The new archivists: Social media, memory and history
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In a time of growing populism around the world and here in Canada, many are wondering: if we forget our world history, are we doomed to repeat it? This provocative question may be increasingly relevant. In a recent Leger survey seven out of ten Canadians felt that “with the Internet and technology they don’t need to remember as much as they used to” (Jedwab, 2018). And many also think “technology makes me smarter” since it helps them remember important historical dates, people, and details of historical events. But what are the consequences of Canadians turning to dominant social platforms like Facebook, Google, or Twitter for answers about history? This essay will consider the consequences of technologized history, by looking at how algorithmic selection may play a role in a future historical archive. Canadians love digital media. 90% of Canadians use the internet (CIRA, 2018), and most like to be connected on social networking sites. A recent report by the Social Media Lab, 84% of online Canadian adults are on Facebook, 59% are on YouTube, 46 % are on LinkedIn and 42% are on Twitter (Gruzd et. al., 2017). StatCounter (2018) reports that profit driven and advertiser supported search engines made up 99.5% of search engine market share in Canada over the last year, with Google taking 93%, Bing, 3.79%, and Yahoo, 2.24%. This may be why the Leger survey found that Canadians like to turn to social media and google searches when they have a question about history. What might be the consequences of ‘outsourcing’ memory to digital tools? In this essay, I argue that by outsourcing our memories to social media, Canadians risk developing an archive guided more by a marketing logic than by historical consciousness. I begin by adopting a media ecology perspective to consider the role that communication media play in how we relate to history. Then, I show how the political economy of social media platforms influences what gets archived. Finally, I make some recommendations for how historians could work to build digital literacy for those who turn to social platforms for help with historical remembering.
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