Digital Humanities - Some History

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I wrote earlier in this week's series a bit about Digital Humanities history which goes back to what was called "humanities computing" in 1940s and 50s. An early example being Roberto Busa's efforts in the 1940s to create, using an IBM mainframe, a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas' writings.

The term "digital humanities" is believed to have been coined in the late 20th century. There isn't a single definitive origin point, but I first started to hear the term in academic circles in the 1990s. I recall a bunch of people doing research and writing dissertations on the intersection of computing technologies and humanistic inquiry.

In 1996, John Unsworth, a professor at the University of Virginia, used the term in his essay "What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?" The term "digital humanities" (DH) has become increasingly common in academia and it encompasses a broad range of activities that involve applying digital tools and methods to humanities research and scholarship.

DH includes a number of new ways of doing scholarship that involve collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publishing. For some older faculty, there was resistance because DH brings to the study of the humanities a recognition that the printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution.

The first specialized journal in the digital humanities was Computers and the Humanities, which debuted in 1966. The Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) association was founded in 1973. The Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) were founded in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

Soon, there was a need for a standardized protocol for tagging digital texts, and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) was developed and launched in 1987 and published the first full version of the TEI Guidelines in May 1994. This led to Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is a tagging scheme for digital editing.

Researchers also began experimenting with databases and hypertextual editing, which are structured around links and nodes, as opposed to the standard linear convention of print. In the 1990s, major digital text and image archives emerged at centers of humanities computing in the U.S. (e.g. the Women Writers Project, the Rossetti Archive, and The William Blake Archive[demonstrated the sophistication and robustness of text-encoding for literature.

The advent of personal computing and the World Wide Web meant that Digital Humanities work could become less centered on text and more on design. The multimedia nature of the internet has allowed Digital Humanities work to incorporate audio, video, and other components in addition to text.

The shift from calling this work "humanities computing" to "digital humanities" has been attributed to John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens who, as editors of the anthology A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004). The newer term created an overlap between fields like rhetoric and composition.

In 2006 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) launched the Digital Humanities Initiative (renamed Office of Digital Humanities in 2008), which made widespread adoption of the term "digital humanities" in the United States. DH got a big boost at the 2009 MLA convention in Philadelphia, where digital humanists had their field hailed as "the first 'next big thing' in a long time."

What comes next?

What Happened to the Digital Humanities?

DH digital humanities

A former colleague recently asked me, "What happened to 'digital humanities' which seemed so big twenty years ago?"  It was his opinion that the digital humanities (DH) was dead. We talked. I disagreed about it being dead but I agree that it seems a bit lost or less visible. Our conversation will play out this week in several posts here under the Digital Humanities category.

The definition of the digital humanities is continually being formulated by scholars and practitioners. Since the field is constantly growing and changing, specific definitions can quickly become outdated or unnecessarily limit future potential. Digital humanities are not dead. It is still an active interdisciplinary field.

Digital humanities descends from the field of humanities computing, whose origins reach back to the 1940s and 50s. Pioneering work by Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa beginning in 1946, and English professor Josephine Miles in the early 1950s might be considered its origin.

Busa and his team worked with IBM to create a computer-generated concordance to Thomas Aquinas' writings that was known as the Index Thomisticus. Other scholars began using mainframe computers to automate tasks like word-searching, sorting, and counting, which was much faster than processing information from texts by hand.

The field grew as archaeologists, classicists, historians, literary scholars, and a broad array of humanities researchers in other disciplines applied emerging computational methods to transform humanities scholarship.

Digital humanities projects often involve collaboration between scholars from diverse disciplines such as computer science, linguistics, history, literature, and cultural studies. Today, natural language processing and AI offer new opportunities for text mining and ways to analyze large amounts of text and find patterns, trends, and insights.

You have probably heard of the efforts to digitize and make accessible a wide range of cultural heritage materials, including manuscripts, artworks, photographs, and historical documents, through online archives and repositories.

Why and When Did Social Media Go Wrong?

Following my last post about how social media is bad for your health - an idea that I think most people would agree with  - I also feel that social media has undeniably transformed communication and society in numerous ways. If you assume that is true, then you should ask why and when social media went wrong. This is a cross-post from my Weekends in Paradelle blog.

Despite lots of media attention about the negative effects of social media. it is still widely used. I started thinking about when social media became unhealthy. Any answer is subjective and complex and probably depends on individual factors such as personal experiences, societal norms, and technological advancements.While it offers many benefits, there have been turning points that have contributed to negative perceptions of social media.

Here’s my list of some turning points:

Privacy Concerns: As social media platforms evolved and became more integrated into people’s lives, concerns about privacy and data security emerged. High-profile incidents, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook, raised awareness about the potential misuse of personal data collected by social media companies. This eroded trust among users and led to increased scrutiny of social media platforms’ privacy practices.

Spread of Misinformation and Fake News: Social media has facilitated the rapid spread of misinformation, rumors, and fake news. The ease of sharing content on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp has made it challenging to verify the accuracy of information, leading to the proliferation of false narratives and conspiracy theories. This phenomenon has had serious consequences, including the exacerbation of social divisions, political polarization, and public health misinformation.

Cyberbullying and Online Harassment: Social media platforms have provided avenues for cyberbullying, harassment, and online abuse. The relative anonymity afforded by the internet, combined with the viral nature of social media, has enabled individuals to target others with hurtful or threatening behavior. This has had particularly harmful effects on young people, leading to mental health issues, social withdrawal, and even suicide in some cases.

Impact on Mental Health: Research has highlighted the negative effects of excessive social media use on mental health, including increased feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Factors such as social comparison, cyberbullying, and the pressure to present a curated and idealized version of one’s life contribute to these negative outcomes. Additionally, the addictive nature of social media platforms, characterized by endless scrolling and notifications, can exacerbate feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Erosion of Civil Discourse: Social media was once seen as one way to “democratize” the web. But it has been criticized for contributing to the erosion of civil discourse and the rise of polarized and hostile online environments. Echo chambers and filter bubbles, where users are exposed primarily to viewpoints that align with their own, can reinforce existing biases and prevent constructive dialogue across ideological divides. This has implications for democracy, as it hampers informed decision-making and compromises the ability to find common ground on important societal issues.

So, when and why did social go wrong?

When I was teaching a graduate course in social media, we talked about its timeline history. That was 2016 and we were only talking about the negative effects as a fairly new point on that timeline. If I were teaching that today, I would need to add developments in the history of social media that mark shifts toward negative effects:

Here is a start on that list:
Proliferation of Platforms: Social media platforms began to gain popularity in the early 2000s with sites like MySpace and Friendster. As more platforms emerged and gained widespread adoption, the sheer volume of social interactions online increased dramatically.

Introduction of News Feeds: The introduction of news feeds, where users could see updates from friends and pages they followed in real-time, marked a significant shift in how people consumed content on social media. This change led to increased time spent on platforms and potentially unhealthy comparison behaviors.

Rise of Smartphones: The widespread adoption of smartphones made access to social media constant and ubiquitous. People could now engage with social media anytime, anywhere, blurring the boundaries between online and offline life.

Algorithmic Changes: Social media platforms began to implement algorithms to curate users’ feeds based on their interests and behaviors. While these algorithms aimed to increase engagement, they also contributed to echo chambers, filter bubbles, and the spread of misinformation.

Data Privacy Concerns: High-profile data breaches and scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook, highlighted how social media platforms could compromise users’ privacy and security. These revelations eroded trust in social media companies and raised concerns about the ethical implications of their practices.

Overall, while social media has brought about numerous positive advancements in communication and connectivity, its negative effects have become increasingly apparent over time. The exact point at which it became “unhealthy” is difficult to pinpoint, but these developments have collectively contributed to growing concerns about the impact of social media on individuals and society.

Social Media Is Bad for Your Health

Amber macArthur

a dark @ambermac

"Too much social media is bad for your health," wrote Amber MacArthur recently in her newsletter. "This is true for adults and especially true for kids. Almost a decade ago I wrote a book exclusively on this topic, endlessly worried about how tech companies saw young users (including my son) as a goldmine for data and dollars. My 2016 book (don't buy it, it's out of date) focused on how tweens and teens were spending time on social media apps - and how parents could help them stay safe."

I used her book in 2016 for a graduate course I was teaching in social media design. Not even a decade later and almost everything I used in that course is out of date. Amber notes that a recent survey of thousands of people in 142 countries and territories found that one in four people are lonely (Source: Statista). Perhaps, fewer face-to-face relationships are to blame?

on another blog    One area I addressed is the impact on mental health: Research has highlighted the negative effects of excessive social media use on mental health, including increased feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Factors such as social comparison, cyberbullying, and the pressure to present a curated and idealized version of one's life contribute to these negative outcomes. Additionally, the addictive nature of social media platforms, characterized by endless scrolling and notifications, can exacerbate feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Are there any possible solutions or at least some ways to improve social media use - especially with younger people?


Many suggestions are controversial from age verification to smartphone bans. Take age verification, which seems reasonable but opens up privacy issues.  In the book The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt suggests that there should be no phones before high school, no social media before 16, and no phones in school. Sounds good but they are all very difficult to enforce, at home or in school. I was always told that kids shouldn't be watching screens until age 3. Good luck with that.

A social psychologist, Haidt lays out the facts about the epidemic of teen mental illness that hit many countries at the same time. He then investigates the nature of childhood, including why children need play and independent exploration to mature into competent, thriving adults. Haidt shows how the “play-based childhood” began to decline in the 1980s, and how it was finally wiped out by the arrival of the “phone-based childhood” in the early 2010s. He presents more than a dozen mechanisms by which this “great rewiring of childhood” has interfered with children’s social and neurological development, covering everything from sleep deprivation to attention fragmentation, addiction, loneliness, social contagion, social comparison, and perfectionism. He explains why social media damages girls more than boys and why boys have been withdrawing from the real world into the virtual world, with disastrous consequences for themselves, their families, and their societies.

In my next post, I'll try to figure out when social media went wrong.