Summer Dispatches: Kyle Booten

03 Sep, 2014

Summer Dispatches: Kyle Booten

Kyle Booten (Education) was one of five exceptional graduate students to be awarded a $1000 BCNM Summer Research Award. Check out what he's done so far!

When our attention spans dwindle to the length of a GIF, when even a two ­minute YouTube video seems like an eternity, when our phones buzz constantly with push notifications and texts, what hope do we have of getting through Bleak House or Being and Time?

In her essay “Hyper and Deep Attention” (2007), N. Katherine Hayles points to a possible crisis for contemporary education: while traditional academic practices such as literary close reading and philosophical analysis demand prolonged and “deep” attention to a singular text, contemporary media encourage us to quickly shift attention back and forth between a large number of texts—“hyper attention.” Hayles is not a pessimist, however; she encourages us to look for sites of rapprochement between new and old cognitive modes.

This past summer, with the help of a BCNM summer grant, I began to look at one such practice that straddles the boundary between hyper and deep attention: the circulation of quotations, specifically philosophical quotations, on social networks like Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. What does philosophical contemplation look like when it is directed at, rather than one or a few “complete” texts, a bustling economy of textual fragments?

It was clear to me that each of these networks plays host to a robust culture of quotation. It was less clear how to actually investigate textual practices that involve many thousands of individual texts posted by and shared between users. I spent the first part of my summer doing what felt like the “plumbing” of online research: building web­scrapers, scripts to interface with various social networks’ APIs, and parsers to process thousands of digital quotations for easy comparison.

I recently took classes on digital humanities and natural language processing with BCNM affiliate professor Marti Hearst, and now I am at the point of applying techniques from these classes to my hefty bundle of quotes. Some of these techniques are fairly straightforward, such as finding the most frequently quoted authors. (On Tumblr, Nietzsche is the clear winner, though Kierkegaard, Camus, and Alan Watts are also favorites.) Others are more complex; I am now trying to use association measures, such as pointwise mutual information and log­likelihood ratio, to find out if a user who posts a quotation by a particular philosopher (for instance, Seneca) is more likely than not to also post a quotation by a certain other philosopher or subset of philosophers (perhaps Aristotle or Emerson). With the help of Python’s NetworkX library, I have also begun to explore some of the dynamics of social networks through which these quotations circulate. For me, these computational approaches are just a starting point. My hope is that they will lead me to some intuitions and hypotheses that I can explore using more traditional ethnographic methods, such as interviews. Moving forward, I want to get a clearer sense of the more human aspects of online quotation culture, including social network users’ motivations for posting quotations online and the kind of attention to texts this practice engenders.