Sunday, May 3, 2015

We Will Be Remembered through What We Post

In this social media driven decade, the way we will be remembered may be reflected in what we post. What we project to the world online today will likely be the information about us that is easiest to gather in the future. Therefore, we must be aware that who we are, at least as far as history is concerned, might be molded by the Internet. In my view, our public face is being melded with what should be a more private side and the reality of our lives is perverted by an online public image. It is up to individuals to consciously create their own personal brand, or suffer the consequences of allowing others to attempt to reconstruct our lives through our random posts and musings.

On the Internet, what we record becomes part of a permanent record of our lives. Today, most people leave behind a great documentation footprint through digital means. It wasn't that long ago when most people did not leave much documentation behind for the world to see. Even 20th century lives are reconstructed from sometimes hard to find sources. We are lucky to find records that tell us about someone's pre-21st century life - handwritten correspondence, diaries and the like formed the personal papers from an earlier period.

A note that a friend penned to me in high school. We would
have been horrified to post these thoughts for others to see.
Remember hiding your diary under your mattress so your younger sister wouldn't find it? Remember passing private notes to friends in class? Today, young people are less likely to draw that line between public and private. Do you have something to say to a friend? Tweet it to the world; put your inner most thoughts in a blog. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in and society has a different mindset from the society in which I was trained as an archivist in the 1990s.

In this second decade of the 21st century, individuals can have more power over how they are remembered. The proliferation of the public records people create by interacting with their government and public groups online are augmented by those writings and postings which strike my generation as more private in nature. Many call this the "age of oversharing." Perhaps after a decade of this, we as individuals need to step back, take a hard look at our sharing habits, and curb our communication. While those sharing information online (the content creators) are sharing more and more, archivists are working to understand more fully the rapid transition our society has made in personal documentation, and we are considering what aspects of it are important to our profession.

Regular readers of this blog know my deep fascination with diary writing in particular. A recent article in the  Huffington Post discussed how the act of diary writing itself is changing and how there are many people who now write diaries for public consumption in a way that hasn't been done in the past. "On some level, when we vent, we want to be heard -- if only by our future selves. Why else would we choose such a permanent format for sorting out our thoughts?" [Crum. These are My Confessions: What Diary Keeping Means in the Age of Oversharing. ] Yet, venting for our future self in a personal journal is very different from online venting. I think this point needs to be more deeply considered by information professionals on every level.
  • What online personal content should be worthy of "permanent" status?  And controversially:
  • What content should be created? Do information/cultural heritage professionals have a role to play beyond gathering content? Should we also be helping individuals manage their online documentation and help curb the creation of unending documented random thoughts?
A particularly poignant and perhaps egregious example of the way we broadcast without forethought is evident in a high profile 2013 Twitter scandal.  Certainly, Justine Sacco wanted to vent when she wrote the tweets that eventually led to her dismissal from her high powered job, but did she really want to be heard?

As a teacher / librarian / archivist, this issue has an important place in my life. Every day, I watch students create content that shouldn't be shared. I realize the permanence of the words they place online. They do not. I realize how their content is affecting society and can affect their lives. As a mentor, I have a responsibility to help them fully understand how information impacts them. As an archivist, I believe that it would be to the profession's benefit to spread this message to a greater populace. Is the information we are spewing worth the computer space we are using? Computer space is cheap, but the never ending bombardment of gossip and misinformation is not, in my opinion.

We once documented our thoughts for ourselves, to share with a friend in a letter, or in well-thought out speeches. Today, as content creators, a quick thought easily flies out our fingers onto a screen and into what we may perceive as a void. "[the sharing of] our once-discreet musings could be seen as narcissistic -- a strategic move in a quest for validation...But it’s something else, too. When such observations are compiled into a work of art, they become an honest reflection on how we absorb and produce information." [Crum]

Certainly, there is a benefit for informational professionals and historians to have so much now available to us. If archivists can successfully save what is being broadcast, and if we can successfully preserve and provide access to it, we will have an abundance of material to examine, consider and study. Perhaps we will have a rich view of early twenty-first century life and a rich view of how we use information. We will be able to study society through a combined public and private lens that past historians could only have dreamed.

However, I wonder if alternately, this bombardment of information provides an inaccurate understanding of how individuals really function. Does all this information accurately reflect our communities? What role can ideas of personal branding and full understanding of an online image play in protecting documentation that accurately projects our own lives and our times? Can, and should, information professionals craft a salient message to help protect the value of good information versus bad (if indeed there is such as thing as good versus bad information at all)?

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