The Future of Social-Media Archiving

The Archiving Social Media conference at George Mason University brought scholars, archivists, and Web developers together on Friday to discuss the preservation of data now whizzing around the Internet on blogs and networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Demand for Web archives has grown as social media has become part of the fabric of social history. At the conference, participants talked about the challenge of documenting social media from a variety of angles, such as copyright, ethics, and how the archives will be used.

“This was really intended as a first conversation,” said Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, and a research assistant professor of history at GMU. “We have a better sense of the kind of work that would need to be done.”

Mr. Scheinfeldt said the conference was inspired by the impact that social media has had in shaping contemporary events, like the protests of the Iranian elections in the summer of 2009. As a historian, Mr. Scheinfeldt said he and his colleagues asked, “How are historians 50 or 100 years from now going to write the history of the disputed Iranian election without Twitter?” That’s when the need to save that record became apparent, he said.

Because formal academic work on archiving social media is just getting started, conference organizers wanted to foster a cross-disciplinary conversation on the hurdles that archivists and scholars face. Although the conversation was much more expansive, here are three of the larger themes to come out of the conference.

Keeping archives dark:

As archivists begin taking record of social media (like the Twitter record at the Library of Congress), Web users have voiced concern that their personal online footprints will be kept open for all to see in perpetuity. As much fun as, say, that drunken tweet from your weekend in Vegas may have been at the time, you may not want a possible employer reading through your indiscretions on the Library of Congress Web site in a few years. The solution may be keeping archives “dark”—that is, restricting archive access to researchers or sealing the records for a set amount of time.

A few conference attendees also noted that dark archives made available decades later—even after the tweeters’ death—might also help future historians skirt concerns over violating their subjects’ privacy. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of media studies at Pomona College, said in a tweet (using the #asome hashtag), dark archives will make it possible to see archives as collections of data rather than personal identities.

Deciding what to archive:

There is no way—right now, at least—to archive all the data being created on the Web, and it’s likely that a lot of the material would not be useful anyway. The central questions, then, are what is important enough to be preserved, and who gets to decide the parameters? With both archivists and scholars in the room, there was a lively discussion over the nature of any future social-media archives—should archivists be saving everything they possible can, or should they focus on what scholars believe will be important to researchers over the next century? Although the discussion did not end in a definitive answer—nor was it meant to—attendees generally agreed that cooperation between institutions and scholars will be key to creating a workable social-media archive.

Although the discussion centered heavily on Twitter and Facebook, attendees also considered widening the definition of social media to include everything from book reviews to ads on Craigslist.

Achieving uniformity in archives:

With so many social-media archiving services—like TwapperKeeper and ThinkUp—on the market, archivists were concerned that the wide array of software would make creating a coherent archive difficult. If the community, including both institutions and scholars, could agree on a single platform to save social-media data, then the archives would be easier to keep in order. This would also allow scholars, who do a lot of their own work finding primary sources online, to correctly document their social-media findings and eventually contribute their research to a larger institutional archive.

Co-coordinating Editor

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