Online history of online histories.

This is an aside to part 2 of my series on the online history of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and focuses on the nature of online sources.

Though the series is on the decline of the tunnel as related by ever-improving technology, the apparatuses to document the transmission of information from one source to another have changed as well. In oral histories, autoclitics express the degree of certainty of the speaker, and parentheticals like, “as we were just saying” confirm the place of the utterance in a larger context; in writing, citations perform these functions– but paper is static, and the internet is not. Consequently, the changing nature of documentation online has shaped the various reports on the turnpike.

The mechanics of referencing have generated a considerable amount of interest as technology capable of dispersing information grows more sophisticated and available. The PEW Research Center reports that 64% of Americans own a smartphone. High schoolers who graduate this year will have never lived in a world without search engines. All of this makes me feel incredibly old, and I am not very old, but I did have to memorize the MLA format to document my work in a world that was not easily searchable (and validate my work, as well).

The essay References, Please describes the overabundance of information involved in academic writing as an “appeal to authority.” This authority places the body of work and the author beyond the reproach of the reader in a distinctly inegalitarian attitude that is unlikely to persist in the horizontal landscape of the internet. The very earliest sources like PENNWAYS use the conventions for books at the time and have intellectual property considerations. In contrast, later-coming pages use one or a combination of the developing reference styles for online resources. This blog, for example, uses hyperlinks almost exclusively and is shareable across several platforms. I guess I have retained some copyright, but honestly, nobody has ever wanted anything on here and I have never looked into it. The most recent additions about the turnpike are geotagged photos on Instagram– more accurate than most maps and searchable by hashtag.

Style guides proscribing citation practices have responded to the new demands of online writing; APA format, the style used by psychologists and in many scientific and medical journals, retains the requirement of urls in citations. The APA style guide blog does not have a readily available reason for this. However, having written within both disciplines, it seems like sources relevant to science and medicine are more durable than those of the Humanities– which might be called upon to analyze the jokes on bubblegum wrappers and the like.

MLA, the format used for writing about the humanities (including modern languages like English along with its literature and the critiques of it), has abandoned the url as a part of references. As the creator of several link-heavy posts, I can attest that urls change often. If I had to estimate, links to sources other than Wikipedia have a life of a few years. Reflecting that, the MLA’s new approach encourages critical thinking in citing, making referencing part of a conversation, to “future-proof” the references of current documents. The nature of authorship may be changing, as well, but that would be better addressed in another post. Hyperallergic’s article on plagiarism and art describes the new MLA guide for online citations:

“The Modern Language Association just released a new version of its style handbook that departs from its predecessor’s fetishism of citation minutiae in order to show how documenting sources is a crucial way to publicly record meaningful conversations in a changing digital world.”

I find this fascinating, even if it is dry and academic. The above quote describes citations as a record of “conversations,” and when understood as such, they can give insight into the writer’s thought process and place the piece in question into a larger narrative. Online citations are particularly tricky: the format permits traditional references, comments, hyperlinks, screenshots, edit logs, and more. The OWL at Purdue has devoted special attention to this subject, but the conversation is far from over.

One trend online has been to do away with references completely, and rely upon the reader to do the work when it is necessary. It is easier, as a writer, to place that burden upon the reader, but as scholarly author Kathleen Fitzpatrick points out, content on the web is reposted and altered, abbreviated, and present to varying degrees of reliability in multiple places. Her essay Why citations still matter in the age of Google describes citations as “always future-oriented,” no matter their apparent preoccupation with the past.

Because I am playing archivist with this series, I have to agree. Hopefully, this post was valuable to you in some way, thanks for reading.

For more like this, continue to The Abandonment Project.

parting shot

parting shot

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