What’s Trending? Using Social Media Platforms as Archiving Tools

Screenshot of Bogosi Sekhukhuni's Tumblr, documenting a recent exhibition

Screenshot of Bogosi Sekhukhuni’s Tumblr, documenting a recent exhibition

Let me just get this out of the way right from the beginning: social media platforms are NOT stable repositories for archiving materials. While I will lay out some huge challenges in relying on social media for personal archiving, I also think that these platforms offer artists many creative tools to supplement more sustainable archival practices. Artists can use social media platforms in many innovative ways to meet a variety of needs: to publicize their work and reach a wider audience; to keep track of sources for future pieces or works in process; and as a running chronology of a career, including shows, collaborations, and important sales.

For many reasons, social media platforms such as Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter are an archivist’s mortal enemy. Much of archival unease with social media platforms can be summed up with one word: control (or lack thereof). By control, I mean a multifaceted issue, including intellectual property rights, access, and participation in decision making for materials. Property rights are a particularly thorny question, which I can only briefly touch on here. Websites all have their own Terms of Service that determine who has legal control over uploaded materials, and to what extent. Depending on the site, the type of content, and the particular use, the creator’s level of ownership can fall anywhere on the spectrum. Social media content is only part of a much larger debate about intellectual property on the web, which is still very much under contention.1 How these debates play out and manifest policy and practice will present sweeping changes for legacy in particular: how will your heirs access your social media content? where do these materials belong in estates and wills?2

Important questions all, but social media platforms also have immediate implications for personal archiving. Once you upload or post something onto a social media platform, you are placing a lot of trust in that company to preserve and manage your data over time. Cal Lee discusses the “many risk factors associated with reliance on web service providers for persistent access to personal materials,” including companies going out of business, changes in service offerings, deletion of inactive accounts, and loss due to server crashes and insufficient preservation methods.3 All of that should not scare you out of using social media, but it does serve as a gentle reminder to always keep your own copies of digital documents on personal computers and external hard drives.

Clearly, social media platforms should not be anyone’s primary personal archive. Yet, there are powerful reasons why we continue to use social media, despite all of the risks involved. For artists’ personal archives, there are a number of creative possibilities that actually make social media platforms a useful supplement to other archival practices. One of the main reasons that artists use social media is for promotion of their work: for example, getting the word out about upcoming shows or connecting with potential buyers. For anyone that has promoted an event over Facebook, you know that the number of people who have accepted invitations is not a reliable indicator of who will actually show up to the event. Still, Facebook events are ubiquitous for a reason, as they are an easy and quick way to advertise. Unlike stapling a flier to a telephone pole, Facebook events also reach a more or less targeted audience.

Facebook events can also serve as inadvertent sites of documentation for events. For a number of poetry readings and art openings that I have attended in the past few months, the Facebook event page has become a de facto place to post photos of the event, make comments about takeaways and impressions, and to keep in touch or make further plans after the event has concluded. As participants interact through the events page, “liking” photos or responding to previous comments, a social, polyvocal record of the event emerges. While the Facebook event is not designed to have much use after the fact, it could serve as a very useful way to build an archive of shows. For your next opening, consider having a few designated people to post photos onto the events page. Although past events can be hard to access, each event page does have a permalink that you can bookmark for future reference. While this should not be the only place to store photos and other documentation of shows, keeping a running list of past Facebook events could be an innovative way to archive how you have promoted yourself in the past and interactions you’ve had with admirers and patrons of your work.

Social media platforms can also function to keep track of sources of inspiration for future work, or to talk about current pieces in process. Blogs, such as WordPress or Blogspot, have increasingly supplemented (or in some cases supplanted) the artist’s notebook as a place to track ongoing thoughts about process, current work, or other reflections. A multi-media poet and friend of mine, Jordan Konkol, uses a WordPress blog to archive images, snippets from a text, and links to web documents that are all informing his current practice. Not only does this serve the present purpose as a tool to create new art, but the blog creates an archive of how this practice has changed over time. Much like the events page, the blog also has the added dimension of social interaction: the comments section of a post can become a forum for discussion with collaborators or followers of your work in a way that a physical notebook obviously cannot. WordPress is also far more sustainable than other social media platforms, as it is an open source and well documented system. If you have your own website and have some familiarity with web programming, you can even download WordPress and integrate a blog into your existing site. This avoids many of the challenges outlined above, as you still have direct control over your materials, rather than uploading them to a third-party site.

Tumblr could also serve in innovative ways to build an archive of your career over time. In contrast to WordPress, Tumblr is driven by short, image-heavy posts, creating more of a visual stream than discrete blocks of text. This format is especially appealing to artists. Bogosi Sekhukhuni, a South African new media artist, uses Tumblr to post images from exhibitions, links to the work of other South African artists, and publications about his work. His Tumblr becomes something like a visually immersive catalogue raisonné. Going through his Tumblr, the viewer immediately witnesses how his career has built up and developed over time. While it is fairly difficult to gather specific information about times and locations for the shows and publications documented on Sekhukhuni’s Tumblr, the platform does serve as a visually striking supplement to a more standard curriculum vitae.

Most of the uses for social media outlined above offer creative channels for publicity and innovative ways to document work. However, these social media platforms fall short of providing means for long term preservation and still face the challenges outlined by Lee. If Facebook decided to delete event pages after a certain point, then all of the documentation built up for those events will be lost. Social media is becoming an increasingly bigger part of our personal materials, and archivists in many institutions are struggling with how best to preserve this content over time. Not only do social media platforms present challenges for control, but it is also difficult to capture the complex context and interactivity that is so important to social media. One tweet doesn’t mean a whole lot, but all of the incoming tweets for a trending topic do.

That being said, several tools are currently available—and more in the process of being developed—to preserve social media content for the long term. ArchiveSocial is one tool that many institutions are employing, but the cost is prohibitive for most personal archives. Colloq, a tool being developed by Rhizome and funded by the Knight Foundation, could be a low cost, widely available option for individuals to archive their own social media content. Archive-It, a robust tool for crawling websites and building web archives, can also be used to capture social media sites capture social media sites. There is no single best way to preserve social media content. For now, my suggestion is to be flexible, try out different tools and approaches, and keep up to date on new options. Try to get in touch with a local archivist at a nearby college or arts organization. They may have further suggestions or literature to consult.

There are many innovative uses for these platforms to supplement your personal archive, with new functionality constantly being added. While archiving is typically not built into the design of these sites, creative individuals can find ways to tweak functions to meet archival needs. However, these innovative possibilities should not give us license to abandon tried and true documentation methods and archival principles.

1See the work of Lawrence Lessig for a good introduction to these issues, particularly the works Code v2) and Free Culture.

2For a full treatment of this discussion see Evan Carroll and John Romano, Your Digital Afterlife (Berkely: New Riders, 2011). http://www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/

3Cal Lee, “Collecting the Externalized Me: Appraisal of Materials in the Social Web”, in I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era, ed. Cal Lee (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011), 215.