Social Media Won’t Improve History

Filed under: General — ryan @ 10:30 am

“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 In Parr’s view, the problem with doing history in the past was lack of data: “Newspaper clippings, a few historical documents, speeches, but not enough information.”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.

4 Responses to “Social Media Won’t Improve History”

  1. Niels wrote:

    Hi Ryan, I got so pissed off as you so I just sent the following message on the found history, let’s see if they approve it !!

    Hi, as historian and ethnologist and last but not least professor in documentation studies, one should expect that I should turn into hurra mode and be so happy, but I completely agree with my former student Ryan, and would like to add two more moments:
    social media like facebook are public media, but not official media ! they are not governmental documents supposed to be stored in order to ensure that officials are doing what they are supposed to do and we can check them not do something wrong and thats why Cheney and other guys in the near past should not have used their private email account while doing governmental stuff, but they should have used governmental accounts supposed to be stored ! private emails as well as christmas cards and love letters are not supposed to be stored for ever, it is going into absurdum like Paul Otlet 100 years ago was dreaming about building a parallel world in order to document it completely, because what about what we are saying to each other without texting or skyping ! and one last thing: who are representative stakeholders for all the users of facebook ???

  2. caley wrote:

    Thanks for posting this Ryan. I agree with you completely, what a bozo! I haven’t seen so many clichés about history and the historical profession in one place for a very long time. The comments at mashable and at found history (excepting yours) seem largely to share Parr’s barely contained enthusiasm, which seems strange to me. I plan to post something on my blog about this - I haven’t seen anything on the history blogs and I’m wondering what other historians have to say.

  3. Tom Scheinfeldt wrote:

    Ryan, Niels, Caley — Please see my partial responses in the comments section of the original post: http://www.foundhistory.org/2009/11/19/archiving-social-media/#comments. Essentially, the contention that I endorse Parr’s vision of a “perfect” historical record is incorrect, as is the notion that I’m somehow unsympathetic to the concerns of privacy advocates (if you read the rest of the blog, you’d see, in fact, that I’m rather sympathetic). Indeed, it’s just the opposite. I agree that a perfect record is impossible and even undesirable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preserve anything of the social history of the Web. Problems of selection are familiar ones in the archival professions and should be taken seriously here as they are in other collecting domains. I’m also with you that privacy is paramount. This is exactly why it is incumbent on those of us with historical training to engage the issue and those entities that hold the data to help determine what is saved and what isn’t, taking user intentions (there are differences between unprotected tweets, for instance, and protected Facebook wall postings), as well as a whole host of other issues, into account in doing so.

    The notion of “perfect” privacy in the era of social media is no less naive than the notion of a “perfect” historical record. These are thorny issues that historians, archivists, privacy advocates, industry folks, and a whole host of others have to take seriously. Simply shouting “privacy” isn’t going to help anyone; in fact, it probably just leaves the ultimate decisions up to the corporations. Our effort is designed to engage them. I’d be very happy for you and your readers to join us (see the Doodle poll at http://doodle.com/i77nitn4hwsxtf97).

  4. Dean Sueck wrote:

    I’m a bit late to the party here I suppose. ;)

    I guess my concerns about historical Social Media are twofold.

    1) it’s not a shortage of information, it’s a surplus of information that requires people to wade through it to find out anything at all. “History” by it’s very nature, may one day be able to record everything, but it can’t PRESENT everything as being historical. People just can’t absorb it, at least not without becoming bored within 10 mins and moving on to something else.


    2) Most of what passes as “Social Media” nowadays is just absolutely trivial. Anyone take a look at twitter lately? Tweets and retweets about the most inane things that you can possibly imagine.

    On top of that, there’s a growing amount of redundancy. During the Chilean earthquake in early 2010, people went on and on and on about it for about a day and the vast majority of it was simply repeats of what other people had tweeted: here’s the USGS website, etc.

    We’re recording and storing far more than can be gotten through from a historical perspective.

    Take care,


Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress