In my opinion, a major aspect of the humanities is the anthropological, the study of cultures. To this end, anthropologists utilize artifacts, literature, and architecture, among other things, as tools to study a people and the way they live their lives. From its inception, social media has provided an additional tool to collect data from people.
Having ousted MySpace as the premier social networking site in 2008, Facebook serves as a data mine about its users. Enthusiastic users of the network log everything from major life moments like graduations, marriages, births of children, and death, to the thoughts and smaller everyday moments that they deem important enough to share with their world. Facebook can be a huge resource for anthropologists studying modern culture because of its wide user base and the variety of its content. Not only can users post in the moment statuses, they can also write longer notes of content, create albums of photographic memories, and even donate to causes that they support (like this donation to support Nepal as it recovers from the recent earthquake). The statistics that can be gleaned from the Facebook databases about donations, click-through rates, etc., offer a lot of information about the interests and items of importance of the given population. In addition, Facebook is a valuable resource for determining how users spend their time, especially among those who no longer have the time to use a journal to record all of the things that happen in their lives.
Instagram has provided another channel through which life can be chronicled in a series of images and Twitter has created yet another platform for users to constantly provide updates of their lives to the followings that they build of friends, relatives and interested fans. We currently live in a culture very focused on the marketing of self, a value that is expressed in the encouraged use of these social media ventures. In some ways the contextual information surrounding social media is as useful as the information that can be gleaned from the users themselves.
However, as in all things, there are major drawbacks to using social media as an anthropological resource. One such drawback to the use of social media sites as a source of cultural documentation is the inherent transience of technology. As we strive to become more technologically advanced, what was once cutting edge becomes obsolete and sometimes inaccessible. Though there are still ways to retrieve information from floppy disks, to the average user such information would be out of reach. In the same way that floppy disks were phased out, compact discs are also slowly becoming less prevalent methods of storing and sharing information and some computer manufacturers have begun producing products that lack a CD drive, leaving users to purchase an additional external drive or to just go without.
Furthermore, even before the “incompatible browser” notifications begin to appear, passwords are lost, accounts are deleted and myriad other problems with chronicling via social media surface. There is variability, for example, between the face we present in our virtual lives and in the face we present in life offline. From a young age, those of us growing up with social media have been conditioned to closely monitor everything that is associated with us on the internet. This causes a bias in the information that can be found on social media and anthropologists must take this into account if they choose to take advantage of this tool.
Despite all of these complications, though, in a society that is so technology centric, especially among the younger generations, social media is currently the tool that is most frequently used to chronicle life. As such, I believe it is a tool worth looking into from an anthropological sense and look forward to seeing studies of social media in the future.
For further discussion of this topic, Thought Economics has posted an interview with Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the “Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology” on the topic of “The Psychology and Anthropology of Social Networks.”