With the annual National Digital Forum almost upon us, it seems like an opportune time to adjust our lens. Our previous themes have all included contributions with a digital slant - from discussion around open GLAM to Wikipedia and gender diversity, but this time around we wanted to hone in on digital and try to grapple with how we use/abuse/love/detest our increasingly digital lives. This is for a number of reasons but primarily because both Matariki and myself are currently both grappling with the beast that is born-digital collecting, specifically social media.
My thinking around this has slowly been developing over the last few years. What started as a slow percolation developed into a sudden epiphany and a realisation of the absolute centrality of this medium (or non-medium) to the future use and relevance of our cultural institutions. Once I had had this epiphany, the whole situation seemed rather urgent, particularly around the collection (or lack) of this material in to our cultural organisations.
Foremost in my mind when thinking about this new frontier is Twitter. I’m a relatively recent convert, having little interest in the platform before we created a Tusk account. But since that day I have been a ready and willing convert, quickly seeing the platform’s boundless potential as a forum for democratic participation and access - for encouraging dialogue and discussion up, down and sideways across the great and varied spectrum of society.
But it’s as a germinating point for activism that I am particularly interested in it. Like many others, the power of this medium was driven home to me after (the unarmed) Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson. As it is want to do, Twitter exploded. However, this explosion had nothing to do with pile-ons, bullying and snide mentions. Rather it shifted the entire conversation and centred historically marginalised ‘counter publics’ in the dissemination and interpretation of information around this tragedy. As Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles explain,
African-Americans, women, and young people, including several members of Michael Brown’s working-class, African-American community, were particularly influential and succeeded in defining the terms of debate despite their historical exclusion from the American public sphere. This highlights democratic potentials within the networked public sphere, particularly vis-à-vis the discursive labor of members of American counter publics willing to contribute collective knowledge and critiques to the process of making sense of community crisis.
Suffice to say that this emerging discourse has busted my little archival brain wide open. Initiatives like Documenting the Now have emerged out of the urgent need to document and preserve the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as recognising that forum-based, viral dialogue is changing and challenging the way we receive our news. It has been acknowledged by many that during the Ferguson protests, traditional news-media outlets were increasingly looking to social media for verification of breaking news. I have heard it called citizen journalism. We need only look to the current Dakota Pipeline protests to witness this unfold in real time.
As we move into the future, a central tenet of our practice must be historical redress which must also include confronting the silences in our organisations and collections and honestly reflecting on how and why these silences (in the museum world we call them collection gaps) exist. Although progress is slow, I think it’s becoming apparent that social media platforms like Twitter are part of this process of contemporary redress. But as archivist Jarrett M. Drake points out this might actually involve accepting that a traditional repository, carrying the weight of its historical context, might not be the right place and instead advocating that such institutions support activist communities to create their own independent, community-based repositories. His piece on Medium, ‘Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories’, is well worth a read. I especially appreciate his thoughts around hollow collection development and ‘gap-filling’ being a primary acquisition motivation for collecting viral activism. Social media is tantalisingly immediate but our professional approach to it must not be flippant - we must ensure we play the long game, build trust and approach collecting with generosity and duty of care to our many publics.
As content from our wonderful contributors is rolled out over the coming weeks, I would advocate for all of you to think about what this new frontier of collecting means to you and your organisation. I say this not because it’s shiny and new but because thinking about social media has profoundly changed my thinking about our sector. Among many things, it has changed and augmented my thinking around purpose, responsibility and relevance. I don’t believe this is just a conversation to be had among those who are naturally drawn to it or along generational lines. It’s not a passing phase or a waste of time or something that only affects distracted millennials. It is real and important and substantial. After the events of last week, I can only imagine that these forums and the voices that emerge from them globally will only increase in importance. Let's do what we can to acknowledge history as it unfolds and collectively push at the boundaries of this new frontier.