By Tom Fell
If, like me, you are a second year History student who has just come off the back of the Doing History module, you may very well be thinking about what makes a source and what, if it exists, might the perfect source be? The boundaries of class, gender and occupation have been the perpetual hurdles of historians; particularly medievalists, but the obstacles are an annoyance for modernists too. The voice of the minority has been, by definition, suffocated, and although the practice of history into the very modern period has begun to be less encumbered by these issues, some genuine blind spots remain. This article will seek to understand and project the trajectory of future historical practice and predict the ways in which historical sources and their definition might evolve to account for this blind spot in the historical source base.
Never before has there been such an abundance of information or data on such a vast populous as there is now. Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. stand to contribute the largest collection of primary sources for future historians to examine. Their contents reveal the trends, hobbies, occupations, interests, social norms, and most significantly, opinions of a diverse population: women, children, working, middle and upper classes, all over the world. Admittedly there are certain parts of the world that social media cannot reveal – the most impoverished parts of the Third World for example, but that would be a lot to ask. Social media has the potential to give the most comprehensive cross section depiction of modern society currently available.
What does this mean for the practice of history in the future? Up until now, or a point in the future when the practice will change, there has been an ever-present ‘excuse’ for historians who might use the source base as a scapegoat for the lack of coverage in historical argument. When and if social media grows into nearly faultless sourcebook that it threatens to, historians will have lost a large part of this excuse. No longer will the historian complain that one cannot know what a certain person thought; if that person used social media, an insight into their mind should be readily available. This should have the effect of raising the standard or expected scope of a piece of historical argument drastically. Moreover, it changes the framework of modern history – a framework that posits that certain things are unknown and that history can work in a certain speculative manner. With the heightened and ever increasing climate of surveillance and data gathering, historians must rethink their purpose. I see history in the future taking a more socio-political approach as more becomes known about the past (our present).
However, it would be both foolish and naive to assume that social media can, and will grow into this beautifully ‘pure’ sourcebook. To begin with there are the heavy questions of ethics and privacy. How far can we justify sprawling through the private conversations of people who have not given their consent? It hasn’t stopped historians in the past – trawling through the private correspondence of influential figures is common, and valuable practice. However, it seems somehow more immoral to snoop through someone’s Facebook account; perhaps because of the society we live in now – one of heightened sensitivity to privacy, and perhaps future historians will not be so limited by political correctness. There is though, something distinctly voyeuristic about the idea of looking into social media. Regardless, just how tolerant are the historians of the future going to be of the vacuous status updates and click-bait that has come to pollute social media? Perhaps the people worth researching will have more stimulating Facebook pages than the rest of us?
Yet still, this is naive and presumptuous. Who are we to think that an academic association or we as ‘the people’ will be in the position, both politically and financially to acquire or buy out the privacy rights of social media sites such as Facebook. Maybe someone with the right amount of money will eventually buy out Facebook down the line, probably some marketing agency working for Coca-Cola who will put it to their own uses.
The real point to be made here then, is not so much that history will be changed drastically by social media, but that it could be. Imagine the insight that certain trends could give a historian pursuing research in the cultural or political history of the 21st century. If we used Facebook through a political lens we could perceive the rise of nationalism in the 21st century for example: Facebook shows us the popularity of nationalistic pages, and also, more poignantly, where they are popular and with whom specifically. This is something that more ambiguous records of polling stations cannot give us – as they are, by their very nature anonymous.
Culturally, social media platforms such as Instagram and Flickr (photography and blog based platforms) give an insight into popular values and culture. The recent vogue of ‘vintage’ or the popular obsession with health foods and healthy lifestyle are all readily perceptible in social media. A cultural historian with interests in the body and bodily identity would have a field day with Instagram; the fascinating phenomenon of increased self-awareness, especially of bodies and personal image, is in abundance on these sites.
While social media promises so much for the historian, some of it threatening, the likelihood of receiving all the data remains slim. Even if we were to get out hands on it all, what would we do with it? Could we ethically use it? However, as it stands now there is nothing to stop someone with an account finding information about their friends or even people they do not know. Of course, this brings in to question a whole new set of issues surrounding provenance: how might the Pope portray himself on Facebook for example, and what does that tell us about his audience and his actual meaning? Away from people, one can look at the membership of pages; and if, at a later date, we are able to see what the administrator sees, we can track the trend of the page and its popularity in certain places or with certain people.
Ultimately social media has made us, and our thoughts and understandings more traceable which, with any luck, means the diversification and bettering of historical practice.