Twenty years ago, a student network called The Facebook went online on Harvard campus. Before long, other social networks sprang up on a global scale, transforming the way internet users communicate online. On the occasion of Facebook’s 20th anniversary, Prof. Valérie Schafer and Ass. Prof. Frédéric Clavert, digital historians at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), take stock of research practices into the archiving and history of digital technology and social networks.
Prof. Schafer is currently leading the research project “A history of online virality“ (HIVI), which aims to document and analyse the history of viral content and this intangible heritage.
The longevity of Facebook
Facebook was not the first digital social network to appear, and access to it was restricted before it became fully public in 2006. The same year saw the launch of Viadeo and Flickr. And there are precedents: Skyblog, Second Life, LinkedIn and MySpace were born in 2003, and SixDegrees in 1997. Other famous platforms followed shortly, with YouTube launching in 2005 and Twitter in 2006.
This was a period of transformation for the web as digital uses were becoming increasingly participative which was often described as “web 2.0”. Facebook made a major contribution to this shift towards platforms for sharing and interaction, and its system of publication, conversation and engagement (“like”) has left its mark on digital culture. Facebook had to adapt of course, as Anne Helmond and co-authors have shown. The network has held its ground to competition from networks that are increasingly visual (Instagram), more dynamic messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp, and faster, more video-based content (TikTok), all of which appeal to the younger generation. This ability to adapt has led to the launch of new features, such as “Reel” or takeovers like Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook has also faced controversy and scandal, such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica crisis triggered by the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Its journey and the impact on society it has had will nourish digital history research for many generations to come.
Digital social networks as source and object of study
Digital social network content has established itself as a research area. These contents are a mirror, albeit an imperfect and distorting one, of major social issues. Historians also look into how history is addressed on the internet, particularly in commemorating historical events such as the Centenary of the Great War.
Research in these areas incites collaboration and new avenues of interdisciplinary analysis for researchers in sociology, political science, psychology and STEM sciences.
While content is important in the analysis of digital social networks, their own history is equally significant to shed light on societal changes. There is a wealth of knowledge to create from their history, from the first attempt of media comments sections, the first revelations of historical photographs on networks, the evolution of blogs and vlogs and much more. Finally, historians are paying close attention to the preservation of these platforms and their content through archiving and what is known as “native digital heritage”. This includes the way in which these sources are constituted and their availability to future historians, as well as documenting archival practices. Joint projects are underway with major heritage and cultural institutions, such as the Bibliothèque nationale du Luxembourg, which is archiving the “Luxembourgish web”, with the Bibliothèque nationale de France or with the Institut national de l’audiovisuel in France.
Archives: challenges and prospects
Archiving digital social networks content is a complex venture. Researchers sometimes carry out their own data collection on a specific subject, but some of these networks have gradually been integrated into the collections made by heritage institutions, in particular X, Facebook and YouTube. Instagram and TikTok are rarely and modestly preserved, while messaging systems such as Snapchat or WhatsApp are not. Private content evades collection entirely. The sheer volume of data does not allow for exhaustive data collection, but rather targeted data collection aiming to be representative. In addition, legal and technical changes to access conditions can jeopardise or slow down data collection. For instance, while the Library of Congress in the US obtained from Twitter in 2010 to archive all its content, it ran up against the difficulty of providing access and managing such a large volume of data, leading to a reversal of its policy of exhaustiveness in 2018.
The challenges are technological, but also political, legal and ethical. API (the Application Programming Interface that enables data to be retrieved) are at the heart of major questions today. Digital research has grown exponentially, based in part on free access to the APIs of networks such as Twitter and Facebook, enabling researchers to refine their methodology, theory and tools for visualisation and analysis. Recent changes to large networks, which have removed or restricted free access to their APIs for researchers, are jeopardising scientific research, despite the European Union’s Digital Services Act.
The next challenge lies around the corner: it’s not enough to retrieve a large mass of data, one must be able to analyse it using computational tools (for visualisation, text mining, etc.), put it into context and apply a critical analysis to these sources. That is why digital hermeneutics, which focusses on the way in which knowledge about the digital world is constructed and can be transmitted, has become a core research area at the C²DH. It encourages interdisciplinarity with data engineers, sociologists and experts in political science and education.
At the same time, other horizons are opening up, such as access to the prompts of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Years of research and analysis leave the research community well prepared to investigate these new fields which unquestionably arouse the interest of historians, particularly insofar as they influence the writing of history and deliver a certain vision (and sometimes instrumentalisation) of it.