The unexpected boon of impermanence

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In a world of CCTV cameras on every corner, and smartphones in every hand, we’re living in a time with unprecedented amounts of data. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to see how to parse and use this data in a meaningful way. Enter Documenting the Now, a joint initiative between Washington University in St. Louis, the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. DocNow is a platform designed “around supporting the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content.” Across the messy web of big data, archivists and activists are linking hands to tackle human rights related issues in a community-centric archive.

I learned about this initiative from an article on ABC News Australia’s website, “Meet the digital librarians saving social media posts to protect human rights.” Essentially, DocNow captures posts on social media as a way to shed light on otherwise unseen aspects of human rights abuses. For example, in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Documenting the Now team looked to Twitter as a way to document the event.  In two weeks, more than 13M tweets were collected and archived. However, the team struggled with the fact that this is an impermanent archive, an archive out of their control. Because it is a community-based archive, it is possible for tweets to be deleted by users (although they cannot be edited). As we are reading about authority control for class next week, I found this particularly timely, as DocNow clearly (and knowingly) has a lack of authority control.  We can see the unique challenges that come to light without such control in place.

Despite the impermanence of the archive, the lack of a central authority or “truth” can also present an unexpected boon: the ability to piece together several different accounts of an event, and to do so using the audience’s own wording, or tagging. Interestingly, though, DocNow’s goal isn’t to collate posts in order to present a neutral or authoritative view, but rather, to “understand the biases in each particular view of the event.” Another advantage to the lack of authority control in this case is that the event is more likely to bubble up to the surface, and be visible to the wider public.  The more people that tweet at or about a human rights violation, the more likely other folks will be to hear about it. And since the public can use whatever tags they may find appropriate, it makes the data more available to discovery, and more relevant. A great example of the power of this platform comes from Professor Jay Aronson of Carnegie Mellon University, who worked on a Ukrainian legal case “focusing on deaths during the Euromaidan protests,” where the compiled video aided the case greatly in prosecuting riot police.

Social media isn’t just a pastime – our world’s entries are just another form of “documents” for us to organize into meaningful information.

Submitted by Lindsay Menachemi, LIS653-01, Fall 2017

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Posted in Archives, Classification, Open Data

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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