A journey through time and networks: a short story from a PhD candidate at the DH Lab

by Daniela Linkevicius de Andrade

Time is a strange thing for historians. It is our object of adoration and frustration, our compass and clock. We study time, but when it comes to the time of our own lives, things get more complicated. Over the last weeks, I’ve constantly heard from other historians: “wow, time went by so fast!”. As a historian, I should know that time is subjective, but I never cease to marvel. After all, it has been eight months since I arrived in Mainz, Germany, and started my fellowship at the DH Lab, but I still find it challenging to translate and express the dimension of eight months. The effort is worth it, and I invite you to join me on a bit of a journey about my time at DH Lab.

Eight months ago, the world was pretty chaotic, as you can imagine. Maybe, eight years ago, a flight from São Paulo to Frankfurt was quite normal. Still, in 2021, it was complicated for anyone to enter Germany from Brazil because of the Covid-19. I was aware of this when I decided to apply for the DH Lab fellowship offered by IEG. The excitement, however, was stronger than the concern. Since the beginning of my PhD, I have been thinking about looking for something outside Brazil to expand my methodological background with digital sources. DH Lab seemed like an excellent opportunity to do just that.

After countless Covid tests and some quarantine periods with support from the IEG, I eventually managed to start my fellowship period in September 2021. I confess that at the beginning I was a bit nervous. I knew that my research could be considered “unconventional” in historiographical terms from the beginning of my studies. After all, I analyse authority standards on Reddit’s history forums between 2008 and 2018. And this timeframe has already made many people doubt whether my work was historiographical enough or not. Look at the time here, causing me trouble. I can say that I was very excited and curious to know how DH Lab members would receive my research.

“Mainzer Dom” in spring. You can never get used to this view.
By Daniela Linkevicius

Since my first days here, discussions have always revolved around how to do my research: how to access and analyse my sources. It seems like a rather basic and essential question in the work of any historian, a question that we should ask ourselves at the beginning of our research. But the most basic questions are not the easiest. I had to think and rethink how I handled and presented my topic, especially since the DH Lab team is interdisciplinary; what seemed obvious to me was not the case for people in other fields. And I firmly believe that anyone, anyone at all, should be able to understand what a historian is saying.

Paramount to this process was my mentor at DH Lab, Dr Demi Vasques. When he was appointed my mentor to assist me in my project within IEG, I was immediately excited that he has experience in areas other than History, such as Physics and Engineering. With interdisciplinarity, we perceive the true dynamism of History. I was looking at the past, thinking about issues of structure and transformation of knowledge on the web, while Demi was thinking about the relationships established between the members of the communities, the networks, and the structure of the dialogues established on Reddit.

It was precisely because of this kaleidoscope of views that we could write an article about the role of moderators in Reddit’s history forums. I learned about network analysis and how to work with Reddit’s API, which was especially tricky because I needed to access historical data from that API. It took me a while to learn how to deal with time parameters in the system. I also presented some of the conclusions I had come to after working with the platform’s rules of conduct for several years. The different views complemented each other, though not always so seamlessly: I remember an occasion or two when Demi asked me to be more direct, and I complained that he was destroying some of the poetry in my writing.

Jokes aside, it was such an exciting assignment and one that provided me with the chance to look at my research with other eyes. And speaking of different perspectives on my research, I had a few opportunities to discuss my thesis with DH Lab and other IEG members at one of the many weekly research colloquia organised by the Institute. Again, my focus was on trying to communicate my research as clearly as possible. I saw it more as a challenge to myself to organise everything I had written and thought about into a 20-minute presentation.

The fear that people would find my research too “different” because it dealt with such recent historical sources was part of this process. But being different is not a bad thing. It can be refreshing, especially for historians who are not used to looking at the web as a historical source. The reception to my presentation was not one of refusal but of curiosity — something I understand. Reddit, my source, provokes this: it’s like a giant universe, familiar and unknown, where there are thousands of people discussing history, and many historians have no idea about it.

When people react to your research in this way, with a look of curiosity, it’s an excellent opportunity to remind you why you were also interested in it in the first place. Such interest has made me want to talk more and more about web archive collections. It is usual for the Digital Humanities to engage with digital methodologies to work with digitised sources, but not so much with web archives. However, the two have very different characteristics (to read more about this, check Niels Brügger).

Besides that, it is important to discuss other global perspectives too. I was aware that IEG is a European History Institute. And the DH Lab is mainly devoted to the research of that nature as well. But I come from a different place — Brazil — and my worldview is not the same as all researchers here. Consequently, DH Lab encouraged me to invite a Brazilian professor, Thiago Nicodemo, to participate in one of the research colloquia. Professor Nicodemo presented a topic not widely known to the public, the preservation of memory through web archives for the construction of history in the future, from his experience with archives in Brazil. He certainly raised important questions for historians of the 21st century.

At this point, I already find myself almost at the end of my journey. More has happened, but I wanted to highlight what has made a difference for me and hopefully others here at DH Lab. Some readers may think, “well, it wasn’t even that much for eight months”. For me, it was a considerable amount. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the circumstances in a storyline, and I believe that is what I have focused on so far. Still, time is subjective, and my time here at DH Lab was measured around my relationships and not the events and things I have produced. I have realised that what guided all those events and productions were the people I had the opportunity to interact with. They are what made this experience so fast and so long.

One of the best parts of my experience as a fellow at DH Lab was feeling part of the team. After so many years of research, it is common to feel lonely as a PhD candidate. The work as a researcher is quite solitary, and you spend hours and hours on your own, trapped in your mind. The isolation is an amusing aspect for a historian. As much as historians, for the most part (myself included), research human beings and their histories in time, it is easy to forget the human when our only company is a blank page, waiting for our words. Reddit itself, in this respect, has a slogan: “remember the human”. Indeed, the DH Lab team made me remember the human. They embraced me as part of them and encouraged me to be more confident and decisive with my work.

Besides that, one of the central elements of the fellowship is living in Mainz and residing at the Institute. Consequently, I started living daily with other PhD fellows in the same situation. It might be a recipe for disaster: imagine gathering a group of absolutely overstressed doctoral students! But it was a recipe for relief. Conversations in the kitchen, games, and wine nights, searching for cheap pubs in the city. The kitchen on the floor where I lived was named “Academics anonymous”, and not by accident. In this kitchen, we could vent for five minutes about the uncertainties of life after PhD (if there is one), laugh at our misfortunes, and remember that everything is temporary —even our time at the IEG.

Talking about time one last time, my time here has passed and run out. Hence, the best way to end this narrative, as the good Brazilian that I am, is with music, quoting one of my favourite songs, performed by my favourite singer: Eu já estou com o pé nessa estrada, qualquer dia a gente se vê, sei que nada será como antes amanhã. Tomorrow, I leave Mainz, and I know nothing will remain the same. That is okay. I welcome with fondness and gratitude my own time in Mainz.

Cite this article as: Daniela Linkevicius de Andrade, “A journey through time and networks: a short story from a PhD candidate at the DH Lab” in Digital Humanities Lab, 17/02/2022, https://dhlab.hypotheses.org/?p=1869.

Featured image: “Mainzer Dom” in spring, photo by author

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