Facebook as an archive (?)

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It’s kind of shocking that this is our last official blog of the semester! It seems appropriate that we’re discussing archives so modern they hardly seem like archives under the classical definition. Joanne Garde-Hansen’s chapter “MyMemories?: Personal Digital Archive Fever and Facebook” addressed Facebook’s ‘archive-ness’ using Derrida as a middleman of sorts; her ideas can also be applied to other forms of social media. I’ll focus mainly on Facebook, which has become something of a staple to our generation, as well as two newer forms: Snapchat and PostSecret.

Garde-Hansen says that Facebook acts as an archive in a number of ways, including individual photographs, photo albums, and ‘walls.’ She explains that social networking sites appear to be “perfect examples of the commencement of personal digital archives of human lives” (139) – but there is some sense of mediation, something streamlining us in a particular direction. Facebook is clearly a way to record memories, particularly through photographs and status updates, which act like memos or short diary entries.

However, the question of authenticity is key here. Garde-Hansen says that friendships are “digitally and corporately smoothed out” (139). While it is true that the most intimate and personal details (think inside jokes or shared funny stories) cannot be expressed effectively through this impersonal medium, it is also true that Facebook acts as a ‘freeze-frame’ for friendships and important moments in a way that other forms of social media do not.

Facebook also has the advantage of built-in features – when I log in, I am sometimes offered a look back at ‘this day in history’ to see things from my past that I deemed important enough to post on Facebook. At the end of December, a ‘Year in Review’ is automatically generated for each user; this is particularly interesting because the database itself selects which memories are most important. Although there is an ‘edit’ function that allows you to choose which photographs are part of the collection, the automatically selected ones are those which garnered the most ‘likes.’

What if physical archives worked like this? Perhaps they already do – collections that are the most desired, the most requested, are also easiest to access. Collections that are not often looked at require a little more digging.

Just to briefly touch on other modern ‘archives’ – Snapchat was designed as a way to share photos without the receiver being able to save the photo and look at it again later. Never mind that this has been proven inaccurate by the screenshot feature; the concept is a temporary archive of sorts. But if, in principle, no one can look at the shared photos all together as a collection, is it really an archive?

Similarly, PostSecret shares a collection of weekly ‘secrets,’ but those secrets seem to disappear each week when new ones are posted. I snooped around a little bit and couldn’t figure out if there was an ‘archive’ of old posts or whether they really do disappear. Assuming that PostSecret is like Snapchat and features photographs that are only accessible for a certain length of time (unless one cheats the system and screenshots them), can we consider these to be archives? They also expose slivers of life rather than the more ‘complete’ picture offered by Facebook. PostSecret has the added benefit of presenting multiple contributors’ offerings together, loosely grouped but not strictly categorized, so it seems more like a scrapbook than a photo album.

Garde-Hansen comes to the conclusion that, per Derrida, “We are suffering from archive fever…and are in need of archives” (148). She claims that Facebook and other social networking sites don’t “entirely” meet the need we have for archives and asks whether we have developed “a personal digital archive fever” (148) and are obsessed with documenting our lives online. On one hand, I am the first to admit that sometimes it’s rewarding to post pictures on Facebook and look through pictures posted by others. On the other hand, I have already addressed the mediation factor that Garde-Hansen mentions here – there is a sense of ‘searchability’ that worries me when I post a location tag or picture of myself.

Garde-Hansen’s concluding thought opens a new can of worms: Facebook “may well forever store memories [users] would prefer to forget” (149). I’m hoping this is something we can talk about in more depth, because it’s definitely an interesting factor of social media. More than once I’ve cringed at an embarrassing old status or untagged myself in a picture I wouldn’t want a future boss to see. Although Facebook stores these memories, I still feel a sense of control over who can see them, so the ‘archivist’ maintains some overseeing ability. But where do deleted things go? And do we really want to forget some memories, or are they just ones we’d prefer not to air out for friends of friends (and potentially strangers) to see?

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a photo (found in the RBSC as part of the Uno Langmann collection) of a mother breastfeeding her infant seemed too intimate to be accessible to strangers. Here, I suggest that maybe certain memories on Facebook are the same way – we don’t want to forget them, as Garde-Hansen implies, but we want to remember them in the privacy of our own homes rather than in a space as public as the internet.

Works Cited

Garde-Hansen, Joanne. “MyMemories? Personal Digital Archival Fever and Facebook.” Save As…Digital Memories. Ed. Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins, and Anna Reading. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. 135-50.