To my surprise and delight, I was selected to do a solo presentation at SXSW this March in Austin. The proposal I put together was about archiving and how digital technologies are changing the ways we create and store personal artifacts like photos and letters. Instead of leaving behind a paper trail of photographs and old letters that future generations could potentially find, we are creating and housing our personal artifacts in companies – Facebook, Instagram, Gmail. This results in a whole host of problems that people generally don’t think about.
“I have discovered,” I tell my husband recently over a dinner out with copious wine, “that archiving is humanity and love.” I take a sip of wine, “Archiving is blowing my mind.”
Recently, this sort of declaration isn’t out of the norm for me. Since my proposal was selected a few months ago, I’ve been going around town interviewing a whole host of very interesting people. Like Andy Hunter, who started the beloved app Broadcastr, a geo-location app where you could tell personal stories anonymously and tag the stories to a location. Allowing people to walk around a city listening to an invisible narrative. “This is the mailbox where I had my first kiss…” “This is the corner where my father had a heart attack…” Broadcastr was the app that, when it shut down this summer, inspired this whole project for me.
“We worked with The Human Rights Watch to collect stories in Tahrir Square, we worked with the 9/11 memorial to collect stories from survivors on the 10 year anniversary,” Hunter told me. “When we launched the app, there was an archiving aspect to it. Imagine moving into an apartment in the Lower East Side, imagine being able to hear stories from that apartment- the people who lived there, the lives they led – stories of that apartment over years, over decades.”
“That would be,” the hope of these ideas put me on the brink of tears, “amazing.”
Hunter explained that how Broadcastr is shutting down, giving people the option to pull out their stories (“Though only about 5% of our users have.”) is time-consuming and expensive. “We view ourselves as doing the responsible thing, by allowing this option for as long as we can afford to.”
“What we are choosing to capture is drastically changing,” Professor Wosh, the head of the NYU Archiving Department, tells me. “With Kodak you had a roll of film that would take 18 pictures. You took these pictures during special events, graduations, birthdays. Now you take pictures of everything; 15 pictures of the way snow looks on a tree branch.”
“We are now in the culture of, if you don’t share it, it doesn’t exist,” he says. A common idea. The volume and volume of nonsense we share on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. A picture of the turkey sandwich we ate for lunch.
But with archiving, what I can’t stop thinking about, why I think it’s so important is that, No, it’s not about “If you don’t share it,” it’s about “If you don’t save it.”
If you don’t save it, you won’t exist.
When I am interviewing people, or this project comes up, people ask me when I became interested in archiving. I tell them during my master’s work at NYU. I took an archiving class on a whim as an elective. I was actively studying how social networking sites change the ways we articulate ourselves and interact with an “invisible audience.” (This was eons ago in social media time. My thesis actually explores Friendster, amongst other antiquated platforms.) Sitting through this archiving class, realizing the value of being able to explore what is saved from different periods of time, against the lens of how people were currently creating their lives digitally blew my mind.
“I remember you,” Professor Wosh said when I reached out to him for an interview, “you were the first person I had worked with who was really interested in archiving and social media.”
I was at my parents house, in my childhood bedroom, when I realized that no, graduate school was not the first time I became interested in archiving. Actually, I have been deeply obsessed with archiving since the 3rd grade when I started my first diary. I just didn’t have the right words to describe what I was spending so much time doing.
Archiving, cataloguing. Indexing my life (which I thought was extremely interesting) in a way that someone could trace and follow. I printed out AOL emails and bound them. I included relevant photos and newspaper clippings, dated, in my diaries which I maintained daily until I was 23 years old. I have a box with files of the names of my friends labelled on beige folders, in each folder includes all of their letters and notes we would pass class.
I remember why I was doing this. I was doing this because when I was old and had lost my mind, I imagined myself sitting in a nursing home alone and having a nurse read my life back to me. From 3rd grade on. I remarked on this through my early journals. I noted the “good entries,” when something juicy happened – I kissed a boy, I drank stolen beers with friends behind Kate’s garage. I thought my old, senile self would particularly enjoy these chapters.
I’m 31 years old now. As it turns out, there is a great deal of my early life that I catalogued that I don’t remember at all. I didn’t have to wait until I was 102. When I visit my parents, I will get lost in this. Picking up a journal when I was in 6th grade. I’ll cringe at an entry and will be amusingly embarrassed about who I was, but then I’ll turn the page and read a new entry and will become fiercely proud of this girl. This young, strange, driven girl. Who is this person? I will wonder endlessly. Who wrote in these diaries, who had braces and bangs? She is dead. I know this deep inside of me. I am not, actually, her. And all that exists of her, all that is left that I or anyone will ever know about her, is what she left behind. The things she saved.
When you wander deeper into archival theory, it gets a little less pure than I’d like. A little more academic and theory-heavy. Like the problem of curating what to save.
“Can’t you just print out the photos and letters from Gmail or Facebook that you want to save?” I asked Professor Wosh, “Is that what archivists are recommending?”
“No,” he says, “that is not recommended. When you print, you are selective with what you print out. You choose what is important.” (Who then does decide what is important? Wouldn’t this always change with time and perspective?)
“Plus, archivists now believe it’s important to understand the full digital context. It’s not just the single document. Where does it click to? What are the comments? The document is no longer one-dimensional.”
It goes on. It’s gets more complicated. And there isn’t a clear solution, a clear answer of what to do to responsibly preserve your personal artifacts. But I’ll get into this more during my presentation.
What I’ll leave you with is the first, wine-drunk thought I declared to my husband in the beginning of this essay: Archiving is humanity and love.
I was thinking about the people who, because of what was saved that they left behind, in their death have become historical icons. Bigger than a person, pieces of humanity. The big ones that come to mind are Anne Frank, Vincent Van Gogh, and more recently, John Kennedy Toole.
A writer of a diary during a war, a painter with a crooked mind, a writer of a Pulitzer Prize winning book nobody wanted to publish. What do all of these people have in common? Somebody fiercely loved them, somebody fiercely wanted to keep them alive. Her father, his brother, his mother.
Generally, ordinary people aren’t thinking about their own archives. It forces them to face their own mortality and many people are uncomfortable with this. Generally, what is saved is an accident. And what is preserved?
The archive is a fierce act of love.