Recorded history, social media and the notion of the “archive”

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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4 thoughts on “Recorded history, social media and the notion of the “archive”

  1. Oh man, thanks for writing about this, Dan. That article made me cringe in multiple ways. The term “blissful ignorance” is a good way to put it — I think that records managers, IT folks, and librarians all need to raise awareness of the ephemeral and often proprietary nature of electronic information. Often we need to be more aware of it ourselves.

    I think this article is based on an extremely flawed notion of historical truth. Tweets are a pretty flawed way to remember what you were actually doing in the moment, because they are a description of your time, rather than the result of your activity. That is, I can Tweet something without it being true. Similarly, my Google calendar may show that I was scheduled to be in class, but that doesn’t mean that I was actually there. This is true about diaries as well — it doesn’t mean that these materials have no historical value, but it’s nonsense to think that these tools provide an objective and accurate snapshot of activity. It’s a great demonstration of how not all documents are records. Can you tell it’s a personal bugbear?

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    1. Thanks for responding Kelly, I thought you might have something to say about this issue 🙂

      The whole idea of digital identity and truth is such an interesting issue, I think, and something that I didn’t really touch on here, but is certainly relevant so thanks for bringing it up. One of the things I love best about being online is getting to pretend I can be whomever I want to be. On facebook, I post things that I think are funny, but on Twitter I usually try to share some professional value. Last.fm archives what I listen to, and that is a whole other silo of data, but it doesn’t really reflect on who I am necessarily. And what about satirical figures or “historical tweets“? It is wild out there! What a time to be alive!

      It dismays me that there’s not more of an effort on having a true data store for this stuff, but social media is too young and still far too segmented for that to be a reality right now. Links are opening up between some platforms, and I don’t think the idea of a framework like OAIS for social media is out of the question, but for Mashable to suggest that it’s “archived” today, and will continue to be in the future, is just irresponsible.

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  2. Very interesting. In your third point you mention that the data is proprietary, and I guess it’s doubly proprietary – because the person who post’s it owns it as well as the site to which he/she posts. My point being that the original poster can delete or edit it before it’s archived, so it’s there as long as it’s there. And who knows, the site owners could also delete it or edit it as it’s archived – to paraphrase one of the comments on the Mashable post, “who are you going to trust as the Librarian of History?”

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  3. Your post reminds me of Kelly’s comments about Jenkins and his best-known work “Manual of Archive Administration”. Jenkins says that records are “impartial” so the task of selection is a matter of choosing documents that best describe “what happened”. As Kelly reminds us above, much of the Twitter chattering classes does not much history make. We will still need mechanisms to filter out, select and archive accordingly. I hope American’s next top information professional writes about this and soon.

    Dean

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