Historical events and figures are sometimes difficult to relate to or to understand because they are separated from us in both time and space. Just as visiting the site of an important historical event can make heighten both interest and awareness by reducing the space dimension, imaging historical figures in present day can bring these characters to life.
The goal of this project is to imagine how Francesco Foscari, a politician from the Venetian Republic in the 15th century, would interact on Twitter. In order to accomplish this, we needed to know biographical elements of Foscari’s life, historical events taking place in Venice at that time, and other aspects of daily life in Venice. We also looked at how Foscari is portrayed in Byron’s play “The Two Foscari”. Furthermore, we studied Twitter, and how it has been used by the general public, by political figures, and by other historians representing historical figures.
The Gantt Chart below shows the progression of this project. The project is divided into four consecutive phases: researching Francesco Foscari and Venetian life during his time as Doge; studying historical twitter accounts for lessons learned, as well as twitter culture (hashtags, retweets, etc.), in order to incorporate these aspects into our twitter feed; constructing a story, told through tweets, that will be disseminated over the period of a month; and finally the dissemination of the tweets through the twitter account @F_Foscari over the final four weeks of the project. Today we are in the final weeks of Phase IV of the project and we are currently tweeting from @F_Foscari.
Francesco Foscari was the Doge of Venice from 1423-1457, the longest reign of any of the doges. He participated in many wars during his time as doge and also experienced his fair share of political scandals, beginning with his election. In 15th Century Venice, the Doge was elected from the noble families of Venice through a series of 10 rounds of voting. Allegations were made that the outcome of the election in 1423 was engineered, in order to elect Foscari. “It was claimed that [Foscari’s] supporters had engineered this win by voting in earlier ballots for a candidate that no-one wanted, thus enticing others to vote for Foscari, and then suddenly switching their votes.” (Mowbray)
The time immediately preceding and following this election is particularly interesting, and is the focus of our Twitter project. Despite the allegations during the election process, Foscari was made Doge in 1423. In the Venetian Republic, many ceremonies and public tributes were made to the new Doge, which could take place over the period of many weeks or months. Jousts, normally banned in Venice at this time, were held in Piazza San Marco. Many masses and parades also took place in this period.
One important ceremony was the transfer of the Dogaressa to the Ducal Palace. This ceremony followed many of the same traditions as a wedding ceremony. While it is not clear exactly when Marina Nani formally joined her husband in the Palace, records do show that the ceremony was delayed due to the arrival of the plague in Venice.
On the homefront, the plague was causing much concern in Venice. A new hospital was built on the outskirts of town in order to treat visitors and hopefully prevent the spread of the disease into the city. Foscari was also dealing with the political day-to-day following his election. One of his first mandates was to elect his successor as the Procurator of San Marco de Citra, the person who would be responsible for the dispersal of charity within the Republic. Foscari, a patron of the arts, also commissioned works for the city and the building of a new chapel honouring the Virgin Mary in the Basilica San Marco.
Abroad, a political scandal was brewing. News arrived in Venice that the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiolagos, had died in Thessalonica, although in fact he was only very ill. He relinquished power to his son. Facing threats from Sultan Murad II of the Ottoman Empire, John was seeking protection for Thessalonica. There was growing concern in the Republic of Venice that Murad II was posing a threat to the eastern regions, in particular the ‘Eyes of the Republic’ Modon and Coron. The Venetian Senate voted to accept Thessalonica into the Republic and sent two representatives, Niccolo Zorzi and Santo Venier, to represent Venetian interests. The struggles with Thessalonica and the Ottoman empire continued on for many years.
Twitter Culture and Communication
It is important to understand the complex communication environment on Twitter, in order to understand some of the phenomena observed. In their article Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter, published in the book ‘Twitter and Society” Axel Bruns and Hallvard Moe posit there are three distinct levels of communication on twitter: micro, meso and macro. Each level has its own characteristics and reaches a different subset of the twitter population. The diagram below shows the three different layers of communication on Twitter.
The default communication level, or meso, is the communication that occurs between a particular account and all the account followers. Tweets from any given account are automatically disseminated into the feed of all followers.
The macro communication environment is the communication that occurs between Twitter users using hashtags, surrounding a particular subject. This communication does not require that users follow each other in order to participate or follow a conversation. According to Bruns and Moe, “the communicative flows which result from the establishment of active hashtag exchanges, at least in the short term, are usually less predictable than those enabled by follower-followee networks – but they are also amongst the most visible phenomena on Twitter”.
The final layer of communication on Twitter, as described by Bruns and Moe, is the micro layer, or the @reply communication level. Any tweets including a user’s address (@username), will be displayed in their mentions feed. Mentions are “seen, therefore, as attempts to strike up a conversation with another Twitter user; any known Twitter user may be addressed in this way, regardless of whether the addressee is already connected to the sender […]”. Tweets that begin with an @username are excluded from broadcast to a general feed, and although these tweets are not private, they generally only concern the sender and receiver.
It is important to note that communication is not confined to a specific layer, and tweets may transition between the different layers. For example, a micro layer tweet, directed a single user, may also contain a hashtag that will broadcast this tweet on the macro level. A tweet can be moved from the micro level to the meso level through the use of the ‘Twitter dot” or placing a ‘.’ before the @username. This ‘tricks’ Twitter into broadcasting the tweet to all followers of the account rather than just the mentioned recipient.
One of the most important ways that tweets transition between communication layers is the retweet. “Retweets—another user-generated communicative convention on Twitter—constitute a mechanism which is inherently designed to move tweets across layer boundaries: Twitter users habitually use them to bring messages from the hashtag level to the attention of their own followers […], or even to that of specific recipients, e.g., through manual retweets to which they have added an @mention of the intended addressee”.
When using twitter as the medium to portray a historical figure, it is important to integrate the cultural aspects of Twitter. Some of these aspects, such as hashtags and emojis, will be easier to integrate than others.
Hashtags are used on Twitter in a few different ways. The original purpose of hashtags, to easily be able to find tweets pertaining to a similar topic, is still used. Often when events are being live-tweeted, users will all use the same hashtag to participate in the conversation. An example of this is shown below, where Barack Obama is tweeting about his healthcare program (Obamacare).
However, hashtags have evolved on twitter for two other purposes: online conventions and asides. Online conventions include #tbt (Throwback Thursday) in which users using this hashtag will share a photo or an event from the past. Asides are commentary that a user will provide on their tweet. These can include commonly used abbreviations (eg. #smh) or simply words to express emotions (#blessed). Both online conventions and asides will be incorporated into our Twitter feed.
Emojis are pictograms that are used in text-speak. They include smileys that convey emotions, and images of objects. They are included in tweets to further convey feelings, or to provide emphasis to the contents of the tweets.
Beyond the different layers of communication, there are other features of communicating on the microblogging site to take into consideration. Twitter imposes a limit of 140 characters per tweet. This requirement makes creativity important. A tweet needs to convey emotion and personality while also relating historically accurate facts. As discussed in the previous blogpost, he use of Twitter elements (emojis, hashtags, etc.) can help convey ideas in fewer characters. Many of the tweets will employ these elements. This character limit will also make it difficult to accurately convey In our profile biography, we will include a limited bibliography as well as a link to our project on the Venice Atlas site, in order to provide further context to our tweets.
Historical Twitter Accounts
Beyond understanding how Twitter is used by the general public, we also considered how this medium is being used by other historians to represent historical figures and events. Sean Munger, who tweets as Alexis I Comnenus (@CryforByzantium), wrote a blog titled “How To Be a Historical Figure On Twitter: A Few Tips.”. His blog post gives interesting insights into how to most effectively engage with your audience through historical tweets. Some of his advice may not be entirely relevant to our situation (such as securing a twitter handle); however he does provide some advice on how to take advantage of some of the artefacts of twitter, such as the conversation features, and on how to gain followers. Munger often uses humour in his tweets as it makes the information more entertaining to his followers.
Another good example of an historical twitter the representation of Samuel Pepys (@samuelpepys), the 17th century London diarist. As a diarist, Pepys left behind a well of information, which provides much more source material than we have available for Foscari. However, this twitter account is a good example of tweeting from the perspective of a historical figure. Unlike the account of Alexis I Comnenus, Samuel Pepys tends to be a straighter portrayal. The account really brings London in the 17th Century to Life.
Twitter Feed of Francesco Foscari
When imagining how Francesco Foscari might tweet if he were here in the present day, we decided to look at the twitter feed of public figures in a similar position. We studied the twitter feed of Barack Obama (@barackobama), among other feeds to understand how twitter elements, such as hashtags and emojis, are employed, what tone is used in their tweets, as well as how these accounts interact with their users.
If we look at the example of Barack Obama, although his tweets contain humour and can be lighthearted, they are often related to political message. As can be seen in the tweets below, Obama will often employ hashtags to link tweets to his political message, as seen here #ActOnClimate.
We tried to use a similar tactic by using the hashtag #PlagueFreeVenice on all tweets relating to actions taken or messages communicated by Foscari relating to the prevention of the Plague in Venice. Obama does not interact directly with his followers and tends to stay very on message, rather than discussing day-to-day events. We decided to replicate this type of messaging in Foscari’s tweets. We set strict guidelines, that Foscari would only respond in the case that a tweet was directed at him, and that such a tweet could be responded realistically as Foscari (ie. relates to his life, his opinion, etc.). We imagined that, as a politician, he primarily wants to communicate his political message rather than details from his personal life and this is reflected in the content of his tweets. In Lord Byron’s play, Foscari is portrayed as a man very loyal to his state. While this may not align fully with the historical accounts of Foscari, we decided that certainly the outward message politicians look to display would align with this portrayal. Like many politicians today, Foscari’s account conveys political messages and remains largely away his personal life.
Response to Twitter Feed
One of the biggest challenges with Twitter is gaining a following. While this was not the primary goal of our project, we wanted to take a look at how our followers have responded to our project. We advertised our project by advising friends, family, and members of the EPFL community. We are currently about halfway through the project. To date we have attracted 15 followers, although this may continue to grow over the course of the project. In total, tweets from Francesco Foscari were retweeted three times and were five times favorited. Furthermore, the twitter account was mentioned several times by people who are not part of our followers. But no one tried to interact directly with @F_Foscari – at least until now. The last post will be tweeted on 27th of May, the day of the Digital Humanities Demo Fair here at EPFL.
- Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations by Donald M. Nicol
- Electing the Doge of Venice: Analysis of a 13th Century Protocol by Miranda Mowbray and Dieter Gollmann
- Imperialistische Gelüste in Spiegel Geschichte Vol. 3, 2012 by Georg Bönisch
- Renaissance Essays: The Doge Francesco Foscari by Hugh Trevor-Roper
- Structural Layers of Communication on Twitter in Twitter and Society by Katrin Weller, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Merja Mahrt, and Cornelius Puschmann
- The Likeness of Venice: A Life of Doge Francesco Foscari 1373-1457 by Dennis Romano
- The Two Foscari by George Gordon Byron
- Venice and Thessalonica 1423-1430: The Venetian Documents by John R. Melville-Jones