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two moments from 2016

Two moments from the summer and fall of 2016 keep coming back to me.


I went to Atlanta in late July for the Society of American Archivists conference. I arrived a day early so I could visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The conference reception was going to be held there but I wasn't planning to stay for the whole conference; plus, it's not the kind of museum I wanted to visit as part of a professional conference event. I wanted to be able to take as much time as I felt I needed, and I wanted to be there as part of a diverse public.

As an historian, I will sheepishly admit that exhibits in history museums often don't stay with me like exhibits in art museums. That's not to say they're ineffective, but what I learn from history museums I tend to incorporate into my general understanding of history, while I rarely disconnect my perception of art from how I experienced it. The lunch counter sit-in exhibit, which you can preview online, was different.

It's a demonstration of what it would have been like to attend a sit-in, and it takes as an example the training and preparation a demonstrator would have gone through before an actual sit-in. You put on headphones, close your eyes, and put your hands on a counter. A voice asks you to try to remain calm. Then a growing tide of voices yells at you for the next minute or so with increasing intensity, mimicking the type of abuse and intimidation you'd be likely to experience at a real lunch counter sit-in. I thought it was more effective than any photo or footage of protests could have been on their own.

Another thing I remember about my experience there is that they had a supply of tissues in the section about the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr.

I visited the museum only a few days after the Democratic and Republican parties held their nominating conventions; I did not have only history on my mind. In one of the early galleries, about the 1950s, I remember listening to the voices of the so-called respectable politicians who opposed civil rights, and I thought about how much they sounded like the modern Republican party as expressed during the Trump campaign, and how in 2016 civil rights issues were still very much on the ballot. And how all the contemporary euphemism and obfuscation about "racially tinged" language and purely economic motivations made it hard to see that reality clearly.1


Later that fall, I was at the Great Mall in Milpitas, CA, probably to buy some new clothes. Milpitas is a community just north of San Jose, which puts it somewhere between the south bay and the east bay. It's a suburban area and the Great Mall is one of those suburban malls where everything is on one floor and you walk in a large circle to reach it all. Many Bay Area suburbs, especially in the east and south bay regions, are quite diverse, far more diverse than you'd expect if you haven't updated your perceptions of what a suburb is from the time when suburbs were seen as synonymous with white.

As I walked around the circle, I was struck by how few white people I saw - not because this was an unusual experience for me, but because I'd been thinking about the white nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that was such a prominent feature of the Trump campaign, then in full swing. I remember thinking, if you take them at their word, if you think about the kind of country they say they want to have, then you have to account for the very real diversity that already exists here. There's only so much they could do within the law, or their interpretation of the law, to try to turn the country into what they envisioned it to be; ultimately, if that was not enough for them, they'd turn to outright violence. I didn't - and still don't - think they would win, but I never thought they'd be beyond trying.

  1. Recently, I read Farai Chideya's "The Call-to-Whiteness," originally written in 2016. I have to agree with the numerous people who have pointed out then and since that we'd be much better off if major journalism outlets centered more voices of Black people and people of color. 

the unmanageable feed

As much as I enjoy having my attention drawn to who is wrong on the internet; and who thinks someone else is wrong on the internet but is in fact wrong themselves; and who has been wrong since before there was an internet; and who has no opinions that should be taken seriously; and who is on the right track but is not quite there yet; and who is right but for the wrong reasons; and who has the latest threads that are absolutely essential to read; and who has answered the latest quoted question; and who has adorable pets - as much as I appreciate being directed to all of this on an ongoing basis, I'm finding twitter to be unmanageable these days.

I was going to write this week about all the steps I've taken to make my twitter feed manageable and I guess I'm still going to do that even though it seems kind of myopic in the context of this week's anti-democracy riots and social media's role in facilitating them. This post isn't about twitter at that level; it's just about me trying to find a way to still get something useful out of it while keeping it at a healthier distance. I still hope to spend less time on the platform in 2021.

I was not an early adopter of twitter, or even a particularly heavy user for the first few years after I created an account in 2009. I thought it was kind of a poorly made system, tweeted maybe a few times per week, got tired of seeing the fail whale. After years of reading a few blogs where I read every post, it took time to get used to the timeline stream and the impossibility of catching up.

Not long after I got my account, twitter made a change to the home timeline. I think this was still early in 2009. Up to that point, they'd been showing all tweets from everyone you follow, including everyone's reply tweets (starting with the '@'). They then switched to showing reply tweets from an account you follow only if you follow both the account sending the reply and the account to which the reply was directed. This significantly reduced the amount of tweets I saw. It's the last time I can remember being annoyed with twitter for showing me less rather than more.

After library school, I started using twitter a lot more, mostly for professional purposes: asking for help or advice, trying to help others, engaging in discussions, following and passing along links, not always succeeding in staying out of arguments. I benefited a lot from people helping me via twitter, especially during my first few years as a digital archivist. I learned a surprising amount of bash from tweets.

But by 2016, I felt like I was too always online. I think I'd tweeted around 10-15,000 times by that point, not high volume by some standards but still a lot. I deleted all of them at the end of the year and took a couple of days to decide whether to keep the account. I decided instead to try to limit my use.

In the years since, I've made a series of ever shifting changes to how I use twitter that generally seemed to improve things but never felt effective enough. I tweet far less than I used to, and when there isn't some kind of crisis I read twitter less too. (But there always seems to be some kind of crisis.)

What's been most successful:

  • Arbitrary limits on tweeting (i.e. fewer than 100 tweets/month): 1200 tweets/year is a surprisingly small number.
  • Staying mostly out of conversations: I don't like sprawling threads, plus fewer conversations mean fewer notifications.
  • Turned off seeing retweets for all accounts I follow: best decision I've made. The huge reduction in volume more than makes up for missing out on some tweets I might otherwise have seen. If retweets were endorsements, then maybe I'd want to see more of them.1

What hasn't worked so well:

  • Muting words and phrases: it's a pain to manage, and language is complicated so things slip through. But I haven't seen "hold my beer" for a long time so it hasn't been a total loss.
  • Dealing with quote tweets: there's no way to distinguish between quote tweets that are just like other tweets I want to see that contain links (that just happen to be links to tweets), and quote tweets that are like retweets (that are not endorsements) that I want to see less of - even when I appreciate the quoter's added commentary. Blocking the quoted account (i.e. not the one I'm following) is partially successful in that it blocks the display of the quoted tweet, but the effect is that I see a lot of tweets that contain content I've blocked. I've blocked an awful lot of people in prominent public positions because they keep getting quoted for saying harmful and just plain stupid things.

What might be the last straw:

  • Using lists: in the past few weeks, I've tried unfollowing some people and then adding them to lists. I started with the heavy quote-tweeters, that is people who tweet a lot and quote tweet a lot. That helped but it didn't make a lot of sense to have them in one list just because of their tweeting style. So I started separating out accounts by content categories: politics news, analysis of technology, academics, etc. But do I want to spend a lot of time cataloging twitter accounts? I do not. Even worse, lists show retweets and there are so many retweets in my lists it's hard to find the tweets from the people I actually followed. It looks like I might be able to filter out retweets via the twitter API but do I want to write my own twitter client just to make my feed manageable? I do not.

So where does that leave me? With a rant about twitter long enough for a blog post, that's where. I'll probably still be keeping my account.

  1. I was into turning off retweets before it was cool

what I didn't do in 2020

This year I'm going to take advantage of the low stakes of having an obscure blog that even I rarely read and set an arbitrary goal for quantity rather than quality: I'm going to write a post every week. It might be a "real" post, a diaristic entry, or just a title and a few words, but it will be a post.

If this leads to me finally doing some of the more formal writing I've been wanting to do for years, great. If it doesn't, that's fine too. I used to write a lot, sporadically; I spent many years studying history and other humanistic pursuits. I've largely stopped writing over the past few years, and I think my ability to write has suffered because of it.

I kept a blog or two on and off from about 2004-2009, and something that's stuck with me from the transition period when so many bloggers moved to twitter is how many people praised twitter for improving their ability to write, mostly because the character limit in those days forced a certain degree of conciseness. I felt the opposite way about my own writing: twitter gave me the opportunity to express a point quickly but not very well. This didn't stop me from tweeting upwards of 10,000 times before I cut way back after archiving and deleting my tweets at the end of 2016, when I also deleted everything on my Facebook account.

What struck me during the deleting process was how I would often pause to re-read a Facebook post, while the vast majority of my tweets felt dull, stale, and pointless. I didn't even want to look at them. I don't think character limits explain everything, but Facebook always had a higher limit when it had a limit and I felt like I could do much more with \~400 characters than with 140.

Why I still have a twitter account but deleted my Facbook account is a topic for another day. The point is just this: I'm tired of writing things that are short, poorly expressed, and barely worth saving. I don't have illusions about what I'll do with blogging this year, but at least it won't be a few words tossed into a void that are later deleted. Or it won't just be that. Over here, I have my very own void all to myself.


In the spirit of writing about things I haven't been doing, here's a partial list of things I didn't do in 2020:

  • Spend more than four consecutive days at home in my apartment after March 9th. My parents visited me and my sister in the Bay Area in mid-February; they got sick with what was probably the flu after they got back home to southern California. It seems too early in the pandemic to have been Covid, though it was the most severe respiratory illnesses either of them had had for a few years. My dad did notice a change in taste and had a bad cough, but both of those happen also to be known side effects of one of his cancer treatments.

    In any case, by early March they were in poor enough shape that I started to make plans to visit them. Meanwhile, starting around March 4th my workplace sent an escalating series of emails about Covid and distancing policies: hand wash!, cover your face if coughing and sneezing, limit meeting size, meet in larger rooms and sit in every other seat, cancel all public events, cancel travel, reduce staff on-site to 50%. Some policies that seemed unrealistic when first announced were pulled back a day later, then superseded by events.

    On March 9th, I was officially made remote for two weeks. I drove down to see my parents that night. I packed for a week, but was prepared to stay the full two weeks. I didn't go back home until April, when I cleaned up the dishes I'd left in the dishwasher rinsed and undone, grabbed a personal computer, an external monitor, and a keyboard and mouse, and came back down. I went back in May and got more stuff, then took a couple days off in July for a short vacation at home. Since Labor Day weekend, I've gone back roughly every two weeks for no more than three days at a time. Since the Santa Clara county travel quarantine went in place after Thanksgiving, I've gone back twice without even spending the night, since the quarantine only applies if you stay. I still plan to live there again one day, and it would be quite difficult and risky to move out and then move back.

  • Go more than four consecutive weeks without visiting a hospital. My dad was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2019; it was serious enough that treatment began immediately. When the pandemic began, he was still being treated every two weeks, but was about to move to a four-week schedule. There was never a question of pausing the treatments. To reduce contacts, I started taking him while my mom stayed home. The first time, in mid-March, they took my temperature and let me in. Ever since then, I've stayed outside and worked while waiting during the routine visits.

    Sometimes the hospital visits have been much more frequent. In the summer there was a week with four visits in a six-day period, culminating in an ER visit, follow-up surgery, and a second cancer diagnosis, which then led to a period of weekly visits to a larger, more comprehensive hospital about 45 miles away. We are incredibly fortunate that the most intense periods of hospital visits coincided with relatively low local Covid case counts, and that the treatments have so far been effective.

  • Read books regularly. I started my current job in mid-2019. Unlike my previous job, which had a hellish commute through slurban America my current job had a transit commute (and even a transit benefit). I started reading books again almost immediately. I haven't done much of that since I stopped having a commute.

  • Make much progress on personal digitization projects. I was in a history Ph.D. program for many years, mostly during the printout and photocopy era. I've been carrying around boxes of copies of primary sources through years of moves. Last fall, I finally started making progress digitizing my stuff in preparation for throwing out the paper. It helped that I could use the public access scanners in the library. I tried to pick times when the library wasn't busy, and since I had been a student at the university where I now work when I gathered the sources in the first place, I felt somewhat justified in scanning them there. I haven't done any of this since February.

  • Make progress on writing projects. Topics I've thought about discussing, mostly in blog posts: fakes, deepfakes, records, and evidence; digital preservation systems and technical metadata; software preservation and the rights we need to actually do it; whether I care enough about the OAIS reference model; a personal take on whatever happened to blogging; deleting my Facebook account but keeping my twitter account; the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and its early plans; a recent biography of Leland Stanford I read last fall.

  • Finish this blog post. I actually wanted to finish this in 2020, but I fell asleep. Better late than never.