The Implications of Archiving Social Media

In her article, “Future Historians Probably Won’t Understand Our Internet, and That’s Okay”, Alexis Madrigal explores the feasibility of archiving digital platforms such as social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). She provides an example where Twitter offered their public tweets to the Library of Congress to archive. One LOC librarian excitedly said, “It boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data.” Unfortunately, “a single search of just the Twitter data from 2006 to 2010 could take 24 hours.” Suddenly, sociologists and researchers who were excited about this incredible resource of information are realizing that there is such a thing as too much information. To quickly get a sense of just how much information the LOC would have to process, check this out.

Aside from the overwhelming amount of data that archivists would have to deal with, there is also the question of how to archive the ~experience~ of social media versus just the data found on social media. Yes, the sheer number of tweets or posts shows us how engrossed the world has become in social media, but there’s no way to capture the experience of each individual user. First off, at least right now, it is impossible to capture the emotional and psychological responses that are perhaps the most powerful aspect of social media; many would claim that the addictive nature and the “connections” that people feel they make over Facebook or Twitter are why these apps are so popular. Aside from this, the other part holding back the archiving of social media is that each person’s experience is difference. Not only is it different from user to user, it is different for each user every single time they log onto it. The purpose of archiving is to preserve the history of past events. Therefore, how can we possibly even consider archiving social media when every platform is constantly evolving? Even if our posts and tweets are final and sent out, they are only a fraction of the archival value if they aren’t within context. The context is constantly changing because the platforms are constantly changing.

Twitter and Facebook are constantly changing because of the algorithms that they may or may not understand. Say for example I go on Twitter and I use a hashtag or explore tweets that are related to the hashtag. The next time I go on Twitter, the content that is fed to me will likely be somehow connected with the hashtag that I explored the previous time. Snapchat’s algorithm use this same logic; based off of our friends interests and the searches we’ve performed in our phone and a million other things, they feed us certain news articles and certain filters they think we will use. When considering this, it begs the question: is this a form of stereotyping? This targeting of certain audiences that they think will enjoy certain content is not only stereotyping, but it’s also an act of exclusion for those left out of the target audience. Archiving is an important action, but the age of social media has rendered the traditional sense of archiving somewhat useless. Perhaps this is for the best.

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3 thoughts on “The Implications of Archiving Social Media

  1. I would like to explore your last thought in a little more detail. Is the inability to archive social media posts, such as Tweets for the best? For example, if we were unable to learn from the use of social media as a platform to spread fake news or to accumulate user information, how would we be able to prevent further escalations of private corporations and corrupt government entities from using our information against us? Maybe future historians do need to understand us, so they can extract the overarching and repetitive themes of a failing “democracy.” Therefore, archivists must also understand the context in which social media posts operate within, which is more nuanced and more complicated than simply recording down “written” history. I believe this is a fascinating field in which digital humanists may explore. How do we archive digital media in a form where it is comprehensible to a wide audience and do we revolutionize the way we teach history to future generations?

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  2. I really like your discussion about what’s at stake in archiving–what stories get told by people actively choosing to tell a certain story and which ones get left out, intentionally or unintentionally silenced? These questions bear a great importance in regard to social media especially, considering the different types of communities that form on them. I’m thinking specifically about Tumblr, and the ways in which the black queer leftist community really finds a voice on there. I’m thinking about black Twitter, and the ways in which they critique powerful celebrities or the state or other power structures using AAVEE and other manifestations of black culture. Are these stories that the LOC wants to tell? Do they want to see communities of people calling about power celebrities for racism or critiquing the state for its role in toppling foreign governments? These are the real things that social media is being used for in this day and age, but such stories may not be easily palatable to the power structures who have the power to decide what to archive, what the build a narrative around, and what to ignore.

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  3. There’s a theory that I thought of while reading your post — some people think that in around 50-100 years, these decades during which we are currently living will be “the lost years”. Very little data is stored on physical media nowadays — almost everything is digitized, if it is archived at all. When we inevitably lose the ability to interpret this data – as we have with many media of the past (who owns a VHS player anymore?), it will get lost to the ages, and eventually may be unable to be interpreted in general. The implications of this are far reaching, and something that would be really interesting to think about a solution to in detail.

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