Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Encyclopedia Britannica Films

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.


Thing #6: Social Networking

Social Networking Basics
Thing #6 would be an easy selection to skip over at first glance since it would be rare at this point to find someone completely unfamiliar with the concept of social networking using Facebook or Myspace–certainly I already have accounts with both. However, upon skimming the 23 Things materials I saw several networks mentioned that I am not familiar with, as well as a description of how Myspace is using a mashup to translate Facebook “likes” into real-time content in a personalized video/audio stream. As I mentioned in my introductory post, there is always something new to learn when you examine a topic through fresh eyes so I decided to see what new social networking knowledge I could build.

Facebook is a good place to begin simply because it is the largest network available and thus offers the best chance to connect with the highest number of users or potential users. Forming Facebook event pages can be a good tool to engage users, but it can also be tricky to use this tool effectively. The Educause article presented through the 23 Things website was not particularly useful on this front since it covered Facebook back when it was relegated to students only and functioned much differently than it does today. The CommonCraft video on social networking in general is instructive in detailing the potential that social networks carry. The idea that finding the right people can open doors–to employment, events, new user groups–can be accurate; such social networks carry intense potential. The process of getting there is tricky though, since setting up a page and waiting for exciting interaction definitely does not work.

The GigaOM blog post details ways that Facebook can be used as a professional tool through the addition of apps that tailor content to work networks. This is a good way to view social networking. From a professional standpoint, adding content that engages users through group pages or through timely status updates can be effective. Of course, finding the right mixture of trivia, discussion questions, and announcements can be tricky. Organizations such as the Smithsonian, Museum of Modern Art, and Read/Write Web are among those that seem to have found the best balance to encourage interaction. The Interactive Archivist article provides additional uses of social networks and these align with the best ways to use social networking as a tool. Namely, social networks can encourage collaboration and information seeking and discovery.

Although Myspace has undergone a number of changes in recent years, it has still seen a rapid decline in its user base. However, as a social network they have done some unique things to keep afloat. According to the Wikipedia article supplied by the 23 Things website, they have created a “Mashup with Facebook” that allows users to connect with their Facebook and Twitter accounts; really this is just integration with the existing Facebook Connect service. Although Myspace has become more of an entertainment hub, they have managed to incorporate ways to combine information from other sources. For instance, using the Facebook connect option, users can generate personalized content streams based around items they already like.

I had heard of but never looked into it before embarking on this web 2.0 exploration. Reading an interview with the CEO revealed that it is a social network site that attempts to create organized communities around common interests. The idea is that users can write articles and share other content without the brevity that Facebook and other networks seem to demand. Instead, the focus is on developing meaningful conversations that have depth and substance. At least theoretically, this is what the service provides. I found this concept to be exciting and initially thought that for an information literacy class this network could be used to create a community for sharing resources and ideas. This could be a community spread across classes, creating a valuable tool for connecting students in academic communication. The downside, however, is that when the Gather CEO began to talk about profit generation it became clear that advertising was a big distraction on the website. It’s not that I have a problem with profitability, but the “engagement campaigns” they run sound sneaky to me and focus too much on unbridled consumerism. They hold reviews and samplings that are designed to get the reviewers talking about “brands people love.” This is of course all sponsored conversation, held under the guise of unbiased sharing.

Additionally, after actually visiting Gather I found that it seems to be a little light on the depth it promises. For example, the top stories on the home page were genuinely poor writing samples by community members. They were written in the style of news stories, however, and it is possible that many community members are substituting these posts for actual news consumption. This does not further knowledge, nor does it really build a community. I have seen much better exchanges arise on Facebook, Twitter, and professional blog sites that direct users to read up on a story and throw in their thoughts along with the initial poster. Opinion articles are useful, but they need to be presented as what they are…pretending to be a journalist reporting facts is just sad. Needless to say, I was disappointed with the site. Perhaps the promised depth of conversation and information does exist, but the site and structure simply didn’t compel me to look any harder to find it.

Big Tent
The idea of this social network piqued my interest, but I was somewhat surprised to find that the suggested Wikipedia article had been deleted. The reason was cited as a failure to find sufficient references in reliable sources–in other words, Big Tent is just not important enough to warrant an article. This got me thinking that if it hasn’t gotten enough media attention to this point, it may not last; social networks are, after all, dependent on a solid user base. Even so, I decided to check it out. Big Tent is actually different than the other networks in that has a decidedly local feel. It is set up so that clubs can manage memberships and post announcements, arrange volunteer schedules, chat, and so forth. The featured groups include a lot of charter schools and parenting groups. Searching on different keywords also revealed community garden clubs, local fitness groups, and so forth. This site would probably be useful for hosting a book club online presence, or other similar library outreach programs. There are broader groups as well, which I discovered because of a feature banner on the home page that listed 51,000 members in a group called “no excuses workout group.” When I actually searched for this group, however, I found a lot of mother’s network local fitness groups; the search feature leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the problems with navigation, this could be a good source for local groups. I suspect that they do not attract many members that are simply searching for groups in the area, however, because of the poor retrieval. It seems like this is more of a way for groups to easily set up a web presence and get existing club members to join the site.

Applications for Information Literacy Instruction
Use of social networks in an information literacy context can be either a great tool or an example of trying too hard to be trendy. It depends on the group and the manner in which participation is encouraged. Groups can be set up in Facebook to facilitate information exchange and this could be somewhat successful. Resources such as Quora could be used to link classmates within a community where questions can be posed and answered, which can be a valuable learning resource. To me, however, the most potential lies in using social networks as a tool to locate additional resources. Rather than viewing the networked community as the ultimate information source, viewing it as a discovery tool might be more useful. Following quality sources (institutional and individual) increases the number of links populating inboxes and news feeds on social networks. It would be worth showing students how to track people that consistently post valuable resources, such as links to news articles or blogs. These links in turn can lead to deeper levels of information sources. Information literacy is in part about seeking timely and credible information and utilizing a social network to deliver a constant stream of (often) relevant content is a great tool. The investment in tailoring the network and sorting the posts is well worth the time savings and connectivity that will occur.