can be so much more than this), but to promote, engage and excite. We no longer have to imagine the possibility of reaching people across the world; the power is only a tweet, click or share away. More than this, imagine being a citizen of a country as big as China.. Well Facebook is pretty close, and Twitter is fast catching up. From an academic as well as a business perspective this is exciting stuff. Free platforms available to point people to my research, yes please we cry! It’s like a funding committee saying yes, we love the concept, we want to send it off to every country in the world, create a series of digital networks for you to talk to people about it all, let you send photos and that will cost you £0,000 please, payable by time transfer. It’s like we’re Frodo and someone has already destroyed the ring(fencing) for us. But if only it were that simple. Of course nothing is free sure accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ won’t cost you anything financially they are massive time-leeches and social media isn’t the only way to stick your stuff online of course. But more on this later from the afternoon panels. Social media was the focus of this bit.

Jane and Xavier told us a bit about each platform Twitter and Facebook were the main focus though there was talk of Google+ too, an emerging platform (with 500 million active users at the moment. Much more popular in the states than the UK at present but a presence on there was also recommended), LinkedIn and Academia.edu also paid a fleeting visit. The question is, where is the conversation happening on social media? And if it isn’t, why not?

We then got nitty gritty with ways to gain better audiences outlined, including the use of sites like bitly where you can shorten those long winded links – especially useful when every character counts (no this isn’t just in books, Twitter too is character based – perhaps this was the real inspiration for the Our Mutual Friend Twitter project..) Yes all 140 of them.

As an aside, Twitter seems split on the Dickens-140 character business. Ranging from articles like this which literally summarise each Dickens novel in a tweet, and those ironising Dickens’s apparent lack of concision

To those who take great delight in the pun potential of character..

But more on Dickens and Twitter-as-writing-platform follows in the write up of afternoon panel number one.

In the closing remarks of the social media experts (Jane and Xavier) it was noted that there are key differences in the way social media is used across the globe and so multiple platforms are needed to reach wider audiences. Whilst more academics in the UK opt for Twitter, Facebook is more popular in the US. Facebook also (with it’s limitless characters – much more akin to Dickens I think) allows you to provide more information. But this comes with a warning. On mobile devices people only read a fraction of a post, so like any good book stick a killer sentence at the top of the post and they’ll read on, and always always put the link at the top. Posts with pictures get twice as many hits too, bit like picture books really children see a picture and then engage with the text, as long as you’ve got a reader engaged then there’s a chance they’ll read your all-important post. Surely the presence of pictures in Dickens’s books suggest he knew this too, and more recently the Drood Inquiry with its illustrations (by Alys Jones) to accompany each month’s instalment has also latched onto this. Definitely food for thought.

And with that, after a brief lunch interlude we launched into the afternoon sessions.

Panel one of the afternoon was titled Digital Dickens: Serial reading, Blogging, Tweeting, Inquiries, and Beyond. Perhaps appropriately very futuristic sounding (though I must admit when I first read it all I could picture was a slightly politically programmed Buzz Lightyear saying “to the Leveson Inquiry and beyond!”).

There does seem to be infinite possibilities to the digital world especially for community projects as well as individual research, so maybe Buzz Lightyear wasn’t as stupid as I first thought, maybe he should even be a hero of digital research projects. Not so much the pushing the old out for the new (Buzz’s first approach) but the uniting of old and new in a new relationship that at least the first Toy Story ends with. Like Buzz who has to realise he’s not really on a space mission “to infinity and beyond” we have to realise that though infinite in potential the digital platforms for projects need to stay grounded in the here and now. Realise what they’re really here for. Buzz has to be helped by the bigger more experienced figures in the story, especially Woody and occasionally even Andy, I suppose the equivalent is in reality that’s both the online platforms and the online communities we build and foster. But also I think can be extended to those who really know what they’re talking about and are the leading voices in this domain. So for this panel we were joined by our very own Woody, Rex and Slinky Dog.. Sorry, I mean digital Dickens experts.

Here they are..

First up was Emma Curry (Birkbeck, University of London) who talked to us about the Our Mutual Friend read-along and her character tweets project. Essentially her vision for the project was to get people thinking about the characters beyond the words Dickens gives us, to champion the marginalised and to get really stuck into the text more than your average read-along. I must admit since reading Twitterature, hearing about social media teaching devices and this project it’s definitely got me thinking about how something like tweeting like a character can be adapted for a classroom, book or research project. Imagine the difficulty of summarising an entire book in a series of tweets, but then get below that and imagine you are the character (Dickens’s paints such vivid pictures after all in his descriptions), what level of intimacy with a text could be better – and all through social media.

Those tweeting as a character were given rough guidelines by Emma (although as she said the project gained feet – yes even Silas – almost from the get go and became a much larger animal than might have been anticipated):

1. Cultivate a personality for the character

2. Initial tweets on the first of the month need to initially be plot based

3. You can’t interact with characters your character in the book doesn’t.

Emma suggested that the Twittersphere is much like the Dickensian world – forming random connections with seemingly unrelated people through its levelling and democratising nature. So these Twitter characters become interlaced with the world. Some have even commented on contemporary events (then and now), adding another level to text interaction. The project also allows marginalised characters to be reimagined, those plot strands seen as central to be reassessed (and so Dickens’s narrative choices), and gives a space to consider the aftermath of the action.

Different characters take different approaches via Twitter, ranging from re-enactment of Dickens and an attempt to adopt Dickensian characterisation in a few words, to adaptation and contemporary lang.

A few concerns about the project, great though it is, were mentioned by Emma:

  • Is Twitter true to the artificiality of serialised reading? Particularly given the way that activity tends to decrease as the month progresses, peaking in the first week of each instalment.
  • Is the project in essence true to Twitter? Is it true to serialised reading?
  • Does it draw us closer or move us further away from Dickens’s readers’ original experiences?

If the Our Mutual Friend characters haven’t invaded your Twitter yet then it’s high time they did. For a full list of characters check out Our Mutual Feed and the Our Mutual Friend Twitter account gives a lowdown of what’s hot in the world of OMF on a day to day basis. Emma is collating, complete with narrative, on a monthly basis in the spirit of a monthly serial, what’s happened in the OMF Twittersphere using a site called Storify. Here are the links to months onetwo and three.

I really liked her description of it as like a “huge interactive seminar” building on the idea that reading can be a collaborative community building experience especially on these Dickens digital read-alongs

From one read-along to another, next up was Pete Orford (University of Buckingham) talking about The Drood Inquiry and the public engagement question. He talked about the danger of institutionalising Public Engagement and it becoming a means to an end rather than an end in itself. He highlighted the merits of learning from the public who engage in projects, suggesting a move away from a culture of measuring public engagement for paperwork (the number of hits on a page can’t tell us everything you know. One hit might be an actively engaged reader whereas twelve random clicks as a searcher tries to find something – maybe even Drood – and then leaves the site might suggest better “engagement” statistically but they may have read little or nothing) and towards an attitude of, “what can the public teach me? How can I engage with them and get a conversation started rather than adopting a I know it all but please read my research I need the publicity approach.” Public engagement should enhance research. Imagine your research project was to destroy a deadly ring and you set off alone through gates, doors and MORe DOoRs, I don’t think Frodo would have got far without the help of fellow friends and those he picked up on the way. Research projects are a bit like that, try to write a book blundering through the process alone chances are no matter how great an author you are the final result could surely be enhanced with the help of others, it even makes you less invisible..

With this in mind Pete told us how Drood with its open ending encourages a dialogue, between author, reader and fellow readers, the Drood inquiry (which launches in September – the read-along with kicked off in March is a prequel, but without the Star Wars-style director changes) builds on the communal participation which characterises Dickens Journals Online (whose Marvel equivalent is Avengers Assemble) and the projects which emerged from it (the question is what Marvel does that make the Drood inquiry or Our Mutual Friend read-along?).

This is like Dickens who sought feedback throughout with public and private readings, getting away from the monologue approach to research and writing and making use of all the resources about, otherwise it’s a bit like writing in a library but refusing to check out any of the books. If you want feedback on your research you have to go public.

The unfinished nature of Drood has encouraged many and varying solutions the Drood Inquiry wants the public to say how they think it should end, inspired by the Leveson Inquiry Pete wanted the project to feature clues, evidence, witness statements and make use of the multimedia possibilities of the web so the website which you can check out here features mug shots of characters, sounds and school resources soon to follow, a cartoon summary of each month’s instalment – exploring different ways to engage the reader. The main site is accompanied by a blog with weekly posts about all things Drood to keep the momentum going.

As Pete made clear this involves a huge amount of work what with Drood on Twitter and Facebook as well as the main sites but whilst a huge time investment this helps open up research with a huge range of getting involved in the global conversation that digital platforms allow.

Last up on this panel was Claire Wood (whose presentation can be seen here) who talked to us about her project to compile an archive of the Dickens bicentenary activities and her thoughts on the way the digital age had shaped the bicentenary and the new types of participation it allowed, not just local now but global. But a word of caution, not everyone accesses the internet so digital approaches won’t reach everyone though it does have a democratic essence. The different approaches with functions such as like, share and favourite add another dimension to research and anniversaries alike. It encourages a much more connected atmosphere especially with free access to many resources including academic articles. Examples of how global Dickens became over the course of his bicentenary included the British Council Dickens read-a-thon featuring a live Twitter feed.

Claire also noted that there is a need to preserve digital projects, allowing them to be used in the future, with awareness that the internet is not permanent. She gave us some useful tips:

  • Include a disclaimer on your site if you want to publish comments etc.
  • Creative comments license can also come in handy
  • Self-archive and preserve content through resources like UK Web Archive
  • Save Facebook Groups as a pdf
  • Storify Twitter

The key emerging thought was that the internet is a good but different way to have a conversation and we have to bear this in mind.

And with that thought in mind, we geared up for the final panel: Digital Victorian Studies. First up was Clare Horrocks (Liverpool John Moores University) who spoke about Punch and Victorian periodicals and the difficulties of a mass digitisation project from academic and commercial angles. The digitisation of the Punch ledgers by both LJMU and Gale Cengage (due to launch in September 2014 and March 2015 respectively) has presented many challenges. Though the interlinking of projects allows their profiles to be raised, business and academic interests do differ.

Digitisation of the ledgers presented problems from standardisation of layout (which differs from volume to volume of Punch), to a move from handwritten to searchable organised data demonstrated the complexities this project entails. The decision to create two separate archives LMJU and Gale Cengage allows for different interests to be catered to. LMJU will include academic essays, biographies of Punch contributors and accompanying notes and will be a free resource, whereas the Gale Cengage site will include links to the articles and the cartoons (unlike LMJU). While there are definite merits to working with commercial market driven companies, the interests of academic digitisation projects can sometimes suffer at the hands of such funders. In order to avoid this Clare opted to establish two archives thus gearing to different audiences, and different uses of the same data.

Up next was Catherine Pope (University of Sussex) talking about digitisation of books and the way this can preserve and destroy books. There’s more than just Project Guttenburg you know. Many of these sites feature manuscripts as well as just plain text books, and are often led by or run in partnership with libraries.

Google Books with 30 million+ titles, full text search and its help in preservation of rare and out of print texts is not without its problems, from finger intrusion to major cases of copyright infringement.

Other sites run on a similar initiative exist like American Libraries with 3 million + books and Hathi Digital Library which holds 11 million volumes but with restrictions for access, anyone in the US can access any volume pre 1923, but non US visitors can only access any pre 1873 text.

Catherine shared with us the merits and problems of Project Guttenburg which holds 45,000+ items proof read by humans (not dogs) but built on popular volumes its resources tend to coalesce around better known authors and on the difficult question artefact vs. words Guttenburg has firmly placed its feet in the word camp. Sadly this means that marginalia (that’s writings that surround the text, annotations, letters, doodles – you name it) is lost. Also Guttenburg sometimes autocorrects text leading to amusing changes..

Books, after all, aren’t interchangeable with digital resources. They are two very different animals. How can we help? Catherine gave the following advice:

  1. Save Our Books! Buy books, especially second hand ones – who knows what treasure might lurk behind the dust jacket, if nothing else they’ll be the treasured words of the author..
  2. Upload interesting examples of texts and marginalia to one of the many available sites, and contribute to the archive of metadata

Last up was Lucy Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Mores University) who talked mainly about the Journal of Victorian Culture Online (JVCO) and her role as editor as well as the way the online magazine differed from the print published journal. She said that launching the journal on a digital platform encouraged a more connected community especially on a global level, so JVCO was about building this kind of community, but also exploring the world of research beyond the published world providing a virtual space for readers and contributors to meet and discuss beyond the academic ivory tower or a need for writers to sell their work.

It sounds like a friendly atmosphere, and JVCO have articles from across the academic spectrum (snobbery should be avoided at all costs, what’s to stop an article on being seen and not heard, the Victorian approach in a digital age (I joke but you get the idea). Although some have pushed for JVCO to become more “intellectualised,” Lucy suggested that this would limit its vision), I think the one that sounded most interesting to me was food related (living the workhouse diet) but maybe that’s because it was the final panel of the day..

But my stomach rumbling aside, the beauty of an online journal Lucy said was that it could be truly in sync with the web as researchers and readers converse in a truly public realm.

The bulk of the research published by JVCO tends to be based on digital stuff but also includes all kinds of research in progress. The articles online act almost as a test ground for the beginning of research (a bit like the premise behind the Drood inquiry) preceding formally published research. It allows again for public engagement, and let’s be honest there’s only so much talk of your research you can bore your relations with on Facebook or cram into 140 characters on Twitter. JVCO allows you to develop your voice and take ownership of your research in progress we were told, as well as allowing you to create new networks and build on fresh suggestions as you take part in a transnational dialogue. Great though social media is, there shouldn’t be an “The only way is Social Media” attitude – other digital platforms are crucial.

And with that the day began to draw to a close. Here are a few final thoughts before I wrap up this blog post, which in length might even give Dickens a run for his money:

  1. Digital presence is crucial no matter what your research, project, or initiative
  2. If you’re using digital platforms use them all: social media, blogs, websites, the lot.
  3. Digital projects allow greater dialogue from more voices if used properly and can complement your research
  4. Read-alongs and other such projects cultivate a community that Dickens would be proud of
  5. Digital resources and approaches should complement not replace physical ones
  6. Impact and engagement should not be figure or promotion driven but defined by excitement and interest
  7. Research should be a two-way dialogue

Of course there was much more to the day than those seven points as you hopefully have read in today’s and yesterday’s post. But just one final thing, if you’re not taking part in digital Dickens discussion or really any research discussions at all, why not? Tweet, Facebook, blog, article-write whatever takes your fancy. Read digitised content or read anything at all! Get engaged and get involved, and if you already are great! Give yourself a big pat on the back, and think about how you can get others engaged.

Pete shared a story at the end of his talk about a student who’d got on board with the Drood Inquiry and got excited, he ended the tale with: “I made a teenager talk about Drood, and that is public engagement”. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had stories like that? People glued to their phone, checking out Dickensian Twitter, digital humanities sites, research projects on Facebook and reading digitised books. Don’t get me wrong, I like books and lots of them but digital resources and projects can add to rather than detract from these. About 2.9 billion people have access to the internet so that’s a bit like heading out to research but not reading 2.9 billion books or consulting 2.9 billion people..

You’re missing out. Why not take a Boz-lightyear approach? To infinity and beyond!

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About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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2 Responses to Digital Dickens Goes Forth

  1. Pingback: Digital Dickens Blog Post Part 2 | Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project

  2. Pingback: @HenryVIpartone | Shakin' Spearians

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