The Year in Digital Humanities: 2012

Rochelle Terman
January 10, 2013
An image comparing the redesign of the old Berkeley seal to a redesign of a famous classical painting.

In spite of apocalyptic predictions, 2013 is upon us. In honor of the new year, I present the (second annual) Year in Digital Humanities: the most notable stories in technology from 2012 and what it means for scholars in the Humanities.

1. Science captures the public’s imagination, with a little help.
 

Space missions have long been the subject for public consumption and entertainment, ever since the iconic footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Armstrong sadly left us this year, but exploration of the solar system continues to grab public imagination as proven by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The car-sized rover touched down on Mars on August 6 and continued to accomplish a number of firsts on the Red Planet: the first streaming of a human voice from the surface of another planet, the first laser shot on Mars, taking its first Martial soil and rock samples, and even uncovering anancient stream bed. Oh, and it was the first foursquare check-in on another planet.

Back on Earth and among scientists, the biggest story of the year—of the decade? in decades?—was the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson, that “missing” particle that sparked the massive project over at CERN. Few of us outside the Physics department have the training to really understand why this thing is so important, but even fewer can deny that it is. That’s because in addition to the discovery itself, the marketing campaign that has surrounded this elusive little thing—from artists’ representations to talk-show circuits to award-winning books and miniseries—has grown into an accomplishment all its own.

What it means for digital humanists: All this inspires a natural question: if physics can advocate so well for their research programs while educating the public on the relevance of their vastly complex discipline, why can’t humanists do the same? I’m thinking something like “the God particle” but for Foucault. Take it as a challenge for 2013.
 

2. Social media showcases some unexpected winners and losers.

 

Winners:

 
Pinterest: After being named the Best New Startup of 2011, the site boomed in 2012, becoming the fourth-largest traffic driver in the world—referring more business in January than LinkedIn, Youtube and Google+.
 
Instagram: In April the photo-sharing app was bought by Facebook for $1 billion. In August, Instagram topped twitter for daily active users for the first time and reached 80 million users and counting.
 
Anonymous: After its largest attack yet in January against SOPA supporters, the Anonymous Group was named ‘Most Influential Person’ by Time magazine.

Barack Obama: President Obama scored two historically viral posts in 2012: His response to Clint Eastwood’s infamous“chair” speech (“This seat’s taken”) was the most RT’d tweet of the RNC, and his victory Facebook post (“Four more years”) was the most liked post ever with over 4 million likes.

 

 
Losers:

Google+: In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the average person spent 3.3 minutes on G+ compared to 7.5 hours on Facebook per month. The People’s Republic of China took advantage of lax G+ censorship and began posting off-topic comments on Barack Obama’s official election campaign pages. In April, G+ shut down its photo editing site Picnik, and during the month of June, it was reported that 30% of users who make a public post on Google+ never make a second one. Ouch.

Apple: Apple suffered badly from the fiasco surrounding its Maps app—including egregious inaccuracies. Samsung’s Salaxy S3 rivaled the iPhone 5 in both hype and sales.

Call It Tied:
 
Facebook: While Facebook gained its 1 billionth member in September, its stock price fell to $21.83 a month later.

KONY 2012: When it was released in March, the video receives more than 87 million online views. But after a wave ofcontroversy, the follow-up video is released and receives half a million views on Youtube within a week. It still doesn’t reach the top spot in the contest for the most watched video in Youtube history: That honor goes to PSY “Gangnam style” with 1 billion views and counting.

What it all means for digital humanists: The already-dubious offline/online dichotomy became veritably irrelevant in 2012. Virtual worlds develop simultaneously with “real world” events—so much so that the analytic distinction between the two has become incoherent. Technology has become public while the public has become virtualized.
 
Also, Google and Apple are not indefatigable.
 
3. UC logo snafu proves that people really, really care about design. 

 

Shortly after University of California showcased its new logo, masses of outraged students and alumni rallied in protest. Nearly 55,000 people signed a petition saying “the logo was overly corporate, resembled—among other things—a fruit label and did not sufficiently reflect the university’s prestige." The redesign was lambasted in comments and memesthat circulated broadly on social media.

What it means for digital humanists: Besides a lesson in bad design, the logo snafu proved that when students mobilize via social media, the University must take notice. Unfortunately such mass mobilizations tend to occur over aesthetics more than politics:
 
"It's good that UC is listening to us," said Connor Landgraf, student body president at UC Berkeley. "Hopefully they'll start listening to students on other issues, as well, such as tuition increases."