Social media can be seen as a close mirror of modern society. Centralized on big internet platforms they yield massive amounts of data each day. The amount of data is huge, the level of detail is almost arbitrarily high and most of the data exists already in machine readable form. Digital humanities researchers mostly do not have this convenient access to data about the past. However, there is rising interest in reconstruct relationships amongst people in history in order to gain augmented context information about important roles and also to discover functions that have not been explicitly mentioned so far. The abstract reviewed in the following illustrate personal networks can be reconstructed according to evidences like paintings or written documents.
The “History of Europe Application” described in  represents a broad approach to augmenting knowledge about Europe’s society throughout the history. Its goal is to build a so called social graph, where nodes represent historically relevant persons and edges between two nodes carry weights according to the persons’ co-occurrences. Edges also contain more detailed information and additional material like documents that are shared by the two connected people, i.e. both persons play a role or show up in together in images. Besides offering high user interaction, the application actually relies on users commenting and supporting the graph construction: The application is based on an image dataset picturing the main actors and events. After automatic face detection, the crowd has to verify location and identity of the detected faces. Also the additional material attached to the graph is verified by the crowd. Rather giving a strict false/true classification, facts are discussed in a forum-like way that helps to iteratively refine presented information.
Similar to  but more specific is the work of . Based on paintings, a graph of midieval saints is constructed. Directed weighted links between saints (nodes) reflect the occurrence of one saint with the other being present as well or not. This information is used to infer the prestige of the individual saints. In the end, the researchers were able to show trends among the prestige of various saints. While  is trying to reconstruct social relationships during a big historical development, this work attempts to infer religious trends given occurrences of saints in paintings.
Another case study is presented in . Other than the above, this work is based on legal documents instead of images. Also it does not specify how the findings eventually stored or published. Using a database called “People of Midieval Scotland”, the author computes statistics about brokerage activities of one Scottish earl and compares them to those of the actual chancellor. Looking at the result gives rise to assumption that this earl played a more important role in the Scottish government than initially guessed. Hence, this abstract shows yet another promising result of social network analysis applied to historical data, which is revealing unseen relationships or even identifying unknown players.
This selection of abstracts illustrates both methods and actual purposes of historical social network analysis. All three works have in common that they focus primarily on data of important people and their possible relationships in the past. Each of the three is following a slightly different purpose but eventually all of them build up on the reconstruction of evident or infered interplays of personalities of the past. Compared to the amount of data available to perform the same task on current society, historical data is much more sparse and requires a high amount of handcraft. Still, the results and opportunities we gain from it makes the effort worth to investigate further in the historical reconstruction of social networks.
References (all taken from Digital Humanities 2014, Lausanne):
1. Wieneke, Lars, e. a.: Building the social graph of the History of European Integration: A pipeline for the Integration of Human and Machine Computation (http://dharchive.org/paper/DH2014/Paper-884.xml)
2. Lombardi, Thomas: Mining the Cloud of Witness: Inferring the Prestige of Saints from Medieval Paintings (http://dharchive.org/paper/DH2014/Paper-643.xml)
3. Jackson, Cornell Alexander: Using Social Network Analysis to Reveal Unseen Relationships in Medieval Scotland (http://dharchive.org/paper/DH2014/Paper-881.xml)