Yesterday, Facebook announced a new feature that allows users to download and save their profiles to personal hard drives. While this addition will certainly please digital packrats who archive every document they generate (you know who you are), another group may benefit from this development even more: historians.
Current historians believe that future researchers tasked with studying our contemporary society will face significant difficulty when attempting to access emails, instant messages or blog postings protected by a company's confidentiality. By taking Facebook information out of the restrictive hands of the corporation, the new download feature helps eliminate a major obstacle to prospective digital scholarship.
"My sense is, within the archiving community, this is seen as a positive first step from Facebook," said Matthew Kirschenbaum, the associate director of the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. “HTML and zip formats are not terribly useful from an archiving perspective. But it's better than we were two days ago" before the new download feature was announced.
However, it also adds a new problem. Whereas any data from Facebook would arrive meticulously organized and searchable, this new feature gives users the power to arrange the information any way they wanted. That leaves historians with the additional difficulty of sorting through the randomness of personal clutter to find what they want.
"Sometimes the owner has self organized it diligently, and some people just have piles of stuff," Kirshenbaum told TechNewsDaily. "But it’s interesting to see how people organize their information."
Data from Facebook and other social media services forms the raw fuel for a new generation of quantitative history research, Kirshenbaum said, where boundaries between primary sources and offhanded comments begin to blur.
That blurring also means historians will need to use their intuition about when to ignore powerful signals in the data, lest they look at Twitter and think that Justin Beiber was a vital part of our civilization.