Desiree P. Jones-Smith 2016-11-16 13:44:02
Over the last few months, I have helped with Documenting the Now (DocNow), a tool and community around the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content. While I have spent a lot of time in my different jobs and projects using social media, I do not come from a library science background, so I knew that this project would teach me new things. Yet getting to know and work with the DocNow community has taught me something that I am embarrassed that I did not know before. I have learned that when archiving social media data, you are collecting information about people who are alive now and must live with the consequences of permanent documentation. For many of you, this is, and perhaps has been, an obvious idea, but how should this knowledge change the approach to archiving social media? In August, DocNow held its first advisory board meeting, in which we unpacked this sentiment in valuable conversations with compelling archivists, researchers, librarians, and activists. In a panel on “Social Media Archiving and Community Documentation” for DocNow in August, Brian Dietz, Jarrett Drake, Natalie Baur, Samantha Abrams and I discussed how direct access and open engagement with contributors as people and not data must be at the forefront when documenting communities whose full stories are not traditionally part of the archives in meaningful ways. Below are two particularly insightful contributions that remind us of the humanity implicit within social media data. When an archivist values the consent of people on social media, it often means engaging with social media authors in real life. This is tough for short-staffed archives, but there may be no other way around it for now. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Samantha Abrams created a Twitter archive of #therealUW. After consulting with both public and state libraries that did not feel the project was within their scope, her university library archives agreed to house the collection. However, the staff of three did not have a plan to protect the privacy or seek the consent of the Twitter authors. In addition, collecting and preserving #therealUW tweets inside the institution that those same Twitter authors were resisting could be problematic. Abrams felt compelled not to hand over the collection until a plan for privacy and consent could be realized. Subsequently, Abrams has worked to individually reach out to participants via Twitter and email to seek consent and talk, often face-to-face, to the authors about their desires for archiving their content. For Abrams’s ethical desires to be met, she needed to move her social media archives outside the web and into real-life interactions, treating these Twitter authors much like authors and donors in traditional acquisition policies. Similarly, DocNow is eager to design a social media archiving application and community that centers social media authors’ intentions and agency in the archiving process. We hope that the application will provide support to short-staffed libraries. Our goal is to build features that make seeking consent and engaging with authors central to the process and easier to do. The relative ease of collecting information about people via social media requires more, not less, appraisal. While working at Princeton University, Jarrett Drake noticed a heightened level of student activism in response to the death of Michael Brown and other police shootings. The work of Princeton students blossomed to include faculty and community, and came to a head in November 2015, when students took over the main administrative building as a part of a larger series of protest actions known as “Student Black-out.” From this event, Drake began the “Archiving Student Activism at Princeton” (ASAP) archives. But even before he began collecting material, he had questions: How do you gain the trust of students to collect their work? How do you avoid becoming an arm of the state, police, or surveillance when the information you collect might be seen as evidence by the state? To answer these questions, he turned to social media, using Twitter to ask colleagues for insight into the archival process and to help him think critically about ASAP’s approach. In addition to conferencing with archivists, he also considered activists. In the end, Drake decided not to collect from Twitter streams, which proved to be most sensitive in terms of personal content, and instead focused on crawling the more official communication channels of the Black Justice League’s (BJL) website, Twitter, and Facebook. In this way, ASAP avoided contributing to the surveillance of an already vulnerable population. In addition, the BJL collection remained private and unpublished until Drake spoke directly with BJL for permission to publish. Had BJL preferred, Drake was prepared to delete the collection. Fortunately, BJL consented to the archives. Drake recognized the privilege and power of archives and, through thoughtful appraisal, ensured that it was not used to harm a vulnerable population. Many of our colleagues have expressed a desire to have tools that help them easily apply appraisal principles and techniques to social media data, as well as provide a means to share retention schedules and restrict access to sensitive data sets. Our team is working hard to evaluate the feasibility of such features and develop a tool that meets these needs. Developing a Community of Practice Our conversations in St. Louis delighted in the notion that social media has provided a platform for traditionally underrepresented people to directly engage with the world. Their engagement has influenced public opinion, public policy, and community platforms. We also recognized that the power and privilege of the archives, especially institutional archives, requires extra care to appraise precisely what is necessary to tell the story at hand while still considering the consequences for the people whose lives are presented therein. Historical examples demonstrate that once information is collected and stored, the ability to protect vulnerable people is greatly reduced. The DocNow application hopes to leverage technology and a community of practice to ensure ethical evaluation when archiving the lives of people who are alive right now. Visit the DocNow website at www.DocNow.io to learn more about how to contribute to our work. To watch live videos from the DocNow board meeting, go to http://www.docnow.io/meetings/stl-2016/. If you’d like to learn more about the work of Samantha Abrams, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Jarrett Drake’s work, email him at email@example.com.
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