Charting History Through an Internet Archive

Librarians and archivists are currently in an ongoing conversation about preserving digital content.

What we're finding is that some of the most clever commentary on pop culture and politics is thriving deep in hashtags on Twitter. Social media is as essential to understanding the preoccupations and temperature of our time. 

But preserving materials from the internet is much harder than sealing them under glass. 

Building an [internet] archive has always required asking a couple of simple but thorny questions: What will we save and how? Whose stories are the most important and why? In theory, the internet already functions as a kind of archive: Any document, video or photo can in principle remain there indefinitely, available to be viewed by anyone with a connection. But in reality, things disappear constantly. Search engines like Google continually trawl for pages to organize and index for retrieval, but they can’t catch everything. And as the web evolves, it becomes harder to preserve. It is estimated that 75 percent of all websites are inactive, and domains are abandoned every day. Links can rot when sites disappear, images vanish when servers go offline and fluctuations in economic tides and social trends can wipe out entire ecosystems. (Look up a blog post from a decade ago and see how many of the images, media or links still work.) Tumblr and even Twitter may eventually end up ancient internet history because of their financial instability.

There have been efforts to preserve our digital history with the most promising being The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. But there’s still a low-grade urgency to save our social media for posterity — and it’s particularly urgent in cases in which social media itself had a profound influence on historic events.

The internet, and social media, in particular, might one day offer a dazzling, and even overwhelming, array of source material for historians. Such an abundance presents a logistical challenge (the total number of tweets ever written is nearing half a trillion) as well as an ethical one (will people get to opt out of having ephemeral thoughts entered into the historical record?). But this plethora of new media and materials may function as a totally new type of archive: a multidimensional ledger of events that academics, scholars, researchers and the general public can parse to generate a more prismatic recollection of history.

Because historians are constantly updating the record by looking for primary sources that were overlooked in earlier eras, often from marginalized figures, social media may be the very key to those primary sources into the future. This will allow us to provide an updated, more complete historical record than ever before.

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