Workshop review: Social media as an historical source

By Laura Carter

In June 2019 we ran a workshop, in collaboration with Cambridge Digital Humanities’ (CDH) Learning Programme, about how historians might think about using social media as an historical source. In this post, SESC Research Associate Laura Carter reflects on the value and outcomes of the day.

The reason behind running this workshop was that, for several years, I had been thinking about the potential value of ‘school reunion’ groups on Facebook as a source for learning about aspects of everyday life at secondary school in Britain during previous decades. Whenever I was searching for information about a particular school online, perhaps a secondary modern school that had long since merged, closed, or ‘gone comprehensive’, unfailingly the first Google hit I would come across was a Facebook group. These groups were incredibly rich and often irresistible. They featured discussions (and photos) of teachers, (good and bad), letters sent home, school trips, first jobs, and first kisses. Most of the topics of conversation were things that we simply do not find in the same, vernacular mode in the ‘official’ sources such as Local Authority archives, HMI reports, or even sociological surveys.

As we considered if and how it would be possible to incorporate an online, ethnographic study of these groups into our larger research project, we also thought it would be beneficial to collaborate with CDH on an event to ask how other historians were approaching social media. We planned and ran an interactive workshop, free for anyone to attend, on 17 June 2019 at CRASSH in Cambridge.

The day began with a session ‘workshopping’ everyone’s project ideas. We organised attendees into four thematic groups, based around abstracts they had shared beforehand about their research. The groups were as follows:

  1. Using social media to recruit for oral histories and make contact with historical actors
  2. The uses of history and heritage on social media platforms
  3. Community Facebook groups as archives and sites of identity-making
  4. Attitudes to and memories of race and racism on social media

When we fed back, we found that the inter-connected practical and ethical challenges associated with this kind of work often prohibited us from carrying out projects on a larger, more systematic scale. We are all looking at and using social media all the time, but we aren’t always sure how to cite posts and threads in our published work, for example, or how to protect ourselves as researchers given that a platform like Facebook requires you to use your personal account to interact with individuals or in groups. There were varying views on this point: some of those present were actively inserting their own identities and views into their research process, in a reflexive way, whilst others sought to minimise their digital footprint as far as possible. These issues are not that far from challenges faced in traditional ethnographic sociology, and it was agreed that we could learn from revisiting those methodologies when planning online research, as well as engaging with new work on ‘netnography’ and other forms of digital ethnography that have not much penetrated the discipline of history so far.

Participants also raised questions about the demographics of social media users (and the difference between Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, for example), and the implications of this for whose voices are heard. Some of those using social media to enlist participants for oral history studies felt that digital spaces were often just exacerbating the ‘classic’ problems of oral history recruitment, such as class and ethnic bias. There was also a very productive discussion around thinking of social media, particularly community Facebook groups, as archives. Colleagues present from the British Library’s Digital Research and UK Web Archiving teams reminded us of the legal and professional parameters of being an archive. But others were also keen to stress the democratic nature of staking out a space online for memories and materials associated with a particular activist movement that might otherwise be forgotten in the official, archival record.

After sessions from myself outlining SESC’s research plan for engaging with ‘school reunion’ Facebook groups, and from Anne Alexander (CDH) on understanding the information architecture and user behaviour of social media, our final session was an interactive, mock ethics panel. This gave us a chance to pick up on questions about ethics that ran as a consistent thread throughout the day.

For the mock ethics panel, Anne created a fictional research project proposal called ‘The transmedial archive: exploring the public and private lives of Sir Winston Roberts (1957-2021)’. This project revolved around the archiving and digitisation of a figure whose life and work spanned analogue and digital sources (including a vast personal social media archive), and topics as diverse as psychiatry, drug misuse, and Far-Right politics. Our (pretend but esteemed) panel of ethical experts had an open discussion about the proposal, which all participants had time to read, and then grilled Anne (who was playing the PI) in the style of an ethics review panel. The fictional project was designed to have some obvious red flags built in, which our panel and audience quickly picked up on. The key points that emerged were the implications of GDPR, gaining consent from Twitter users once an archive has been downloaded, and how to preserve old media forms such as CD-ROMs and floppy disks.

When thinking about and planning this event, I was unsure if I had fully understood all of the complex issues surrounding social media research in history, enough to commence my proposed research on Facebook as part of SESC. But the experience of getting a range of historians together in one room, who had all been coming at this from different angles and thinking about it haphazardly on their own, definitely boosted my confidence that I was on the right track. Most participants I spoke to said that the first, workshopping session was the most useful part of the day because it helped connect up our isolated thinking.

There are already some answers to a lot of the questions we have about social media as an historical source, especially regarding ethics and methodology, in existing literature within political science, information studies, and sociology. However, we don’t have many blueprints within our discipline for doing this type of work systematically, and in a way that answers the kinds of questions we have always traditionally asked of our sources. And we don’t have an ethical framework that matches the high standards that we have long assumed traditional archives already have covered, when they present us with documentary sources to pour over in the reading room. This ethical framework has to be the first step if we are to enter the digital space confidently as historians, which we surely have to do as the internet becomes the historical terrain of the future.

Thank you to everyone involved in organising and who participated in our workshop on 17 June 2019. I will keep interested readers updated on my progress with SESC’s social media research over the coming year on this blog, including sharing our own ethical framework in due course. Below you will find a reading list created for the workshop, which contains useful introductory literature and software for historians considering using social media as a source.

Reading list: 

General

Twitter

Ethics

Tools

COSMOS Open Data Analytics Software, free software for analysing Twitter

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