2: “Living”

Before delving into how Twitter complicates conversations about the archive, let me explain my line of thinking and word choice. First, a Ted Talk by Grammar Girl (see below) addresses English as a living language. She describes the language as such because of its ability to constantly evolve and develop based on a system of voting. By using words in our daily conversations, we participate in this democracy of language and “vote” for the words (Fogarty). If we approach the term “living” from this mindset and redistribute it to modify archive instead of language, then the living archive’s space is also one that is not static.

A living archive is never complete—or even a concrete thing. In this space, Twitter can be approached as a living archive because of the linked conversations that occur through hashtags. In these linked conversations, the artifacts that encompass the conversation—or archive—may be added, hidden, or entirely removed based on the user’s preference. In this sense, the accessible information ‘lives’ as the user alters or adds to the data. Thus, even in searching for a specific conversation in the past, the artifacts may fluctuate: disappearing and reappearing at the user’s discretion. This notion of living implies the existence of an exact opposite: a ‘dead’ archive. The binary opposition therefore assumes the inversion of what I define as a living archive is an archive that is static: consistent and unalterable. Although archives are obviously more complex than this description, I consider ‘dead’ archives to be those that cannot develop to the extent that Twitter hashtags can. For example, returning to the Hemingway example from earlier, the JFK Library’s Hemingway Collection may grow based on the founding of new artifacts; however, I assume most of the contributors to this archive cannot actively engage in the corresponding conversations due to issues of access and/or their general states of being. The contributors lack agency and activity, which is not true for hashtags as their contributors literally create the content and place said content into this digital space intentionally. Even the APWA’s online archive, though also existing in a digital space, does not change or develop further in the ways hashtags can; the media aspect renders hashtags more capable of incorporating themes of collaboration and individual agency. While the exigence for tweets using the hashtags #Amerikkka and #BlackLivesMatter may be the deaths of specific people, the humans creating and developing these conversations actively contribute to this born-digital content.

Returning to the idea of English as a living language and putting this idea in conversation with Twitter as a living archive, the first hashtag was accepted into the dictionary in 2014. This hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, was selected by the American Dialect Society as their word of the year, which demonstrates Twitter’s ability to act as more than simply a mode of entertainment. The American Dialect Society attributes #BLM’s rise in popularity to the conversations that occurred using it following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Notably, #Amerikkka was also used popularly alongside #BLM, but because of #BLM’s more positive and specific explanation of its focus and intentions, #BLM’s significance as a living archive, language-changing word, and means for activism deem it more relevant and impactful.

The use of #BLM as a key symbol for human rights in the United States plays with Rayvon Fouché’s scholarship about the intersection of race and technology. Fouché criticizes scholars who focus on “technology as material oppression…[as] the only way to consider African American technological experiences” (Fouché 640-641). Instead, he urges scholars to expand their approaches to consider the role of African American creativity. Forefronting a conversation from social media as a catabolic component to social activism exemplifies the interaction between African American creativity and technology. This relationship occurs because Twitter removes the mediation seen in other archival spaces and thus provides a way for disenfranchised voices to re-enfranchise themselves on their own terms. Additionally, the satiric misspelling of America in #Amerikkka speaks to the same vein of thought. Overall, Twitter hashtags provide a means for African Americans to productively use technology in a collaborative, impactful way—i.e. catalyzing an entire social movement.

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