Dhiren Audich Software Developer | Apprentice Polymath | Data Science Enthusiast

Social Media: Archiving Human History

This post was originally posted on another blog that I maintained for my 'Computers and Society' class.

I recently read a very interesting blog post written by Mashable‘s former co-editor Ben Parr titled “5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History” and found my mind wandering the possibilities. But that was short lived as I came across another article that counter argues the Ben’s position written by Tom Scheinfeldt titled “Archiving Social Media“. Pay special attention to the comments section for the second blog, the arguments are worth the read. The comments made me think, so here I decided to weigh in my opinion.

Preamble

Now I am not a philosopher, sociologist or anthropologist, however I do know that as humans we like to be remembered. Most of us try to achieve something in life that someone someday will look back and revere.

For most part of our human story, we have very little recollection of what happened in the past. Most of the historical sources are scant and tainted with propaganda, folk tales, etc, which tend to obscure our vision of our ancestors. We only have written sources for the larger and more prominent events like Napolean’s campaign in Russia, Alexander’s death in Persia, etc. We don’t quite know how a common man would have lived in that time period. Of the occasional diaries, travel logs, and essays, they usually belong to diplomats or artisans who travel on some Emperor’s orders. They are insufficient to piece together an average day in the life of a common man.

This has drastically changed since the late 19th and 20th centuries. Higher literacy rates and technological improvements meant that writing was more affordable and possible. Major revolutions, civil wars, and world wars took place in this time frame. Unlike previous wars, accounts survive of not only military records but also personal records of the soldiers and officers that fought in them. Newspapers became more prominent means of information dissemination about daily goings and comings. Photography and motion pictures became cheaper and affordable. We can not only read about how people lived, but also experience their lives through their movies and pictures.

Here is a very interesting talk given by Daniel J. Cohen on the topic of “New Directions in Digital History” that ties well into this topic.

The Internet Revolution

The advent of the Internet has meant that we are able to share information faster and seamlessly across political and cultural boundaries. Multiple websites whose core goal is to build communities, for profit or otherwise, have been very successful in bringing people together. This social aspect of their business has meant that people are able to share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings more freely- now excessively.

Twitter updates, Facebook status changes, LinkedIn job postings, Instagrams, etc, have made it possible for the common man to not only document his entire life but also disseminate this information to almost anyone that wants to access it. The ethical and social implications of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this post, so I will skip it. But what is clear is that for the first time in history, we can construct a person’s life by piecing together their daily interactions from birth to death.

Apart from personal accounts, companies, governments, and other organisations (including the Government) too have started to utilise social media for marketing, promotional, and announcement purposes. All of this information gets stored across thousands of data farms across the globe in the form of 1s and 0s. In other words, snapshots of human history being stored on a second by second basis.

The History of Social Networking

Infographic image:

Social Media History

Data Mining

One of the most important ways how the online data can be harvested is through data mining techniques. For example, the Center for Disease Control recently tried to track down and understand how the flu virus spread using Google Trends.

There are websites entirely built on collecting links, photographs, videos, etc, supplied by visitors pertaining to important events in modern history. They can be either big or small. e.g. 911digitalarchive, hurricanearchive, etc.

Whilst these sites rely on the users to gather and post information, sites like Twitter provide mechanisms (hashtags) for easy information retrieval pertaining to a particular subject. Google also has a product called News which tracks the latest press releases from various media outlets.

Utilising all of these tools one can make important and informed decisions. For example, if you are investing it might be worthwhile to spend time in gathering information about the company’s blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, news articles pertaining to that company, the field in which that company operates, etc. Since the Internet has allowed fast up-to-date information, even though it might not be accurate, it is enough to get a clearer picture as to where the company might be heading in the future.

One of the most recent events where social media played a very big role is the Arab Spring explored more in an article described by AlJazeera titled “Taking power through technology in the Arab Spring“. Despite the fact that the Spring is over, the posts and the images, and the raw day-to-day data still survives. The news from the recent civil war in Syria is another such example, where civilians and the fighters (from both sides) are posting videos and news daily to capture the effect of war in that state. I sometimes wonder if and how the outcome of previous conflicts and wars would have been different under these conditions where every side’s action was recorded and analysed over and over again.

In a similar fashion, we can construct a person’s life using similar methods. What interests me most is that what would happen when someone from around my generation stands for prominent positions in the government and other organisations? Will their digital footprint haunt them? Past friendships, associations, etc., be drawn and quartered to the point where it might be considered harassment?

One of the recent NSA internal document leaks describe how gathering data on internet habits of prominent Muslim radicals were used to intimidate them and silence them.

The Future

Whilst all the arguments that I have presented seem to suggest that archiving social media is inherently good, my only concern is that we still have a lot of work to do in this field. For instance, someone has to process and judge the quality of the data that is being used, and ignore the noise of mundane events. A video clip from the movie “Easy A” clearly demonstrates this (not owned by me and no copyright infringement intended):

To conclude, I see the future of this vast information wasteland (the Interent) as more like a graveyard of unstructured and unformatted data. A museum piece in the museum of human history. Another opportunity to learn about human beings, squandered, due to the plight of privacy statements and organisational red tape. But as with everything else, there will some improvements that I am sure of, but they will be most likely be in the form of more annoying ads on every web page I visit, waiting to be blocked by ad blocker. Being an information-phile (is this even a word?), I fear that we will lose more records about our current events, as technology races to replace paper and traditional media; i.e. digital bits lost due to incorrect storage and computer failures. If I leave this post online untouched, it will most likely not exist in a decade’s time. But then again is this post worth preserving?

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