This is an extract from the third draft of a current book chapter. It is beginning to argue about media trails, the life world, and stuff.
Online many services are often, colloquially, described as ‘archives’. We have the examples of YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, and blogs (as ‘life’ archiving, see for instance Sellen, and Nardi, et al) and all have been described as archives of some sort. However, these online services are different to the traditional archive as they are user, not artefact, centred. In the context of Web 2.0 and the social web an archive is no longer an institution managed by archivists through formal and informal protocols, but is conceived of as a system that lets individuals document their life world though specific media based activities. Here systems collect and aggregate media through various methods, including the use of formal and informal metadata, facilitating access to, and the use of, these ‘artefacts of experience’ for their maker, and generally others. In these online contexts specific media practice is secondary to the documentation of the life world, and it is this documentation that constructs the ‘archive’. In explicitly social systems, such as Flickr or Instagram for photographs, Vine, MixBit, and Lightt for video, and Twitter, FaceBook and blogs for text, it is the documentation of the life world that is primary, and the specificity of the media practice, secondary — they are systems that enable media trails as evidence of our life worlds.
This flips the archive, as historically archives are defined by the function of preserving particular sorts of artefacts as their primary purpose. These might be official documents, or a nation’s photographic, news, or film heritage. Online, what becomes of primary significance are the trails of life practice that we leave in the wake of our modern, small scale, media use, for instance mobile phones. The online media ‘archives’ that result from this everyday doing then take the individual as the centre of collecting, where media as the record of that individual’s participation in their life world, even where it may be nothing more than the simple documenting and recording of the everyday, is what becomes the archive. This is dramatically different to the historical concept of the archive, and is why such online services exhibit little institutional anxiety about transcoding media into different sizes, formats, resolutions and file types, or its removal, annotation, and recontextualisation. The material ‘thing’ that they are archives of are the mediated trails of the everyday, not the digital artefacts themselves.
These online archiving systems in many cases rapidly dwarfed most physical archives. For instance, in 2011 Flickr reported that it hosted over six billion images, while at the time of writing seventy two hours of new video is added to YouTube every minute, and while total video held by YouTube is not available, their content ID system scans 100 years — 873,600 hours — of video per day. These services needed to develop methods to leverage this scale and evolve ways for others to collect, curate, catalogue, and collaborate around this content. The imperative for this arises not from the object centredness of the archive, but from how they revolve around social documentation and exchange, where the media artefacts perform as evidentiary material trace.
If archives are ordinarily anchored by material artefacts then these online systems operate as services anchored by their role as relays in informational and communicative flows between artefacts, people, and institutions. The artefacts that these systems contain enable and facilitate these flows, yet as artefacts are secondary to this economy of communicative mediation. These are the ways in which we can recognise and identify the differences between existing archival collections, and recent practices that digitise existing archival collections to address the problem of access, and new, specifically online archival systems that in significant ways appear to offer archival qualities, but in fact are something very different and possibly new.
These online media systems, to the extent that they have created and participate in what is loosely known as the social web, are then in many ways disruptive in relation to the archive. This disruption is not, as it may first appear, simply be due to the rise of informal taxonomies (folksonomies) and self curation, but lies deeper in the shift from the artefact centred rationale of the archive to the social centred rational of Web 2.0 platforms. In the former artefacts matter more than users, in the latter users trump artefacts.Tags: archives, practice