HISTORY VS SOCIAL MEDIA
Given a lack of experience (and imagination) it was difficult to think of an interesting and relevant topic to start off this blog. As a result, the following will look at the potential future of primary source material, in particular the use of social media entries and data, and speculate about the possible effects and advantages of such sources. Hopefully this first attempt will retain a sense of serious academic writing, whilst simultaneously being light, readable and accessible.
PLATFORM FOR THE EXCLUDED
The first advantage social media as primary evidence presents is the range of participants it involves. Compared to past sources, where an ability in Latin or high social position prevented some from creating potential source material, considerably more individuals are able to contribute. This is beneficial in the sense that the views and experiences of the marginalised (political minorities etc.) can be gauged. Although this may still not be entirely representative due to remaining censorship and fear of persecution (potentially avoided by anonymity), it is still better than having no evidence of these groups’ experiences.
This links nicely to the global nature of social media. Avoiding the fact that not all parts of the world have internet access, nor the desire to be a part of the social media trend, the issues springing from regionalised histories can be solved. There is nothing wrong with local or regional history in itself, it is simply detached from the global context in which it is situated, and so does not lend well to comparisons or an integrated global history. If individuals from across the globe are engaged in a dialogue and are effected by the same issues a truly global history is possible – and even necessary.
NOT A NEW DEVELOPMENT
However, as a platform for the underrepresented, social media is not an entirely new concept. For instance diaries, letters etc. have been used for generations as a way to express thoughts, albeit privately, which do not fall within the mainstream view. How different is social media from these commonly used source formats? Obviously it is digital and therefore content is stored somewhere immaterial, as opposed to being in paper format and immediately destroy-able. The public nature of social media evidence, however, is something new. Anyone, anywhere has the potential to read what has been posted by someone else (ignoring any privacy settings etc.) without said individual knowing who, if any one, is reading their content. The narrativisation of our lives is also not a purely modern phenomena – although due to social media outlets (twitter, Reddit, Facebook) it is becoming increasingly incessant.
Moreover, the sheer volume of social media data is also problematic. Firstly, historians of the future will be faced with a wealth of potential evidence and will have the unenviable task of discerning which particular excerpts are valuable; ignoring the majority in order for the study to be manageable. Although historiography has always faced the problem of making writing history manageable – through periodisation, for example – the phenomena of social media has the potential to take this to a new extreme. If social media continues to grow, historians will be faced with overwhelming amounts of sources – rather than the lack of source material experienced in the past.
Secondly, the mass of media available in the modern world poses problems for individuals who will, in the future, be seen as historical actors. For past generations, access to news was limited. In order to remain informed you would perhaps watch the evening news or read a newspaper – cover to cover – and nothing more. There did not exist the array of differing interpretations and sources of news that there are today. As a result of this, it becomes necessary to narrow down the news that we receive in order to not spend all day reading it. Through social media platforms or news apps this is facilitated by following groups or individuals sharing the same interests as you. This has several consequences.
One of which is the inability to gauge public opinion, and therefore anticipate the actions of a community. A good example of this is highlighted in the case of elections or referenda. By surrounding yourself with the posts of those sharing similar views, you simply don’t see the thoughts of those believing otherwise. As a result, you are essentially stuck within your own little media bubble. Although this lends itself to deeper and more detailed discussions on certain topics, it also limits the amount of conversation going on between those of different views – reinforcing and therefore creating polarised views. For future historians, it may become increasingly difficult to assess political or social climates as a result of social media and the compartmentalisation it leads to.
In short, social media as primary evidence material poses benefits and limitations – neither of which are new to the discipline of source criticism. Nevertheless, the key issue highlighted here is the effect social media has on present interpretations of events. Maybe I should explore this more in another post. For now, the conclusion shall be that:
The effects of social media platforms on the present are just as influential on future historiography as the actual textual / data evidence they provide.