Social Media and Community Documentation

Friday, May 6, 2011


Social media has extended each person's "community" beyond what we accepted it to be just ten years ago. This has created some interesting possibilities for the idea of community documentation beyond what archivists considered the appropriate institutional environment for this kind of work. In Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation I argued for the value of community documentation work within settings outside of an individual institution. I described the rings of communities one would consider for this kind of work. I did not explore our new online worlds, but I think this is a topic that will gain more notoriety over the next few years. Archivists need to take notice of the social networks individuals are forming and how they will change the collections we create..

These paragraphs posted on a friends' Facebook walls caught my eye this morning:

"In honor of Mother's Day I'm trying to see how many of you are willing to change your profile picture to a picture of your mother and keep it there till May 9th. I did and so have several others. If you will and like this idea, please re post this as your status so everyone gets the word and see how many beautiful mothers we can get on FB."


"As we approach mother's day- I am very mindful of the children who have lost their mothers and the mothers who have lost their children because it is a day that can be so painful for them. Some are very dear friends of mine, and I hold them in my heart and thoughts for this coming weekend. borrowed from..."

Along with many of my friends, I have
featured my mother on my Facebook site
I would say that within my circle of friends, at least one-quarter of them have changed their profile picture to feature their mothers. Some have posted this paragraph, others have not. I began wondering how I could capture this early 21st century phenomenon of honoring a holiday and / or a person by changing profile pictures. I would love to see a "collection" (or at least a small series) of Facebook statuses over the Mother's Day weekend that included  updated Mother's Day profile pictures. The second posting has been less popular thus far. I have only seen one person post this, but it is clearly intended to honor Mother's Day and to honor a person. Would I make this part of the same collection if I were to somehow form an archival collection that featured Mother's Day 2011?

I realize that this way of thinking about collections may not be exactly accurate for this environment and in some ways is an over simplification of much larger ideas. But I think this is a good way to illustrate my point, which is that for my own work and particular area of interests, how can archivists  hang on to a very useful idea of "community" and apply it to a digital world? The proliferation of information online makes us think in larger terms - i.e. "archiving" Facebook or capturing tweets. How do we accurately capture smaller connections that help us better understand context? 

It was once easier to focus on an individual life, a community, or even a movement involving diverse individuals. Our subjects (for lack of a better word at the tip of my brain at this moment) had simpler means of communication,. We could follow a paper trail. They wrote less and the groups with which they communicated were smaller. Today we correspond with people all around the world in the blink of an eye and our relationships with them might by tenuous or short-lived. I may feel no need to directly correspond with someone on the Internet, but I might be influenced by that person's words and bring them into my community in a very lackadaisical way.

So I will leave with just some questions:
How can archivists ensure that information about our online communities is documented for posterity? 
How can we emphasize connections that make captured information more useful to researchers?
What level of capture and description can we expect to accomplish in this online world? For example, is it reasonable to expect that we may be able to create "collections" that can help researchers better understand modern trends and attitudes related to Mother's Day?  
How can we capture static information (i.e. the Facebook Wall archives) and changing information (the profile picture that matched the Wall posting at the time it was posted) to enhance this data about people?

None of this thinking takes into account ideas about privacy or the challenge of actually capturing and keeping any information in the first place. But I think as we work to keep up with new technologies, we need to consider the ways we've used information in the past. We want to keep the good practices and mold the role of the archivist to continue to do what we do best. We must continue to understand the communities we choose to document, seek their documentation, and attach the context of individual documentation to a larger world.


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