Project shows early social networks

Nov. 14, 2011, 2:01 a.m.

A project led by Stanford researchers made gains in documenting the extensive social networks, similar to today’s online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, that existed as long ago as 1500.

The project, entitled “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” aimed to create a visual illustration of the “Republic of Letters”–a term used to denote the widespread exchange of ideas and thoughts between leading intellectuals through letters during the early modern period, between 1500 and 1800.

“This was a project that did not evolve out of an interest in using technology or doing things with the digital humanities in the first place,” said Dan Edelstein, associate professor of French and Italian and the project’s principal researcher. “This project emerged from an academic problem.”

Researchers at the Stanford Humanities Center began with data compiled by the University of Oxford’s Electronic Enlightenment project to map this interchange of letters. By organizing and coding these vast stores of data–some 55,000 letters–Stanford researchers created a visualization tool that enabled researchers to understand the scale of the Republic of Letters.

The idea for the project was born from “The Republic of Letters,” a conference held on Stanford campus in the late fall of 2007.

“Tony Grafton [professor of history at Princeton University and a contributor at the conference] pointed out that nobody really knows what this whole thing looks like…because there is just so much information,” Edelstein said. “I work on Voltaire’s correspondence, which has 18,000 letters. Multiply it by all the figures in the Republic of Letters and you have an avalanche of data.”

The project has allowed Edelstein’s team, which includes a number of graduate students’ and professors’ contributing case studies, to explore the social networks that underlie geographic relationships.

“We can go back and think about this question again,” he said. “We can use the empirical observations as a springboard for formulating new hypotheses.”

Edelstein characterized the project as an illustration of Stanford’s approach to the digital humanities.

“We aren’t trying to transform the study of humanities into a quantitative science,” he said. “We are using quantitative methods to formulate new questions.”

The project also contributes new information to Stanford’s BiblioTech program, a conference-based initiative that explores the relationship between humanities graduates and Silicon Valley.

“This is the first moment where people are partaking in these public conversations in writing…conversation explodes,” said Anaïs Saint-Jude, BiblioTech’s director. “It’s very much akin to what is going on today with Facebook, blogs, Twitter…the proliferation of new virtual spaces that allows for lots of new communication across the world. It’s akin to what it feels like for us–a psychological avalanche.”

Edelstein also mentioned future research that could stem from the project. He is currently working in conjunction with University of Oxford researchers on a mapping of major places of publication in the 1700s. He aims to examine the interdependencies between geographic place and published content.

“Why are some places more important than others in different intellectual climates?” he said.

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