Mellon Foundation Grant Helps Capture History, 280 Characters at a Time

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mellon Foundation Grant Helps Capture History, 280 Characters at a Time

When massive protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 in reaction to the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson, a duo of archivists were inspired to explore how to preserve social media posts as a means to document history for the ages—and to empower social activists to take control of their own narratives.

Just five days after the shooting, Bergis Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, and Edward Summers, lead developer at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland, both happened to be attending the Society of American Archivists Conference in Washington, DC. The Ferguson protests, led by members of the Black Lives Matter activist movement, were in full swing, patrolled by police outfitted in riot gear and employing tear gas. It quickly became clear to Jules and Summers that what was unfolding on social media—a veritable flood of tweets, photos, and videos of the demonstrations as they were happening—was a crucial part of how the world understood the events.

“Like everyone else, we were glued to our TVs and to Twitter, trying to figure out what was happening on the ground, because so much information was being shared, especially on Twitter, about what was going on in Ferguson,” Jules recalls.

While walking out of a conference session together, he and Summers wondered aloud how Ferguson would be remembered years into the future...

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