Olivarius: Digitizing history

Culture Quotient

Something cool happened to me this week. I was working on my senior essay about rural antebellum Mississippi when I found a digitized lease agreement from 1835 that was signed by one of the “protagonists” of my story, Ruel Blake. Blake was hanged later in the year (wrongly) for inciting a slave insurrection. Beyond the newspaper articles written about the insurrection panic that gave his name as one of the guilty parties, this is the only surviving document that mentions him.

I would really like to know more about Ruel Blake: where he was born, who he was friends with, what skills he had, when he moved to Mississippi. But there just aren’t other conclusive documents for Blake like there are for other historical figures. This is the nature of doing research.

But when you do find that needle in the haystack — the one document in the archives that gives proof to what you were thinking — it can make your whole puzzle come together.

Is it possible to be this record-less today? Maybe. But for the hypothetical historian of the year 2200, access to the birth certificates, school and criminal records, and credit card bills of even the most ordinary people will be fairly standard, and probably even digitized. These records won’t tell the whole story, but they can provide the outline.

And then they will have Facebook, the modern day scrap book/family Bible, where we construct and comment on our own lives.

The dangers of Facebook overexposure for our present selves is well known. According to a 2008 Kaplan study, one in 10 college admissions officers routinely cyber stalk applicants’ Facebook and MySpace pages. About 38 percent of those officers found posts and pictures that reflected poorly on those prospective students. College seniors applying to prestigious jobs purge pictures of drinking, smoking and partying because employers look at them, too.

Fear of immediate personal repercussions aside, these sites will one day, I believe, become an incredible resource to academics and writers.

Imagine the historian from the year 2200, finding the archived Facebook page for Joe Schmo, a regular guy from 2011. He had 1,300 friends at his peak, was a fan of Stephen Colbert and had videos dancing the Macarena at a wedding. Joe wrote notes about his love for ultimate Frisbee and Soy Joys. There are pictures of him drinking wine and laughing in a park in Paris. At one point, he was “in a relationship” with Jane Plain, but later was “married to” Juicy Lucy. Then, he started to upload pictures of their baby, her first day at school and college graduation. Even if he deleted some pictures of himself drinking a Four Loko at age 20, those pictures are still in Facebook’s infinite data web.

Joe’s whole life is there. Well, sort of. His “Facebook life” is largely the one he wanted to present to others. Is this biased? Certainly. But also a source with a hundred little gems.

Historical research then is not about pawing through the Beinecke for one specific letter that might or might not exist, but for a wall post in a searchable, complied record of someone’s life. It’s like a pseudo-autobiography.

Last April, Twitter announced that all public tweets since its March 2006 genesis will be archived in the Library of Congress. They argue this collection will have boundless scholarly and research implications. Though I think we could do without Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s tweets right now, such as “I voted against the DREAM Act. Amnesty is not the answer,” it is awesome to think that future historians looking at our era can potentially use them.

And even the mundane tweets of normal people can be used in bulk to map trends over time about what people are talking about, what they are reading, the celebrities they are watching on television, etc. The Library of Congress already has over 167 terabytes of information pulled from the Internet in its archives. This might change how we think about “average” people’s roles in history.

Facebook has not made a similar deal with the Library of Congress. Yet. It’s more complicated for Facebook, and a larger undertaking. Twitter is designed to be a public forum; Facebook, on the other hand, owes its social-media dominance specifically to the idea that it guarantees a measure of privacy. Archiving would fundamentally change how users interact with the site.

Would you really care if your digital life was put into the public domain 50 years after you die? 100 years? Facebook is potentially the biggest archive in the entire world, housing profiles of one-seventh of the world’s entire population. It is the location of literally billions of memories and stories.

But as I sit in the library again, pawing over state records, hoping for Ruel Blake to show up, thinking it would be a lot easier if I could just see his Facebook page, I kicked myself. That awesome feeling of finding the one document with their name on it, making connections, speculating until you find proof, is what makes research so exhilarating.

Facebook will almost certainly be one of the future historian’s keys to the past. It will take away some of the magic and excitement of the hunt that’s now preoccupying me, but scouring Facebook’s digital data-ocean will no doubt offer magic of its own.

Still, old paper smells good.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.

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