Tag Archives: blogs

The Plight of Future Historians

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Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Microcelebrity

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I heard a bit on the radio about the internet and microcelebrity, but I only caught the tail end of it. I found an article about the idea here, written by Clive Thompson of Wired, and found that it really resonated with me as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of idea. I wish this concept were more widespread in online discussion, and it’s implications more carefully considered. Even for those who know about it, few really take it seriously. I mean, Tay Zonday doesn’t really need serious deconstruction, does he? We watch him, we talk about him. So what?

I’m disturbed by our tendency to create and worship at the altar of alternative authority figures in online communities, and then to scoff about the whole thing because it doesn’t matter.

This is primarily why I hestitate over studies like Walt’s which seek to quantify popularity in the world of librarian blogs; I fear the creation of a hierarchy within this online community. Creating a list of popular bloggers creates more visible, more defined, and authoritative list of our community’s microcelebrities, encouraging others to vie for the top spot and pay closer attention to these community leaders. In reality this happens anyway, regardless of whether you quantify it, so I suppose I shouldn’t be so skittish about lists. But I feel like we don’t consider the implications of this microcelebrity enough, that we don’t stop to deconstruct the process enough and see what kinds of behaviours we unthinkingly adopt in its presence.

I’m interested in what it means to be a microcelebrity in any community, because I’ve seen in turn destructive and counterproductive so many times online. Why does this happen? Most people start doing what they do, putting themselves online, for a set of self-defined and often unique purposes: they enjoy writing out loud, they enjoy participating in a community of like-minded people with similar interests, they enjoy the challenge of alternative perspectives, they want a place to react and respond to the things that go on in their daily lives. They like to record their own growth and be urged on in that growth by people they do and don’t know. They want to get some feedback on something they’re doing, get some reaction and attention, perhaps. They want to create an online presence. Most people (I imagine) don’t enter into an online community with the goal of becoming one of that community’s celebrities; most people don’t realize that all online communities have their own homegrown celebrities. We don’t conceive of celebrity that way, and we don’t, as a rule, know the internet and it communities well enough to know that this is what happens. But I have never seen an online community that didn’t have them. It’s rarely a positive experience for anyone, even though “it’s not real” and “it doesn’t matter” and “who is it really hurting”. It hurts us. It reflects the way we build our communities, and being conscious of it will hopefully create a richer, more diverse environment.

What does it mean to be a microcelebrity, known in other circles as a BNF? It means that everything the microcelebrity writes about or focuses on gains more attention than it would otherwise; microcelebrities set the topics for discussion within the community, because everyone is reading what they say and wants in on the conversation. If the microcelebrity develops an interest in something relatively ignored to that point, that interest becomes a new fad. The microcelebrity coins terms that have currency in the community. The ideas, rough drafts, or work of the microcelebrity gets lots of feedback and response in the form of comments, forum posts, tweets, or blog posts; the work of the microcelebrity is more often cited and built upon than that of others. The ideas or work of microcelebrities become goalposts of the community, and everyone else is often compared against them. It’s a powerful position, but that power is often invisible to the microcelebrity, who is often just trying to do what everyone else is doing without recognizing the influence they’re having on the community at large. This definition of celebrity is so absurd to people that the power that comes with it is difficult for them to comprehend. It often feels like microcelebrities “run” the community, when in reality they do not and cannot. Their interests and activities just consistently receive more attention than that of others in the community.

It all sounds pretty positive, but there are downsides, and I think those downsides are dangerous for a healthy online community. Being under a microscope constantly by one’s own community of peers means that the microcelebrity is required to be increasingly careful about what kinds of ideas they espouse lest they inadvertently quash someone else’s project or cause drama. Clive Thompson writes: “Some pundits fret that microcelebrity will soon force everyone to write blog posts and even talk in the bland, focus-grouped cadences of Hillary Clinton (minus the cackle).” He doesn’t believe this is likely, but I’ve never been involved in a community where I haven’t seen it happen. As soon as everyone is staring at you all the time, and the slightest negative opinion sends some part of your community into a tailspin and your inbox to fill up with hate mail, things do get pretty bland. We talk about celebrities (micro or otherwise) as if they are not flesh and blood people; we can talk about them negatively without imagining that they would ever find and read our words about them. We curtail the people we read the most, in the end. The microcelebrity’s views and interests become more mainstream because mainstream is what we want from them; we want them to pet our egos, support our projects, and not stomp on any emerging subcultures or fledgling ideas, and we want to be able to eviscerate them for everything they say and do, as well. Why do we do this to each other? Why is this necessary? (Ask Jessamyn if she gets any hatemail. I bet she does. Do you?)

People approach microcelebrities to pimp their project or their posts, because the approval of a microcelebrity has such great weight; people post comments on these people’s posts just to get their names out there and visible within the community. People put microcelebrities in their feedreaders just to keep track of what they’re paying attention to, either to repost and respond to it, or possibly just to mock it. People get scornful of microcelebrities and everything they say and do, just because there is always a group of people who want to define themselves against what’s popular and shaping public discussion. Microcelebrities will always be judged as not as smart, interesting, or up-to-date as whoever is trying to build themselves up in their shadows. (“Why does she get all that attention? She doesn’t deserve it.“) They become heroes and an anti-heroes at the same time. It’s junior high all over again, and what disturbs me the most is that we don’t ruminate often on the nature of our interaction with microcelebrity at all. We don’t get metacritical about the way we build people up and use them as community signposts. We don’t question the way we adopt authority even when such authority is entirely fictional. We naturally shape our online communities that way and then chafe under them without investigating what underpins the construction of a community.

Being careful about what you post online is no great tragedy, but deliberately creating a hierarchy as a collective where a small subset of a community are expected to control topics and opinions, set trends, and give blessing to emerging subcultures, is self-limiting on all sides.

And this is why I object to creating “top 10 lists” of librarian bloggers; I know what ends up happening. People troll these lists for the ones to watch rather than exclusively following the people they would naturally gravitate toward or find interesting. We create a canon. Without the top 10 list, at least the people getting attention at any one time would shift and change a bit more; as soon as we publicly acknowledge those who get most of our attention, we’re starting to build up those hierarchies and cement them.

Microcelebrity is a real thing, and it can have a negative impact on an online community. I’d love to see a community structured to allow everyone to get the feedback and attention they want without any small subset becoming the de facto class presidents. Maybe we’re just not wired that way.

Edit: Seems I’m not the only one feeling uncomfortable with blogs and their communities today.