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Archiving Social Networking Sites: Why?

May 7th, 2010 · No Comments

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Earlier this month, the Library of Congress announced that it would house every “tweet” ever posted on Twitter. Every 140-character-or-less blurb on the site is now part of the vast LoC archives. This got me thinking: what are the issues at hand in archiving social networking sites? And why is it important?

Recently, while cleaning out my apartment, I found a relic of primitive social networking—a printed-out Facebook message from 2005. Nostalgia instantly struck. Five years ago, Facebook was [thefacebook], with a much simpler interface. A toolbar on the left listed the humble features of the relatively new site: My Profile, My Groups, My Friends, My Away Messages. Clearly, Facebook was trying to emulate MySpace —which was then by far the preferred means of social networking.

The past five years of my Facebook existence flashed before my eyes. I remembered when the site was only accessible to students at selected universities, when users could upload only one photo, when “the wall” was merely a text box that anyone could edit. A Facebook before FarmVille, “like” buttons, and mini-feeds.

With hundreds of millions of users, there are many reasons to archive social networking sites. First, for historical documentation—millions of photos are uploaded to the site every week, capturing the trends of the present era. Additionally, no matter how worthless each status update might seem, taken as a whole they reflect our reactions to modern events. It would be worth keeping a log of Facebook updates from the night of the 2008 election, or as the news broke about the earthquake in Haiti, or even as the Tiger Woods scandal unfolded.

Second, following the history of social networking sites offers insight into the development and perceptions of Web 2.0. What was it that made Facebook become so much more popular than MySpace ? How has Facebook increased the average person’s awareness of internet safety and privacy? Studying the evolution of such sites, web developers can predict future trends in online technology.

Third, social networking sites are paramount to the way we communicate in the 21st century. How do we choose to represent ourselves online? Everyone has that one friend who reveals too much personal information (Matt Maclean: too much vodka + ice cream = the great pukefest of 2010). There’s the perpetual Facebook drama, including my favorite, the Passive Aggressive Status Update (Alexis Cooper thinks some people need to get over themselves!!!) And how has Facebook changed our interpersonal relationships? At some point in their cyber-existence, most people have undoubtedly become angry or hurt or jealous over something said on Facebook. Relationships that may end in real life passively continue online—the psychological implications of which are new to our generation.

But how should sites like Facebook be archived, and to what extent?

The Internet Archive has preserved 150 billion web pages, dating back to 1996. Using web crawlers to archive websites, the IA serves as a publicly-accessible digital library, allowing users to revisit older versions of their favorite sites. Documenting and preserving static websites such as aol.com is relatively easy because they are open to the public. Public profiles on MySpace and Twitter are also easily accessed. But how do web crawlers get inside websites, like Facebook that require login information to view its content?

It’s not easy. The Internet Archive has developed a software application called Archive-It, which allows organizations to make digital copies of their own websites. As more and more universities, corporations, and libraries create their own Facebook pages, they can now archive them. While this is great news for individual organizations, it doesn’t include the interactions of ordinary Facebook users—the cyber chatter that documents our day-to-day lives.

Recently, the White House announced plans to preserve its social networking content. Media capturing is done using software applications and daily screen shots, storing text, graphics, audio and video in the context in which they were originally presented. Once this project gets off the ground, it can serve as a model for other organizations.

But what about the interactions of everyday Americans—how will their voices be recorded? Perhaps the LoC or the Smithsonian could begin a digital initiative to capture people’s online identities. An open call for submissions, asking Facebook users to send in screenshots of their profiles, walls, photos, or feeds, would be a simple and effective start. Similar projects, including the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, were created to obtain Americans’ reactions to history-making events.

It’s difficult to say if a comprehensive range of Facebook users would be willing to submit their personal information to an archive. However, thousands are already sending in their screenshots to blogs, including Failbook and Lamebook, which capture people’s regrettable and embarrassing Facebook moments.

No matter how trivial they may seem, social networking sites are a defining part of our generation—and that’s something worth preserving.

Further reading:

  • Archiving Social Media
  • Consequences of Social Media
  • Archiving Social Networking Sites with Archive-It
  • White House Preserves Social Media Content. Information Management Journal, 44(1), p. 7.
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    Category: Archiving Challenges · Digital Obsolescence · New Tools · Social Media