“Serial web entrepreneur, sci-fi author, and aspiring world changer” Ben Parr has posted a piece listing 5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History. The rhetoric Parr employs is typical of contemporary tech evangelism: X will be great, X might have some negative side effects, but X is inevitable, so we’d better start preparing for X. X in this case is the “permanent recording of social interactions” through social networking services like Facebook. So, about what you would expect from a breathless proponent of contemporary marketing techniques.
But it’s interesting to see how Parr’s list exemplifies the common popular misunderstanding of history as a kind of immature science, a science that will finally be brought to maturity with access to adequate data. In Parr’s view, the problem with doing history in the past was lack of data: “Newspaper clippings, a few historical documents, speeches, but not enough information.” If only we could obtain access to “the day-to-day interactions between people… permanently recorded and formatted in easily organizable segments of information” then history could finally fulfill it’s promise of not only telling us exactly what happened in the past, but also predicting the future. Social media services are the key to recording these segments of information, Parr believes. And yes, there may be some pesky ethical complications around privacy, but the benefits to history will outweigh them. And Parr’s example of the kind of “history” social media records will enable? Flu tracking, the very same “killer app” that Sergey Brin uses to justify Google’s massive archiving of personal information. Never mind that understanding the spread of flu pandemics does nothing to “prevent the outbreak of the next drug-resistant virus.” What’s telling is that Parr conflates “history” with epidemiological modeling: it’s all just science, right?
What pissed me off, though, was the response from Tom Scheinfeldt, director of the Center for History and New Media. Rather than taking on any of Parr’s misconceptions, Scheinfeldt endorses them, suggesting only that social media services aren’t doing enough to archive their users’ personal information. In fact, he says, he is organizing a workshop next year at which the major social networking services will be lobbied to ensure that their logs are “permanently recorded and properly formatted for scholarly access.” Scheinfeldt’s effort is in direct conflict with the efforts of privacy advocates to limit the longevity of such logs.
“Perfect” archives of social media services won’t result in a more perfect history. Parr’s major mistake is that he believes historical evidence can be taken as transparently presenting facts about the past. But historical evidence is never transparent. If someone writes in their diary about what they did on July 14th, 2008, the words they wrote can’t be treated as facts about what they did on that day. All we can say is that someone wrote those words. At best, we might be able to confirm who wrote them, or that they did indeed write them on July 14th, 2008. But we can’t simply take those words at face value. Records are performances or utterances, not crystallized facts about the past. And the same goes for all records, whether they are diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, blog posts, status updates, or server logs. The complex information technology infrastructure that surrounds social media records makes those records even less transparent, as now historians are faced with untangling not just the context of an individual author but multiple contexts of system design, operation and recording, with all the new contingencies those contexts introduce.
So yes, social media records will change some aspects of history, just as the advent of recorded records of economic transactions did, and just as the advent of widespread recorded news and entertainment media did. But like those changes, social media will simply add to the possible stories that can be told about the past. History will continue to become less unified, less certain, less precise, as the archive in which historians seek meaning becomes more vast. And that’s great: history isn’t about precision and prediction, despite what Parr believes. My worry is that a well-intentioned but misconceived effort to “preserve” social media will do serious harm to privacy without achieving any of its unachievable goals.