Or: All Web is Not Created Equal, have you noticed?
One of the sessions I attended at the AHA this month was Session 151, Social Media and History. It featured one of our JIers, Max Mueller, talking about tensions and complications in the church’s “I am a Mormon” campaign, including the fascinating case of one woman whose tattoos were airbrushed out of her profile pic (her profile is now gone, for other reasons). Great talk, by the way, along with several others that reflected on the ethical and methodological problems of using social media as historical sources for researching marginalized groups or threatened voices. In each of the presentations — Max’s on constructing Mormon online “diversity,” Jessica Lingel’s on underground music scenes, Sadaf Jaffer’s on online discussion boards for Pakistani atheists, and Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa’s on sites made by and about Tibetans — the very existence of the sites to begin with, and especially their continued life on the web, is inherently unstable. It was actually a rather terrifying session, like watching 4 canaries in a coal mine (Hey! There’s a pocket of air over here! Oh wait, never mind).
I made a comment to this effect in the session, but wanted to elaborate here to enlarge this point a bit: this is and will be a serious problem for historians of the 21st century. And that is all of us, by default, because we live here and now. The “digital archive” is vast, and welcome, exciting, and appears misleadingly robust – but it is in fact very fragile. What is available to historians relies largely upon on goodwill, technology upgrades, and the market – none of which inspire my confidence as durable forces for the preservation of historical sources. (Betamax, anyone?)
Surprisingly, perhaps the one site that historians and academics love to villify (while using it, of course, on the sly), i.e. Wikipedia, seems to me to have the best model for historical value of them all, because it was built around the ideals of transparency and digital democracy. That doesn’t mean you can identify the authors with precision (it’s very difficult to do so, in fact), but you can at least see all prior versions at a single click and track changes over time.
By contrast, take — oh, let’s say, mormon.org (the public portal) or even lds.org (the member resource), beautifully crafted online environments that represent the church’s best practices today and presumably the foundation of its online presence for years to come. Built, I probably do not need to point out, upon very different values. What you can find there is pretty much only what is there now. Things come, go, vanish, launch, in a constant state of (often unannounced) change that nonetheless presents itself as final, unchanging and authoritative. The transition of church curriculum to born-digital creations (the youth lessons, for example) and the ability to continually/instantaneously update materials obviously has massive benefits for a globally-internet-connected worldwide church, but it is a historian’s worst nightmare. If you cannot see the “manuscript edits” so to speak, how do you know what changed, when, how and why? And if the old just vanishes from the online environment without a trace, what happens to the possibilities for historical research? Most of what we are all busily creating in this decade has simply been written in the equivalent of vanishing ink.
Of course this is not a problem limited to the study of Mormonism, or religion, or subaltern groups in general. It is a current problem that has no obvious solution in the immediate future. Archivists worry about it a lot. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is one partial attempt, but it archives only a tiny fraction of the ever-growing webiverse, like a space telescope focusing its mighty eye on a single dot in space at a time. I don’t have any bright ideas, either, I’m just feelin’ the pain of the historians in the 22nd and 23rd centuries. Unless they’ve figured out time travel by then, of course.