Time in a Bottle: Capturing History on Social Media

By Gail Z. Martin

Social media has democratized the collection, curation, and sharing of our histories. Photos, documents, audio, and video can be archived and accessed easier than ever before, along with the words and voices of participants and observers. It's changing how we remember who we were and understand how history makes us who we are.

History takes many forms. Individuals dig into genealogy to discover their family story. Local historians try to preserve locations, photographs, documents, and accounts of events to maintain a complete record of a town's past, to cement a sense of place. Professional historians with museums and universities not only look to preserve history—for a subject, locale, or nation—but also to make sense of the fragments of the past, to view what has come before with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

One of the hardest jobs for historians has always been documentation. During much of history, a large part of the population was illiterate, so written records were relatively scarce. Those that were created owed their existence to the powerful and privileged, made by and for the Church, kings, or wealthy patrons who more often than not, had an agenda or at least a version of events they wanted to promote.

As literacy spread, more people wrote letters or kept journal and diaries, but once again, this was largely the purview of the middle and upper classes, and paper is fragile. Newspapers and magazines retained archives, but whole segments of the population (women, minorities, lower-income people, LGBTQ individuals, recent immigrants, teenagers) went largely or completely absent in their coverage. Archives burned or were lost to floods, records vanished due to neglect. Letters to the editor revealed a small sampling of common opinion, but even those were filtered by editorial choice. The day-to-day thoughts of the average person were ephemeral, voiced at the dinner table to family or at the local pub to friends. Only the loudest voices remained preserved by the public record.

Historians do the best they can with such a spotty and incomplete record, but large gaps remain. Now, the internet has begun to change how professional and amateur historians and genealogists do their work, as digitization and social media radically change how we preserve, access, and share content.

The Written Record

Because the historical documents that did survive were fragile, access was usually limited in order to preserve paper from exposure to light, air, and handling. At best, this required physically traveling to a library, university, museum, or court house and negotiating access to a rare book room, periodicals archive, or special collection. Hours and availability were limited, and sometimes permission was difficult to obtain.

Just discovering the existence of written documents could take years of painstaking detective work. Many letters and journals in private collections were open only to scholars. Other journals or private correspondence remained in the hand of family and were not known or available at all. Since the storage of the physical documents was fragmented, indexing either was non-existent or occurred through the notes of one researcher passed on to colleagues. Cross-referencing could only be done manually.

Documentation about the personal lives of the working class or individuals in marginalized groups was spotty at best. Edward S. Curtis and Rodman Wanamaker photographed Native American tribes at the turn of the Twentieth Century, but while their photographs preserved some aspects of the lifestyle and culture, it was not a record created, compiled or curated by the individuals themselves. That was true of similar efforts, like Doris Ulmann's Appalachian photography, or the photos of freed former slaves by the Federal Writers' Project and the Freedman's Bureau. Ethnographers might collect oral histories and, sometimes, writers like Studs Terkel made the real-life stories of working people into bestsellers, but the records were far from comprehensive, documented by outsiders, and subject to interpretive bias. The ability to document anything depended on the interest of organizations or wealthy individuals and the availability of funding. The information collected, since it was compiled and collected by outsiders, remained vulnerable to omission and subjectivity, and those who were interviewed or photographed had no control over their images or the final form of their stories, creating some incentive to shade the facts.

Social media's effect of chronicling life in real-time is giving historians a new perspective on recent/contemporary history. In the past, people often did not value contemporary resources because they were current, and therefore not thought of as “history" until time passed. Unfortunately, by the time the information was deemed important, it was often also often more difficult to validate, eyewitnesses had died or memories dimmed, and documents lost or destroyed as unimportant.

Researchers are learning to compile information as it unfolds, instead of the more traditional perspective of looking back. Social media also enables projects like The Southern Food Ways Alliance of University of MS, in which scholars and writers all over the world are using the study of food to understand Southern society, race, gender, immigration history. The project relies on the digital connectivity of scholars and writers as well as on Facebook posts of what people eat.

Fragmented documentation posed particular difficulties for genealogists. Family members might share photocopies of important photos and documents, but filed away in a drawer, they remained largely inaccessible. If distant cousins researching within the same family did not know each other, few avenues existed to discover each other's projects and share information. Computer bulletin boards, listservs, email lists, and online chat rooms began to pick up some of the slack as amateur researchers looked for ways to find one another. Breakthroughs came by word of mouth, or by luck to stumble upon either a new resource or knowledgeable researcher.

Libraries, museums, large private collections, and universities began the shift to preserve documents and more easily share them years ago by scanning periodicals to microfiche. Film was less fragile than paper, but the process was slow and manual, and reading the film required long hours in the library basement hunched over a special piece of equipment.

With the internet came digitization and a sudden explosion of documents made available online. Maps, census information, Selective Service registration, ships' manifests, immigration documents, public records like birth, death and marriage certificates, survey documents, cemetery plot maps, newspapers, magazines, letters, and journals now started to pop up online. Some of the material was digitized by government agencies, institutions or with grant money, some by volunteers, and others by dedicated individuals. Thanks to search engines, the information could not only be found more easily but contents could be searched and cross-referenced. As databases replaced paper record-keeping, that information also became more easily accessible, either via online search or through services like Lexus/Nexus.

Once computers and scanners became cheaper, many more individuals could easily preserve and share private troves of information like family letters, journals, certificates, etc. Small museums, libraries and newspapers could get in on the act with the help of volunteers as the technology became affordable. Suddenly, massive amounts of information became accessible and searchable—for free—for anyone, anywhere. Gatekeepers no longer controlled access, unless someone needed to see the original document. Distance, office hours and physical location no longer posed barriers. Amateur and professional researchers found themselves with an embarrassment of riches.

But while digitization coupled with the internet radically changed the collection and sharing of written documents, it also altered the notion of curation. Without gatekeepers and official protectors, there was also no one to categorize or consolidate information, create indices, validate legitimacy/authenticity or preserve long-term access. There's more information available than ever before, but you're on your own when it comes to putting the pieces together. Caveat emptor.

Social Media Changes Everything

Social media is the glue that pulls digitized history together. Through the websites and Facebook pages of museums, libraries, universities, private collectors, genealogists, and historians, digitized documents are being shared, indexed, and contextualized. These pages make the information easier to search and to cross-reference. Moreover, email and social media make it so much easier for conversation to happen, questions to be asked and answered, introductions to be made and information to be shared.

Museums large and small began sharing digitized collections from their archives free online. I've dug deep into some of these amazing resources in writing my historical fiction novels, and it is astounding to find the maps, photographs, and old corporate information that is readily available. Larger libraries and government agencies also began to make more of their archives accessible for free via the internet. While it can still require some historical detective work to piece information together, the pieces are now much easier to find and it's easier to notice the gaps where missing information ought to be.

Facebook may seem an unlikely place to dig for history or genealogy, but check into the many Facebook groups dedicated to those topics as a starting point. Groups can be the perfect venue for meeting people with similar interests, finding out about difficult-to-discover resources, getting tips from more experienced researchers, and being able to ask questions. Since researching can become something of an obsession, you might also enjoy the companionship of others who share your passion and will be excited to hear about your latest “find."

Try typing in some keywords that describe the information you're looking for into the search bar on Facebook. You might be surprised at what turns up. I found a Facebook page dedicated to my small hometown that was run by someone from its historical association. Not only was the page fun because of the crowdsourced photos and information shared by current and former residents, but it became a fascinating and ongoing conversation as people tried to confirm half-remembered details or identify faces from long-ago pictures. I also gained a substantial amount of information that I later used when I wrote a novella set in that town in the late 1800s.

Digitized scholarly papers and dissertations offer additional resources, making many out-of-print or difficult to find books searchable. Digitization coupled with the power of search engines make fragments of data findable that would have been missed by traditional researching methods.

Many organizations and scholarly groups involved in genealogy have active pages on Facebook. Search “genealogy on Facebook" and you're likely to find frequently updated lists of links to some of the new and established pages.

Most of the history and genealogy sites have some capability for social interaction, even if it's just an email address to contact the administrator. The big genealogy sites are generally crowdsourced, like Wikipedia, with interested individuals uploading information and adding details or corrections. As with any online community, if you show up frequently, provide helpful information, answer questions and refer resources, you'll get to know the regulars, who may prove invaluable to your own search.

Sites like Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com have created a central repository for researchers to find and share digitized information. I can attest to the thrill of finding my grandfather's draft card from World War I with his signature on it. Connecting with the past suddenly became easier and far more searchable than ever.

FamilySearch.org is a huge collection of family information encompassing records for millions of people worldwide. Afrigeneas is a site specializing in African-American family history, while JewishGen traces Jewish genealogy. BillionGraves and FindAGrave make it easy to search cemetery records. The National Archives, Fold3.com, the General Land Office (GLORecords.blm.gov), and the USGenWebProject.org make it easy to access US government records. The Library of Congress (LOC.gov) is also an amazing resource. If you know the name of the cemetery where your relatives are buried, odds are increasingly good that the cemetery itself may have an online database of plot numbers and names, which is likely to include photos of tombstones and date of interment.

At a certain point, genealogy and general history become intertwined, because the story of many small towns and regions is often driven by the fortunes and misfortunes of its most famous and prosperous families. This is also the case with the history of large organizations that provided the majority of a city's or region's jobs or were the primary reason an area became settled.

Looking for a corporate “genealogy" utilizes many of the same resources I've mentioned above, with a few extra. Start with an online search, and try variations of the most recent as well as prior versions of the company name. Look for industry records that might have a cross-link. Some industries have dedicated historical organizations committed to preserving a record of the companies and their workers (for example, coal mining in Pennsylvania). These small organization sites can have a trove of unique photos gathered from their targeted audience, and there's often an administrator who is passionate about the topic only an email away. Check out the “Business Resources" section at the Library of Congress web site as well.

Flickr and Pinterest have become repositories for historical photos, not just those compiled by individuals, but also from the Smithsonian, National Archives, and New York Public Library, to name a few of the major organizations sharing through these sites. You can also post a photo and ask if anyone else can identify the person, place or thing pictured, and gather a tribe of like-minded followers. YouTube has a slew of how-to videos for budding genealogists.

If you're researching a common topic with other people, consider creating a Wiki so that everyone can add, update and correct information in one central site. Give a few of the more active/committed people administrative privileges, and encourage everyone involved to post information and to fact-check what others post. Remind your group to use photos and video as well as text. Try to capture stories from elders about every question you can imagine—their childhoods, holiday celebrations, family members, religious ceremonies, farming and trades, recreation, food—all aspects of life. Those memories are impossible to regain when an older generation passes on.

Get involved with the social media aspects of these sites, but always keep either a digital or screen print record of what you and those in your group post. Sites can decide to stop providing social media services or simply go out of business or be bought, and you don't want to lose everything you've compiled.

History in the Making

How many times have you watched a history documentary as experts made educated guesses about how people from long ago carried on their lives, speculating about what they ate or how the man-in-the-street thought about affairs of the day?

Future historians need only be able to access blogs and Facebook data to get a fairly complete picture of the lives of regular people—at least those from areas with internet access. Thanks to social media, non-famous, non-wealthy people describe their lives in minute detail, share photos of their food and clothing, and air their opinions of current events. It's an unprecedented crowdsourced collection of history-in-the-making, and a goldmine for future historians and current ethnographers.

Think about the community organizations, houses of worship, alumni groups, professional clubs that you belong to and look for opportunities to chronicle history via social media. Have volunteers on hand at events to record old timers talking about how things were “back in the day" with Skype or even with a cell phone video. Encourage storytelling with text and photos on the group's Facebook page. Start collecting photographs and memorabilia. Photograph and digitize everything, and upload to the wiki. If you're planning a celebration for a major milestone, like a centennial, begin well before the date—it will take longer than you anticipate to gather everything you need.

As facial recognition software becomes more widespread and inexpensive, we may finally be able to cross-reference people in old photos, assuming someone posts a picture that identifies the individual. This could be especially useful for families posting old photos in a central wiki, or for local historical organizations, both of which would have a high likelihood that multiple pictures of the same individuals might be uploaded.


Gail Z. Martin owns DreamSpinner Communications. Contact her at Gail@GailMartinMarketing.com