Facebook in History

Earlier this week I spent time in Swem’s Special Collections looking at the notebook of a 19th century businessman. The Prince William County resident’s dated cursive was nearly illegible, the pages were faded and torn, and the text was overfilled with marginalia and curious attempts at multiplication. But the notebook is worth the trouble. For historians, such writings provide critical insights into the daily anxieties and hopes of middle class Virginians; the excitement over the world fair, the religious commodities purchased, the debts owed. From such documents we can historicize the experience of everyday life.

All of which led to a question: a hundred years after my death, what documents will historians utilize to historicize the ordinary, daily affects of my generation? Postings on social network sites are one immediate answer. Within my age cohort, 89% of people use social networking sites and 46% of internet users report posting original photos and videos (Pew 2014). On social media, we work out the inane realities of day to day living—information of little use to us, but of value to historians trying to figure out exactly what we were up to.

Historians no longer have to sift through mildewed, incomplete documents. Instead, we have a perfectly preserved ledger of the social lives of an entire generation. Paucity has been replaced with overabundance and researchers will struggle to construct coherent historical narratives out of a nearly infinite reserve of readily available data. In a matter of decades, the field of history stands to be revolutionized and historians may find themselves pining for the days when one had to crank through microfilm for a glimpse into the past.

But despite the radical changes social media threatens to impose upon Herodotus’ old discipline, there’s a relative lack of understanding as to what structures our online behavior. What motivates a post? Which topics are discussed? Who does the posting? This is to say, we have all the more reason to begin an inquiry into the ways people discuss politics online. No discipline stands alone, and history may find itself in need of political theory and computer science sooner rather than later.

“Social Networking Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Centers Internet American Life Project RSS. Jan. 2014. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/>.