Archiving Social Media

In an article posted yesterday under the title 5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History, Mashable co-editor Ben Parr writes,

For the first time in human history, the day-to-day interactions between people are being permanently recorded and formatted in easily organizable segments of information.

I don’t disagree that social media is poised to change the way the history of the early 21st century is written. But I’m not at all convinced social media interactions are being “permanently recorded” or “formatted” in ways that will be useful to future historical inquiry. As a session organized by Jeff McClurken at this year’s THATCamp made clear, there are still lots of unanswered questions swirling around the issue of archiving social media. Indeed, I’m not sure we understand the full range of questions involved—standards and interoperability, privacy and copyright, preserving context, mapping personal networks, etc., etc.—let alone the answers.

For nearly a decade now, my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media and I have been investigating the problems and opportunities that internet ephemera presents for scholars and archivists, exploring and implementing best practices for collecting the born-digital record of unfolding events through projects like the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. New social media and their traces (Tweets, Facebook status updates) present a new set of questions for this ongoing project. If past experience tells us anything, the full range of those questions won’t be readily apparent until we begin the actual work of archiving social media. It also suggests we have to move quickly.

With that in mind, we are already getting down to business, laying the groundwork for a 2010 workshop of collections professionals, scholars, social media experts like Ben Parr, and representatives from the most popular social networking services to start this project and make sure these unprecedented—but as yet still potential—historical riches are in fact “permanently recorded” and properly “formatted” for scholarly access.

Stay tuned.

14 Replies to “Archiving Social Media”

  1. I hope your workshop will consider the fact that most people don’t want their social media interactions to be “permanently recorded.” While I’m sure the social networking services would love to have a “scholarly” excuse for keeping their logs forever, there are strong privacy arguments against doing so. For me, those arguments trump the interests of tomorrow’s historians. When will we stop pursuing the chimera of a “perfect historical record” and recognize that more data won’t make the writing of history any more scientific?

  2. Pingback: Ryan Shaw
  3. Hi, as historian and ethnologist and last but not least professor in documentation studies, one should expect that I should turn into hurra mode and be so happy, but I completely agree with my former student Ryan, and would like to add two more moments:
    social media like facebook are public media, but not official media ! they are not governmental documents supposed to be stored in order to ensure that officials are doing what they are supposed to do and we can check them not do something wrong and thats why Cheney and other guys in the near past should not have used their private email account while doing governmental stuff, but they should have used governmental accounts supposed to be stored ! private emails as well as christmas cards and love letters are not supposed to be stored for ever, it is going into absurdum like Paul Otlet 100 years ago was dreaming about building a parallel world in order to document it completely, because what about what we are saying to each other without texting or skyping ! and one last thing: who are representative stakeholders for all the users of facebook ???

  4. @niels: Thanks for this comment. I absolutely agree that these are very important concerns, which is the main justification for the workshop. It is important that we get this right.

    However, I’m not willing to concede that just because the creators of these public social media never intended them to be preserved. and just because they aren’t government documents, that we somehow can’t or shouldn’t ever archive them. Archives, libraries, and museums are full of materials never intended for preservation—letters and postcards, as you say, but also posters, pamphlets, recordings, and public announcements of all kinds, church bulletins, graffiti, protest signs, etc. They are also full of unofficial, non-governmental records. Indeed, this is the very definition of ephemera, without which whole sub-disciplines of history would be impossible, including social and cultural history.

    So, yes, I definitely agree we have to be cognizant and respectful of creators’ rights and sensitivities in choosing what, how much, and when to archive social media. But doing so doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t save anything of this important piece of the unfolding historical record.

  5. Tom, you’ve made an important clarification in your last comment. You specified that you’re talking about public social media, i.e. things anyone with a web browser can see. That is quite different from Parr’s vision of all interactions being archived. For example, most of Facebook is not public and should be considered off-limits to archiving. Twitter, on the other hand, is mostly public, and as such I have no problem with efforts to archive it. But this then raises the question of why representatives from these services need to be involved in an archiving discussion at all: if we’re talking about the public web, isn’t this a matter of web archiving rather than something specific to social media?

    It’s true that our archives contain documents like letters and diaries not originally intended for public consumption. But we should consider how those documents ended up there. In most cases, it is because the author or someone personally connected with the author took it upon themselves to preserve those documents, and then made a conscious decision to give them to an institution. They didn’t get there because the post office made copies of every letter mailed. Integrating an archiving process at the level of social networking services sounds more like the latter than the former.

    Finally, it’s worth considering that anything which makes it easier for historians to access and use archived social media will also make it easier for less sympathetic characters to access and use it. Spammers and criminals already troll social media services for usable data, and would be thrilled if it were easier to do so.

  6. One of the problems government entities may face when using social media is how to preserve the record. For example, if a state historical society creates a Facebook fan page, is it obliged to archive what the public posts on the fan page’s wall? Do state retention schedules for correspondence apply to such records? This isn’t to dissuade government from making use of what is becoming an important communication tool, but policies on social media use should reflect statutory concerns.

  7. @Ryan, @Pete: Good points. All things that need to be hammered out. I certainly can’t do that on this blog, which is exactly why we’re getting the conversation started and workshop planned.

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