I just came across a most interesting post by Ben Parr over at Mashable, entitled “5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History.” Go ahead and take a look, I’ll wait.
Got the idea? Basically social media is open, “archived,” “organized” and ready for immediate analysis by future scholars who, in wondering how social trends developed, can look back one-hundred years across “Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, forums, and search habits” to gain a deep and, more important, true, sense of history.
In theory, this is true. We do record more data about our thoughts and feelings on social media tools than any previous generation has had the opportunity (or the willingness) to do. However, this does not mean ipso facto that we will be allowed to have access to this information for eternity. Tweets are hardly archived for more than a week in Twitter’s search engine. Parr’s own link at the bottom of his post was broken when I read the article. We all know the frustrating reality of rotten and broken links on old websites.
I have schoolwork to do, so I’ll be brief in my critique on the problems of the notions of social media’s persistence:
- The first problem is link shorteners. Twurl went down once, we’ve already seen the problems that can arise from our favorite tweet-enabling link service having server trouble. “Archival” tweets will forever be associated with what will most likely end up as unresolvable links to unknown content.
- The second problem is the tweets (or statuses, or forum posts) themselves. We don’t just “have” Facebook and Twitter to analyze. Facebook has Facebook. And whether or not we get to look at that data is up to them, or whomever owns the rights in a hundred years. And who’s to say anyone will? What if Twitter doesn’t get another round of funding and drops server support? We’ll be left with personal backups from strange people scattered across the globe in God-only-knows-what format.
- Finally, the notion of the social media “archive” is short-sighted at best. At worst, it doesn’t even exist. Parr says “the information is archived, easily organized, and a large stock of it is readily available to the public.” Regardless of whether the organization of social media data is “easy” the problem remains whether it is accessible or well organized at all. In my mind, social media data is disparate, context-dependent and, worst of all, proprietary.
This is not to say that the potential for social media to be groundbreaking in terms of social and possibly even recorded history does not exist. It does, and Parr is right in pointing it out. However, we can’t start the process of ensuring long-term access to social media from a position of blissful ignorance. We have a long, long road to travel before the data stored in our social media activities is available for use (viewable by the public does not equal usable for study), well-organized (reverse-chronological order does not equal structured) or archived (search-able does not equal persistently available). We cannot just assume that these things will be around forever or we risk losing them sooner than we might imagine.