Documenting the Now

Bergis Jules
Apr 8, 2015 · 5 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot about building research collections around the digital content shared via social media in the aftermath of the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August 2014. The event captured international attention and generated massive amounts of activism that continues today. Social media, namely Twitter, where most of the early information about Ferguson was shared, remains the main platform for sharing information about the case, the ongoing activism, opposition to the protests, and the policy changes instituted as a result.

Tweets about #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown were by far the most popular in 2014. The most powerful stories shared via Twitter during the early activity around Ferguson was the digital content documenting what was happening on the ground, by observers, protesters, police, journalists and others who were present. In those early days of the Ferguson protests, the images and videos being shared were undeniable as powerful documentary evidence. They represented an authentic depiction of the significance of the activity, the diversity of the actors and the nature of the movement’s support and opposition. The digital content was especially powerful when compared with coverage of the case in the popular media vis-a-vis the reactions shared via Twitter from the general public and protesters on the ground.

Public sentiment has never been so accessible. Social media (and the mobile phone) has democratized information sharing and information consumption in ways we haven’t experienced in the past, giving everyone a platform to publicly engage in discourse around significant issues. It forces a two-way conversation and now more than ever, the community can engage with news and historical events on a personal level, in a public forum, rather than simply devouring what’s being pushed out to them. This presents new opportunities to scholars for deeper exploration of public engagement as it relates to documenting historical events.

Services like twitter also present new opportunities for archivists to build collections in the middle of ongoing activity, capturing content almost at the time of record creation. And the ephemeral nature of this new type of record challenges us to develop innovative tools and strategies to capture and preserve that digital content for future use.

After the social media activity around Brown’s killing began to ramp up, Ed Summers @edsu began collecting tweets that mentioned the Ferguson hashtag.

He collected over 13,000,000 tweets during a roughly two week period. That’s an incredible amount of data covering a very short time span for the Ferguson events and still it’s a very small number if you consider all the other hash tags that were being used during the early days including #mikebrown, #michaelbrown and #justiceformikebrown, among others. What can the digital content in those 13,000,000 tweets tells us about Ferguson 20 or 30 years from now? Who will have those collections?

A Gallup poll found that in 2014, racism, as a major concern for Americans, was the highest that sentiment had been since the Rodney King verdict in 1992. That sentiment is directly related to events in Ferguson and other killings of unarmed African Americans by police in 2014. But compared to Ferguson, what remains of the record of public reaction to the events associated with the Rodney King beating. Though we know there were visceral reactions to King’s beating and the acquittal of the police officers, it’s more difficult today to get at a deeper analysis of the public reactions to that event like we can today with social media records.

Perhaps the most powerful representations of public reaction of the Rodney King event were demonstrated through the riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers. What would have remained today of the public social media record if micro blogging services like Twitter had been around during the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers and the subsequent riots? How would public expressions of support and criticism be represented through Twitter? How would scholars have interpreted public sentiment through Twitter activity during those times? How would archivists have interacted with the vast amounts of tweets that would have been generated in order to build representative collections to support research activity? What would the digital content (images, audio, videos) embedded in tweets tell us about those engaged in protests and riots, the police’s response and tactics to quell those activities, and the national and international impact of the unfolding events?

It’s clear that without services like Twitter the nature of how the public learned about the Ferguson events would have been drastically different. Some of the leading voices who have helped sustain the protest movements initiated by Michael Brown’s killing, including the activists, citizens, scholars and journalists, have commented on the immense value of Twitter as an effective organizing tool. Deray Mckesson @deray, who helped to organize people across the country around the Ferguson events, has consistently written about the value of Twitter for organizing and curating the Ferguson story.

And @nettaaaaaaaa, another leading voice in the Ferguson protests and someone who was on the ground sharing information from the beginning.

And journalist and St. Louis resident, Sarah Kendzior @sarahkendzior:

When Ed Summers shared his work on the Ferguson archive and asked how might folks find it useful, I immediately thought about what aspects of the protests had the most profound effect on me as someone engaging with the events from a couple thousand miles away in southern California. The thousands of images being shared were a powerful way to connect people to the event. There were also several live streams and Vines of the action on the ground that were equally compelling.

There are already some great tools out there for building collections of tweets. Ed Summers’ twarc application and the social feed manager by Dan Chudnov @dchud and the great folks at George Washington University are good examples. There have also been some early attempts at collecting digital content related to Ferguson like the Documenting Ferguson project at Washington University in St. Louis. But I’m interested in building research collections specifically around the digital content, the images, videos, audio shared via Twitter in relation to #Ferguson. Considering the vastness, privacy and rights issues, and complexity of how digital content is shared via social media, how do we work with this material in the context of archival principles of collection, preservation and access?

Several of us, including Ed Summers, Dan Chudnov and Meredith Evans @mre1920, have been discussing ideas around this topic but I’d love to hear what you think. Hit me up on Twitter @bergisjules or comment.

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