Mapping social media archiving initiatives: state of the art, trends, and future perspectives

By Beatrice Cannelli, PhD candidate at the School of Advanced Study (University of London), funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP)


The unique and dynamic nature of social platforms, together with legal and technical challenges make social media content very difficult to capture in a comprehensive way. Although it can be assumed that many archiving institutions include, to a certain degree, this born-digital material in their web collections, only a small number of them capture social media consistently.

As part of my PhD research titled ‘Archiving Social Media: a Comparative Study of the Practices, Obstacles, and Opportunities Related to the Development of Social Media Archives’, I have conducted an online survey with the aim of locating the latest social media archiving initiatives that are either currently archiving or are planning to archive content from social platforms.

Recent papers (Vlassenroot et al., 2021) have offered an overview of social media initiatives developed within broader and pre-existing web archiving projects.

In this post, I will discuss the results from the survey carried out between 2021 and 2022, offering a worldwide review of memory institutions engaged in social media archiving activities, including institutions such as museums and other organisations (e.g. Universities, other government institutions and administrative agencies) in order to get a better understanding of the current social media archiving panorama, highlight imbalances, and developments we can expect to see in the years to come.

The research

The online survey was circulated via email using various mailing lists (e.g. the IIPC curators mailing list) and Twitter, receiving a total of 33 responses.

The below map (Figure 1) illustrates the location of the respondent institutions arranged by country.

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Figure 1: Location of social media archiving initiatives

Based on desk research, I have also added institutions located in Sweden, China, Ukraine and South Korea to the map as they mentioned social media archiving activities either on their websites or collection development policies. Only two institutions, based in Italy and Lithuania, completed the survey stating that they currently have no plans to collect this born-digital material in the near future.

Social media archiving initiatives appear to be located mainly in the European area, and in the US and Canada. The National Library of China is also planning to collect social media content following the announcement made in 2019 that they would start archiving posts from the Sina Weibo platform.

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Figure 2: Type of institutions | *includes data based on desk research

As expected, the majority of the initiatives originate in national libraries and archives. Yet, a significant number of responses came also from different areas of the GLAM sector and other institutions such as universities, government agencies, and archives related to political parties (Figure 2).

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Figure 3: Type and stage of social media archiving initiatives

Through the survey, I also wanted to capture the stage these social media initiatives were at in order to help paint a much clearer image of the current social media archiving landscape while also envisioning future developments. As shown in Figure 3, more than half of the respondents are institutions that are running long-term projects, while the remainder are distributed between pilot (5, 16%) and planning phase (7, 23%).

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Figure 4: Year in which institutions have started collecting social media

Responses to the question related to the year in which memory institutions started archiving social media revealed an uneven and fluctuating image of the history of social media archiving. Figure 4 illustrates how there has been a significant increase between 2017 and 2022 in the number of archiving institutions interested in including these platforms in their collections.

If this data is then compared with responses to the question related to whether the participating social media archiving initiative were part of a wider, pre-existing web archiving project (Figure 5), data suggests that there seems to be a new trend in the development of social media archives.

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Figure 5: Social Media Archiving initiatives that are part of a pre-existing web archive

About 23% percent of respondents declared that their social media archiving initiative has been indeed independently developed from any previous web-related archiving activities. Of these, many have started adding social media content to their collections (or begun planning to) only recently, between 2017 and 2022.

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Figure 6: Social media platforms collected

As already reported in previous studies (Vlassenroot et al., 2021 and also in the IIPC blogpost “Web Archiving the War in Ukraine”), data from the survey confirmed the tendency for social media archiving initiatives to collect predominantly content from Twitter (28, 34%), followed by Facebook (19, 23%) and Instagram (17, 20%). As illustrated in Figure 6, a number of institutions preserve or plan to preserve material from WhatsApp and TikTok, especially after the platforms becoming very popular around 2020-2021. Furthermore, some respondents mentioned platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr and Telegram. The latter is one of those messaging apps that are not frequently archived yet due to a wide array of difficulties. However, it has recently become the subject of a very interesting archiving initiative – the Telegram Archive of the War – operated by the Center for Urban History in Lviv which has started collecting Telegram channels since February 2022, given the key role this app has been playing in the circulation of official announcements during the war.

Conclusion and future perspectives

Data from the survey revealed that the geographical distribution of social media archiving initiatives seem to reflect imbalances that are mainly related to economic, political and ICT divide. Moreover, challenges related to the collection of certain platforms, boundaries set by national legal frameworks, and other limitations imposed by social platforms have affected the type and rate with which social media is currently being archived, leading to the formation of inevitable gaps in the material preserved. This further underlines the importance of documenting the criteria on which selection is based at an institutional level, in order to clearly understand curation choices, and why some things have been archived rather than others.

Besides, it is worth noting how the most archived social media platforms do not always match the most popular ones in all countries, while other social platforms are only used in areas of the globe that are currently not capturing these sites. This has its implications on the preservation of our collective memory and the representation of silences, marginalised voices and content produced in areas, such as the Global South, which is relevant to study events that transcend the Global North, and national borders.

In this sense, the emerging of social media archiving initiatives outside legal deposit institutions is an important phenomenon which might represent an opportunity to preserve material that would otherwise be out of scope for most institutions, thus keeping record of those silences, marginalised histories, or events unfolding on the less frequently archived platforms.

Findings from the survey revealed that the number of social media archiving initiatives across the globe are steadily growing in number, especially in response to recent and historically significant events. An increasing number of these initiatives appear, as mentioned, to be developing independently from pre-existing web archiving initiatives. This suggests that what started as a prolongation of archiving activities mainly focused on websites seems to be evolving and defining itself as a distinct phenomenon with its own challenges, requiring ad-hoc solutions, specific practices, and generating future new scenarios that will be interesting to investigate further.

*This post summarizes results presented at the WARCnet closing conference in Aarhus, 17-18 October with the title “Mapping social media archiving initiatives: some considerations on imbalances and future directions”.

References

Vlassenroot, E., Chambers, S., Lieber, S., Michel, A., Geeraert, F., Pranger, J., Birkholz, J., & Mechant, P. (2021). Web-archiving and social media: An exploratory analysis. International Journal of Digital Humanities. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42803-021-00036-1

2 thoughts on “Mapping social media archiving initiatives: state of the art, trends, and future perspectives

  1. […] Cannelli, PhD candidate at the School of Advanced Study (University of London), summarises the results of an online survey which maps social media archiving initiatives and is part of her research project “Archiving […]

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