Oct 26 2015

Letters of 1916 – The Role of Twitter

The Letters of 1916 project is the first public humanities project in Ireland. Its purpose is to provide a snapshot of ‘a year in a life’ in Ireland between 1st November 1915 and 31st October 1916. This is a period which covers the 1916 Rising as well as several major events in World War I (including the Battle of the Somme). However, although these major events occur during the period, the project aims to not only focus on letters which shed light onto these events, but also those which provide an insight into the everyday lives of people living in Ireland at this time.


For an outline of the origins and initial definition of crowdsourcing see my earlier post here.

Crowdsourcing in a growing part of cultural heritage and humanities projects. Ridge’s definition of crowdsourcing as “an emerging form of engagement with cultural heritage that contributes towards a shared, significant goal or research area by asking the public to undertake tasks that cannot be done automatically, in an environment where the tasks, goals (or both) provide inherent rewards for participation” is relevant for the Letters of 1916. The Letters project relies upon the public for two core aspects – the submission and upload of relevant letters and the transcription of letters, without the crowd the tasks would be too time consuming for a small group of researchers to complete. The input of volunteers means that a much broader range of letters have been sourced and transcribed, allowing the project to move towards the creation of a digital scholarly edition of letters available to the public and researchers alike.

Theimer refers to this type of project as an example of Archive 2.0.

“Today, archivists see their primary role as facilitating rather than controlling access. Using social media tools, archivists even invite user contributions and participation in describing, commenting, and re-using collections, creating so-called collaborative archives” (Theimer)

Social Media

While many websites have built in forums to encourage collaboration this is ultimately a closed group, likely to be accessed only by those who already use the site. This can be very helpful for on-task, on-site collaboration, or sites like Zooniverse which already have considerable foot-fall, but a smaller public humanities project must go further. The need for collaboration across a wide group of volunteers, as well as the need to publicise projects has led to the adoption of social media tools, for example Twitter and Facebook.

“Social participatory media, such as social networks, blogs and podcasts, are increasingly attracting the attention of academic researchers and educational institutions. Because of the ease of use, social media offers the opportunity for powerful information sharing, collaboration, participation and community engagement” (Ross). This is not just a matter of sending out a few tweets; a well planned and organised social media strategy is needed.

@Letters1916 – The Project’s Use of Twitter

The Letters project began tweeting from its @Letters1916 account just prior to the official launch on 27th September 2013. From a zero base, the account has now (as of today 26th October 2015) got 3594 followers and has sent an impressive 5977 tweets. Over the past two years it is possible to see the continued attraction of followers (which has remained fairly steady at around 1700 per year and the increase in the number of tweets from 2013 per year to 3860 per year (as seen in the chart below). Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 6.44.02 p.m.Over the past year the account has tweeted an impressive 74 times a week or 322 times a month.

#AskLetters1916 – Direct interaction

Dunn and Hedges, in their 2012 ‘Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study’, emphasise the importance and benefits of engaging the crowd. From relatively early in the project, a regular question and answer session was organised via twitter using the hashtag #AskLetters1916. The purpose of this type of interaction is to engage not only existing collaborators, but also those who have an interest in the subject. The additional implementation of a range of widely used hashtags, for example #EasterRising, #Ireland, #Irishhistory and #edchatie, helps target twitter users with similar interests. The sessions are publicised in advance and hosted by a member of the Letters team whose role it is to encourage discussion.

Initially the #AskLetters1916 was held weekly as an open forum, however this proved too vague to attract a significant number of interested followers. As a result the decision was made to make this a monthly session with a specific focus (for example ‘Women in 1916’ or ‘Digital Resources in the Classroom’) – there have now been 14 targeted sessions which have been much more successful. In addition to the live discussions the tweets are also curated and made available on Storify, allowing those who were unable to take part to access and read the tweets at a later date. The use of synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication enables the participation of volunteers from multiple locations and time zones.

Special Events

There have been several special events related to the Letters project which have been used as opportunities to bring the project to an even wider audience. Updates regarding the project, including social media figures are provided annually on the anniversary of the initial launch of the project (see infographics for 2014 and 2015).

There have been two annual collaborations with Irish secondary teachers, leading to the creation of several lesson plans which use materials from the Letters project. In August 2015, working alongside the Irish Military Archives and Bureau of Military History, over 20 lesson plans were created during a three day workshop. The workshop was allocated the hashtag #teach1916 and participants were encouraged to use the tag in any tweets they sent – a very successful strategy as the tag trended in Ireland on 5th August. The lesson plans from the 2015 workshop can be found here.

Day to Day Tweets

While using the Twitter account to publicise special events or host monthly chats has provided some excellent interaction with a range of collaborators, one of the key elements of running a social media campaign is the necessity of regular tweets. The @Letters1916 account has two main types of regular tweet (outside retweeting related issues): requests for volunteers to contribute letters Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 7.36.54 p.m. and a regular #Onthisday letter enabling Twitter users to see an individual letter from the project. Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 7.37.09 p.m. This regular interaction with the public “entails a greater level of effort, time and intellectual input from an individual than just socially engaging” (Holley).

The images below show the activity of Letters 1916, #Letters1916 and #teach1916 for the past week and the top themes in the tweets over the same period. The analysis comes from the free search in a tool called Talkwalker.Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 4.06.54 p.m. Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 7.45.47 p.m. This demonstrates the variety and dedication needed to maintain and engage the crowd via social media.


Dunn, Stuart, and Mark Hedges. “Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study-Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research.” Centre for e-Research, King’s College London. http://crowds.cerch.kcl.ac. uk/wp-uploads/2012/12/Crowdsourcingconnected-communities. pdf (2012).

Holley, Rose. ‘Crowdsourcing: how and why should libraries do it?’, D-Lib Magazine, (Vol. 16, No. 3/4)

Ridge, Mia . “Frequently Asked Questions about crowdsourcing in cultural heritage.” Open Objects. 3 June 2012. 27 Sept. 2015. .

Ross, Claire. “Social Media for Digital Humanities and Community Engagement.” Digital Humanities in Practice. Ed. Claire Warwick, Melissa Terras, and Julianne Nyhan. London: Facet Publishing, 2012. 23–46.

Theimer, Kate. “What is the Meaning of Archives 2.0?.” The American Archivist 74.1 (2011): 58-68.

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