Friday, September 23, 2011

Facebook and the face of history

So Zuckerberg, Facebook supremo, proposes that his 750 million users use their Facebook pages as lifetime scrapbooks - posting childhood pictures and records of rites of passage and family moments. If I understand this rightly, as detailed in Mashable's
report on Facebook Evolution, Facebook says it will place these things into timelines so our lives are recorded and displayed chronologically. And, of course, stored in perpetuity.

I have some problems with this - mainly choice. I would like to be able to arrange things my way. I am not keen on Auntie FB taking over for me. I feel I have lost choices in the new face of FB and realise that I am going to have to invest time I really don't have in reorganising my world and who is who and who sees what and how much I want to see.

However, ever since email and the Internet became a primary form of communication, there has been a concern about the history record. The loss of letters was a blow to libraries and historians as people turned to email. The very nature of communications was truncated by the easy ping of email and, of course, people quickly lost their records of emails sent and received as their old PCs crashed or they moved from one generation of computer to the next, often leaving old content behind or being unable to transfer it.

How much can one store and how can one navigate through it, especially in these frenetic years of multitasking information overload.

And do not scoff at these cliches. They are the way it is.

So where does it leave historians and academics researching exchanges with people - the sorts of content which was once made of paper and stored in boxes at libraries? Don't tell me everyone prints out copies of their emails and files them for posterity! They don't and can't.

All that data is cached in electronic caves which may or may not be buried under the landslides of subsequent data. I think the archiving abilities of computers has improved significantly in the last decade and the forensics of seeking destroyed data with it. So it is possible there is just the mid-nineties to mid-naughties which may be the black hole of record. But, I do believe there is a gap in the history of correspondence.

And that the status quo of correspondence as a form of record is changed.
We shall see if books such as that which I now am reading, the letters of artist Nora Heysen with her famous artist father Sir Hans Heysen, will be replaced by "the emails of..." Perchance there are some prescient emailers out there. But on the whole, and definitely in work environments where email volume outstrips storage capacity every day, emails are biting the virtual dust by the billion.

We don't do all our correspondence on FB, but we do quite a bit. And there is a bit of spam and unwanted promotion there, too.

We have to realise that nothing is private if we have published it online. Nothing. FB messages are ostensibly private insofar as other FB contacts are not seeing them but they are still in the massive FB data pool. So they are on the record. They are stored for history. Historians may well find themselves supplicant to FB for access to its massive store of human interest.

Just as one's employer has access to a record not just of what you have said and produced and seen on their computer systems but even of how many keystrokes you have made. We just have to understand and live with it.
It is the way it is.
Privacy is not ours if we are using someone else's technology.
We can't expect otherwise. We can only be prudent about what we share.
And we can be positive about history and the public record.

It is vastly different from those wonderful old letters which crossed the world on ships with exotic stamps. It is vastly different to those long and detailed reports in the newspapers of yore. But, add to it blogs and Twitter and the ensuing modes of communication and connectivity, and it is all a wonderful resource.
To which we may add these scrapbooks as suggested by FB.

How many people do I hear moaning and groaning about digital photos and what they can or can't do with them and will they be lost because they have not stored them outside their computers.

Posting on FB and Flickr and other sites is a way of storing for posterity. And let's not get too fretful about it all. We take too many photos now we can take them so easily. If we are wise, we post the best of them just as we used to print the best of the photos we took with film cameras. The rest were culled out and discarded.

All the photos everyone ever took are not around. Thank heavens.
We would be shuffling about knee deep in them.

So things are not as bad as we think.

1 comment:

badumna said...

Perceptive and interesting. I wonder what the historians of the future will do. Perhaps our concept of history will change or must change. No more static history of snapshots in time. That kind of history will go away as the photographic snapshots have. The only repositories of history will be in the minds of the living. This is the way it was before the written word and the printing press and we still advanced as a species.