The Book of Trogool

Community and archival

FriendFeed, now due to be absorbed into the Borg the Facebook empire, allowed me to lurk on the fringes of the scientific community Cameron Neylon mentions in his post on the takeover.

Insert all the usual clichés here: it was enormously valuable, I learned a lot, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. My humanities training wouldn’t normally gain me entrée into such a circle, and neither would my professional identity. Insofar as I have professional ambitions in scientific data management, every bit of acculturation I can come by is priceless.

That community wasn’t the only one I participated in; it wasn’t even the one I went to FriendFeed for. Much of the informal Library Society of the World took up residence in FriendFeed after a particularly painful series of Twitter fail-whales, and FriendFeed was pretty good to us. Finding a different community was a bonus!

The writing is on the wall for FriendFeed; it’ll limp along for a bit and then be shut down. Sic transit communitas mundi.

I could try to add to Cameron’s rundown of the technical features of FriendFeed that make it more attractive than Twitter, but I’ll pass, actually; I’m sure others will do that. As for Facebook?fool me twice, shame on me! I don’t trust those people as far as I could throw ‘em. For Book-of-Trogool purposes, though, I’m interested in this debacle from the perspective of memory organizations, the archival perspective.

Cameron and others are asking FriendFeed to allow them to archive posts and comments there (note to historians: this link will probably rot when FriendFeed dies for good). There is some chest-beating about the value of the content there.

I want to draw a distinction between personal value, community value, and archival value. Items of considerable personal value may have limited or no community value. Items of considerable personal or community value may have limited archival value?archival space and attention are not infinite (and growing more finite by the day). Archival value is often hugely overestimated.

This seems like a truism, but consider how many people leave lengthy runs of National Geographic magazines at libraries because although they have no personal value to the donor, surely they must have archival value! (Note to my readers: please don’t do that! Please. Have the guts to throw the things out. That’s all the library is going to do with them.)

So where is FriendFeed on this scale? For me personally, the value of the content I have put there is so low that I’m not planning to archive it. (I have a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward life-archiving anyway; I have no ambition to appear in history books.) Likewise, to me, the value of the community content. The community interaction has been hugely valuable to me, and I hope it can survive FriendFeed’s demise, but the frozen remains of that interaction? Limited if any value (again, to me; I don’t argue with Cameron’s or anyone else’s value perceptions).

If we are to estimate the archival value of FriendFeed interactions, I think we need to ask: how much research work is happening here that happens nowhere else and that can inform further research work? The second criterion is crucial. If it doesn’t create additional knowledge, it’s not worth archiving. Harsh? but archival space and attention are not infinite.

Sorry, sociologists and historians of science: I don’t think FriendFeed makes the cut. A lot of social software doesn’t, especially considering the difficulty of archiving it at all. Archival is not typically a desideratum of these systems (and I frankly maintain that Facebook’s stickiness regarding personal information is one reason I left it after zeroing out my profile), so it takes real effort to save anything.

Blogs and wikis may well make the cut?not en masse, to be sure, but on an individual basis. I’ve argued before and doubtless will again that libraries need to look seriously at their faculty’s blogs, hosted in institution-space or no. The same questions as above are important. If it helps, think of blogs as gray literature, much of which absolutely has archival value.

Geoffrey Bilder tweeted today “When people say ‘persistent’ or ‘sustainable’, what they often really mean is ‘for as long as I am actively interested in it.’” I think that’s absolutely right and absolutely important. Interest wanes. It is the archivist’s job to make educated guesses about the needles-in-haystacks in which interest will not wane.