Adapted from a section of my MA thesis; over 100 hundred participants were interviewed about their online behavior
All of my photos since high school are on Facebook.
-23 year old female, PA
“With no paper, there would be no pages / journals all asking the same question repeatedly / WHO. AM I? / The wise would answer this question still unwritten / with simplicity and truth they would say / you are and you are becoming”
-What That There Were a World Without Paper; Britt Hultgren
MyLife: An introduction
About two months after having graduated from college with high hopes and high honors I found myself in the same college town, in the same dingy apartment not doing much. Summer slipped away and with it went my articulations for what I planned to do next, where I planned to go, most of which turned into little more than a dribble of I don’t knows.
I didn’t know.
In a sudden spree of haphazard decisions that I hoped would miraculously lead me to a place and understanding of acceptable post-college life, I deleted my Facebook account. This, I discovered after a few beers, was a surprisingly easy thing to do. A few clicks and gone. Four years of my developing, online social life kaput. Cyber proof of a (mostly) happy girl bubbling along, evidenced by both my own and my friends’ photos, posts and commentary, all vanished without a trace.
I turn now, half a decade later, to the challenges archivists face in the preservation of online social networking sites (SNSs) like Facebook, MySpace, Okurt, et al. This paper will argue for the archival importance, as well as addressing the difficulty, of preserving SNSs.
Step into an archivist’s loafers: The challenge
The age of technology shattered the rationale behind the archivist’s—very deliberate, very detailed—preexisting rules. As is often discussed in archival scholarship, the digital age changed everything (Cox, 2007; O’Sullivan, 2005; Marshall, 2008). And it is safe to say that so far, the discipline’s new rules have yet to be determined.”Life for the archivist is different than it was a mere decade ago and, it seems, working with researchers has irrevocably been transformed” (Cox, 1).
One (of many) headaches is deciding which format to implement to preserve collections both electronically and sustainably. The SAA points many campus cases in the direction of scanning the documents to a PDF file. But how long will PDF files remain popular in our ever sinuous technological world? The rapidly changing nature of technology is not so friendly to a discipline that is accustomed to boxing away documents created on acid free paper that preserved well can survive up to 500 years.
O’Sullivan rightly notes the comparably stunted lifespan of electronic records without the help of “some form of human intervention” (O’Sullivan, 54). Consider the doomsday antidote Susan Lukesh highlights: “Disaster! In 1975, the U.S. Census Bureau discovered that only two computers on earth can still read the 1960 census. The computerized index to a million Vietnam War records was entered on a hybrid motion picture film carrier that cannot be read. The bulk of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s research since 1985 is threatened because of poor storage” (Lukesh, 1).
And what about the future of Finding Aids? As Elizabeth Yakel points out online Finding Aids are practically identical to their hard-copy counterparts making scant use of possible technologies. The Finding Aid, she warns, is not properly evolving alongside today’s changing social cultures and online environments (Yakel, 2007). An issue discussed with fervor at the SAA’s 2008 annual convention, “Archival R/Evolution & Identities.”
These concerns only begin to address archiving traditional hardcopy or pre-digital collections. What about the process of archiving digital-born media like e-mail, blogs and online web videos?
The first issue that arises is sheer mass. “It took two centuries to fill the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. with more than 29 million books and periodicals, 2.7 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps, and 57 million manuscripts. Today it takes about 15 minutes for the world to churn out an equivalent amount of new digital information. It does so about 100 times every day” (Smith, 1).
With so many bumps in the road why don’t archivists just throw their arms in the air, turn their backs to computers and return to twiddling away at those Lincoln papers? Because they realize the vast and unprecedented value that blooms from the digital age. One such gem: SNSs.
There has been much written within the last decade about the importance of archiving e-mail correspondence. Susan Lukesh stresses the substance of “informal communication” to aid researchers’ understanding of a subject’s process and path in reaching the point of his or her masterpiece. Lukesh draws her argument from Herbert Menzel who in 1964 proclaimed: “There is no longer any doubt about the great role played by informal, person-to-person communication in the experiences of scientific investigators—often in ways that effect their work quite vitally” (Lukesh, 4). As letters archived from great minds of the past always make for an interesting read, we must seriously consider the e-mails.
In a similar fashion Catherine O’Sullivan makes a tidy argument for the importance of preserving online diary blogs, which she attests holds a like value to that of their hardcopy counterparts, (O’Sullivan, 2005). However, there seems to be a hole in archivists’ and media theorists’ discussions of how and why to preserve SNSs.
Facebook is the new scrapbook
Why are we obsessed with Facebook? No one really knows, but there surely are aspects of today’s American culture (for this study we will stay within the U.S. border, even though SNSs are more popular in other countries, like Russia) that could account for the collective popularity of SNSs. As the web becomes a place where we spend more and more of our time each day, naturally it will become an ever increasingly social environment. Perhaps SNSs are filling the void of our overall sense of loneliness created by today’s mainstream social geographies. In The New York Times, David Brooks notes author Joel Kotkin’s idea of today’s new phenomenon, “the New Localism,” a term he coins to describe the movement of people leaving behind the suburb and moving back into cities in search of human contact. He credits this to a generation that “moved to the suburbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds” (Brooks, 2008). Who knows.
But what I do know is that 75% of American adults between the ages of 18-24 are using SNSs as part of their daily routines (Pew Internet & American Life Project) and it is important to recognize the ways this is changing our social environment as well as SNSs overall importance to today’s collective culture.
danah boyd is a Stanford PhD candidate and MacArthur fellow, who enjoys a mainstream popularity for her work with young people and their relationships to online social networking sites. In many of boyds’ essays she returns to the fact that SNSs are revolutionary because they create a visible web of our social lives. They map what used to be invisible social boundaries and networks. boyd notes that SNSs have changed the organization of online communities, instead of web communities based around shared interests like a television show, a celebrity, pornography, SNSs build networks around people. “Social network sites are structured as personal (or “egocentric”) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community. This more accurately mirrors unmediated social structures, where the world is composed of networks, not groups. The introduction of SNS features has introduced a new organizational framework for online communities, and with it, a vibrant new research context,” (boyd, 2007).
SNSs visualize, and map, an active user’s personal growth and development, both in photographs, blogging, and corresponding. SNSs encourage users to both informally (and formally) communicate with one another while also offering a platform to document one’s feelings and ideas.This helps to promote and later, reflect upon, “the recording of reveries as part of an exploration (or construction) of one’s own identity,” as is described as a common held value of 19th century diaries (O’Sullivan, 60-1). And, not only are users expected to be introspective, tracking and recording feelings, ideas, one’s”about me,” etc. but simultaneously users must be extrospective as all content is “published” or “shared” with an audience.
Most SNSs encourage users to upload digital pictures and include diary-esq. posts, notes and/or blogs on SNS profiles in order to more fully shape an SNS identity. This results in people who might not have been inclined to keep a diary or scrapbook, to create the equivalent of such through an SNS. A 26-year old male from California ponders the possibility of this trend:
[SNSs are] pretty powerful. Seriously. And here’s the kicker, in all seriousness, the coolest thing about these sites, assuming it’s not a trend that doesn’t last, which I don’t think it is, is that these pictures you put up are going to be there for the rest of your life, you can show your kids these pictures, a montage of your life, so now you have this whole community of photos that all these people are taking and that’s your life. A recorded history.
321 Million* recorded histories
(There are presently over 321 million Facebook users)
SNSs are the new home to millions of digital photographs. 52% of survey respondents agreed that sharing photographs was a reason why SNSs has benefited their lives. Many users upload personal photographs directly from digital cameras to the computer, rarely bothering to make a paper copy. Archivist, Catherine Marshall, warns, “The value of digital assets changes over time with changing circumstances: An informal photo may not have been valuable when it was taken, but it may become so if the person in the photo dies (2007: 11).
This returns back to the issue of mass content versus value. Though three hundred slightly different photographs documenting the same sorority party often times isn’t the most valuable thing in the world—baby pictures might be. A 32-year old female survey respondent from Oregon expresses that the most beneficial aspect of SNSs in her life is allowing her the ability to post pictures and notes about her first born baby to her friends and family who live far away.
Yet, this poses a problem. Imagine this new mother posting baby pictures on her SNS profile. Shortly after a host of well wishes come in via Wall posts from friends and family. One friend might hyperlink to an online Best Wishes cards she has created using an online greeting card site. Another might link to a humorous YouTube video about the stresses of new parenthood. As personal artifacts are concerned, this is important to a family. Yet, there is no formal way to preserve these artifacts for the future interest of the child, or to look back on when the parents are older, the child has grown and moved out.
SNSs also track and make visible social trends. After Barack Obama won the presidential election SNS users, cleaning up their online profiles, might delete their memberships to groups like, “I am Voting for Change.” But shouldn’t it be recorded that for a few months tens of millions of Facebook users showed their support to presidential nominee Barack Obama in a Facebook group? Isn’t some of the commentary on the group’s Wall valuable artifacts for future historians to illustrate, decades to come, the political passion that fueled the “digital” air in the fall of 2008? Not to mention Barack Obama’s own Facebook page that houses hundreds of thousands of Wall comments where everyday people write things like this:
Hi Barack, you made us proud! America, you have renewed my trust in humanity! I am South African and I marvel at the fact that my child will grow up in a world where the greatest nation has been led by a black person, and see that as normal! Thank you America, and thank you Obama for living your dream and not suppressing it!” (Posted at 4:06pm, December 12, 2008).
This is the marrow of our society’s collective memory.
How do we save our online lives?
As people are spending more and more time updating and constructing SNS profiles less time is spent organizing personal artifacts like scrapbooks, diaries and photo albums, which might feel like a redundant chore. As Marshall attests, people have often been apt to organize and preserve our personal artifacts casually at best (2007). But at least throwing a few notable newspaper clippings and photographs in a shoebox allows for the possibility of a family member or researcher to discover the items in the future. This is not the case with SNSs.
Unlike traditional archive collections, SNSs—like most digital born media—is fluid in nature, perpetually moving with and through different technologies. In this way, SNSs nicely mirror “real” social lives, a web of networks, growing and shrinking in this direction and that while (hopefully) always evolving. Ironically, unlike real life social exchanges, through SNSs observers can witness social evolution and connections visibly but cannot as easily “catch” them. This presents a great challenge to the SNS user, the archivist, the sociologist, the web designer, the historian, etc. Archivists, sociologists and various other interested researches should not assume that SNSs are a trivial trend and ignore the value of their preservation.
If, sensing the future importance, the mother from Oregon decides to preserve the contents of her Facebook page for her first child’s birth, how would she go about it? Would she print out each photograph? Paste the photo’s comments to a Word document and print that also? Would she try to make hard copies of the data friends’ linked from multiple web/media sites? Such a task is not only going to be exhausting but it will inevitably be incomplete as the web is not easily translated offline. As Marshall notes in web based preservation: “Our first major challenge to overcome is individual’s (justifiable) unwillingness to spend very much energy on curation, while taking advantage of a natural tendency to rely on the existing social fabric to keep digital assets safe. Digital stewardship is difficult and it doesn’t seem to be getting much easier” (2007).
If the value of SNSs is trivialized future researchers stand to lose not only a vast amount of personal artifacts but evidence of how society’s social space rapidly evolved over the last decade. Like letters, diaries and photographs, the SNS user should have the choice if and what to preserve in a safe space that is not attached to a particular web domain. As of now, the average SNS user does not have this choice.
This is a problem. There needs to be a user-friendly way to preserve sections—if not the entirely—of SNS lives. To assume that whatever online social networking site a participant actively employs as well as the mixed media incorporated within a profile will continue functioning for decades, or lifetimes, is taking a big risk. Users must be empowered with the option to easily preserve online personal artifacts; to save the online life.
-Mary Lorraine Snauffer. Jan, 2010.
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