4 February 2004 – Cambridge, MA
Social media is… no… social media are everywhere. But one true platform rules them all. At least in the West.
Facebook’s reach is rather remarkable compared to other platforms. At the end of 2014, it had 1.4 billion users. By comparison, Twitter – the darling of academics and journalists – has only half a billion.1 That allows a great number of people to communicate easily across the entire world. This can cover everything from organised resistance against oppressive governments to cat pictures. In my comfy little corner of the ivory tower, it’s usually the latter.These new networks have certainly changed the way I communicate with colleagues and friends. Twitter has allowed me to maintain contact with other historians that, once the hangover of the conference has worn off, would have been much more difficult to maintain. I know for a fact that I would have lost complete contact with many of my school friends. Luckily for us, Facebook launched in the United Kingdom very soon after we left for our respective universities.
We had tools to do this when we were teenagers. Internet forums were a way to meet new people, as were the various chat rooms available through mainstream sites and over the Internet Relay Chat protocol. Incidentally, if parents are worried today about what their wee bairns are up to on Snapchat, then imagine what your kids would have been up to on a totally insecure and anonymous chat protocol that your parents weren’t internet savvy enough to understand. Sorry, mum and dad. Don’t worry. My virginity wasn’t taken by a 43-year-old lorry driver.2
But this isn’t about my dalliance with Frank in the glorious summer of ’01. This is about history. And social media provide some tricky problems for historians. They are usually hidden behind security measures. Facebook, for instance, has myriad privacy settings, and most people will only be able to read (or are likely to find) content posted and linked to by their friends.
At the RESAW conference at Aarhus this year, this was explored in detail. Historians of the internet are now starting to use the archived material of the web. But social media aren’t necessarily the web. Apps are very often used to access the data held on the sevices’ servers. While tweets, for example, may be public, you need to read them in a specific context. People use feeds of individuals’ “microblogs”. The Library of Congress can hold all this information, but how on earth are we going to make sense of it?
So much has been lost. Of course, history has also lost the verbal conversations of working class people down the pub; or the discussions held late into the night of the eighteenth-century coffee house. What is more frustrating is that we KNOW people wrote and sent these messages to each other. All we can ever read of them are the occasional snippets that happen to survive in other forms of blog, journal or personal data files.
Bulletin Board Systems in the 1980s have been mostly lost – though we do have histories that can be told.3. Geocities has been shut down – though we do have an archive we can begin to analyse.4 But the meat of the content is gone, and won’t be coming back. How much of the stuff we have now will go the same way?
We are trying to record this stuff. But as a historian of post-war Britain, I am more interested in a larger question – how has (or will) social media change the way Britons behave. What has changed in our personal relationships; the way we meet; the way we part; the ways we vote, organise, and understand the universe? Having lived through it, I can’t tell if I’ve changed the way I behave because I’m getting older, because of the technology and social fabric of Britain, or – more likely – because of the relationship between the two.
This may be a question we can only answer with some historical distance. But it’s worth asking now. Perhaps my 30-for-60 in 2045 will be able to give a more useful conclusion…