In the September 7, 2008 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Clive Thompson explores the "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy" brought about by social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook's Live Feed feature, which provide users with "constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing." Any archivist worth his or her salt should find this article extremely intriguing. As Thompson notes, most people over 30 simply can't grasp the appeal of these "micro-blogging" services (Twitter limits people to 140 words per post). For the most part, folks born before ca. 1975 view the popularity of these tools as yet another manifestation of the millennial generation's (alleged) narcissism.
However, Thompson emphasizes that something more is going on. Devotees of Live Feed and Twitter are inundated with "snippets of information" about the minutiae of the lives of others. These little pieces of data are, by and large, meaningless in and of themselves. However, "over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of . . . friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting." Users of these services come to know and value the rhythms and textures of friends' and relatives' lives in ways that they never would have otherwise.
This phenomenon should come to no surprise as archivists: we've always recognized that the intellectual value of a records series is sometimes far greater than the sum of its parts and that context is, in many instances, the chief supplier of a record's meaning. It should also propel us to start thinking about ways to preserve at least a sampling of this "micro-blogging" activity: Live Feed, Twitter, and the like promise to be a goldmine for future social and cultural historians, who will be able to examine all of those seemingly random snippets of information for evidence of the habits, pastimes, and preoccupations of early 21st-century people.
Scholars attempting more ambitious reconstructions of early 21st-century life may also find them immensely valuable. Twitter postings remind me in many ways of the terse diary entries of Martha Ballard, the late 18th-/early 19th-century Maine midwife whose journal sat quietly in the stacks of the Maine State Library until Laurel Thacher Ulrich figured out that a close reading of the diary and other available sources would allow her to decipher the entries' meaning and reconstruct the complex, tumultuous world in which Ballard lived. Some discerning 24th-century historian may be able to combine a close analysis of an individual's Live Feed entries with careful examination of other sources and come up with an equally vivid and daring portrait of life and community in our own time.
Of course, Martha Ballard's diary and all of the other records and publications Ulrich consulted exist on a relatively stable medium: paper. The new social networking tools are born digital and, almost invariably, remain digital. Moreover, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are designed to turn a profit, not facilitate creation of the raw materials of history. It's extremely difficult to extract content from the servers maintained by the tools' creators--at least in a meaningful way--and the creators have no compelling reason to make it any easier to do so, at least at the present time.
At present, I don't have any solutions to the problems associated with the commercial nature of most social networking tools, but it seems that I'm not alone. The Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure Program is funding the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, which is examining how to preserve Second Life and video games, but, to the best of my knowledge, no one is tackling the preservation of social networking information. It's about time we as a profession focused a little attention on doing so.
I have lots of other things to say about Thompson's article, and will do so later this week. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to read the article yourself.