Sarah Hall explores tensions between oral histories and personal archives based on the AboutFace project
With social media ubiquitous in daily life, personal stories are constantly aired, shared, and discussed openly on different digital platforms. Users hungrily consume details of other peoples’ lives, gratified by the illusion that they have the same access to celebrities and influencers through DMs and comments, as they do members of their own social circle. Content creators share their personal experiences openly (albeit curated), to build a following based on a sense of community and friendship. Others use their platforms and lived experience to educate and inform, answering questions and raising awareness. But what is this social media to historians? Following a socio-cultural shift where it has almost become expected to share intimate details of your life with an online community, historians arguably have access to an unprecedented body of available source material. But what is this content? How should we approach it? Moreover, do we have the right to use these stories in our research, and what are our ethical obligations to the people sharing them?
In my role as the Public Engagement and Events Officer on the AboutFace project, led by Prof Fay Bound Alberti, which researches the emotional and cultural history of face transplantation, I use social media as a research tool to investigate public perceptions of face transplants, specifically, to see what transplant patients are posting publicly online. This work has prompted me to think carefully about the ways historians could and should use social media as a primary source and as a research tool, and the ethical implications of doing so. While there are a growing number of methodologies and approaches to oral history and social media, these largely concern sharing stories, with much less attention paid to capturing them.
What do you think you own?
There are real benefits to using social media content as source material. Researchers gain direct access to historical narratives, which on some platforms can be ‘saved’ and replayed. Additionally, via comments sections, we can learn how others respond to the ideas, emotions, and information being relayed in posts. This has been particularly important for AboutFace. There have been fewer than 50 face transplants worldwide, including two re-transplants, with the most recent performed in November 2020 (Alberti & Hoyle 2021). This is a rapidly evolving history, and one that so far has been primarily shared in medical journals. As such, knowledge is often siloed. Our sources tend to be scientific, outlining clinical developments. Simultaneously, the news media often sensationalises face transplantation as a form of medical miracle. What we find much harder to access are the patients’ stories in their own words.
This is where social media plays a vital role as a research tool. A small number of face transplant participants use social media to tell their stories. Tik Tok videos are particularly useful sources because many are posted in response to questions asked in the comments of other videos. The question provides insight into the public perception of face transplants, and the answer insight into the patient’s experience. For historians, this raises an important question: once such stories and personal narratives are posted online, who do they belong to? Once published, they can instantaneously be picked up, shared, claimed, and transformed by others. This is a legal issue as well as an ethical one, raising another question: ‘What do you think you own?’ (Dougherty & Simpson 2012). Content shared on social media platforms is technically owned by the creator (Weissman 2020). But while licences vary, user agreements essentially grant social media platforms the right to use posters’ content however they see fit.
Creative Commons licences and traditional copyright have resolved some of the issues around historical narrators’ rights to their stories when participating in oral history research, balancing many researchers’ desire to maintain the rights of individual participants while sharing history with the public (Weissman 2020). In addition, there is a growing body of work on how to conduct oral history in a digital world, but to date the focus has been on storing, sharing and disseminating official interviews recorded on video (Kaufman, 2013; Boyd, 2010). Far less attention has been paid to how historians can and should use videos posted on social media as primary sources, where people are freely sharing their histories outside of a formal interview.
Historians have addressed some questions connected with conducting oral history in a digital age, and continue to talk about authorial voice, the subject’s role and the privileging of experience (Millard 2020), particularly in contemporary and oral history. But this is not the same as considering what social media posts are as historical sources or how they could or should be used. Many oral historians state that their intention is to empower historical narrators by trusting their voices, positioning them as historical experts, and setting narrators’ analysis and interpretation of their experiences alongside the researcher’s own. This is designed to ensure historical narrators are not exploited but centred in their own histories. On the face of it, it may appear that social media content fits this intention. The poster presents their story as they wish it to be heard, and the researcher ‘listens,’ much like in an interview.
But this process creates issues of intent and trust. Firstly, when working with patients, they may not fully know what their desired outcomes or audience might be when they post on social media, and they quite possibly don’t expect or want to be creating a historical account. This connects with the question of trust. Without prior contact, how can the narrator trust the researcher to present an authentic account of their history? Likewise, can the researcher trust the narrator’s content to provide a coherent or consistent representation of themselves as a historical actor? There are clear ethical challenges, such as the researcher’s obligation to historical narrators, and whether they should be actively and consciously involved in the research.
What if we instead think of social media posts as a personal archive? Social media content is often carefully curated by the creator, who tailors their photos, captions, and videos to a particular audience and for a specific goal. In our research, this is often the patient, who selects the questions that they want to address, and tells the parts of their story that they believe are important, relevant, or interesting. Can we therefore contextualise social media profiles as personally curated archives? In the same way that a diary or body of letters may form a part of an archive, might a social media profile one day be used in the same way? Intent, again, becomes challenging here, because the user does not necessarily intend to create an archive of their lived experience. If this is the case, how might we define it instead? How does that impact the way that we use social media posts as historical sources?
Definitions of what constitutes an archive vary, especially in the digital domain. Kate Theimer has suggested that the word ‘archive’ has been misappropriated by digital humanists, who have used it to describe collections rather than ‘traditional’ archives, as an archivist recognises them (Theimer 2012). But in the same piece, Theimer also questions whether this matters. Depending on who you speak to, archives might be ‘deep cisterns of knowledge and reusable content,’ they could be public portals like the Wayback Machine (an internet archive that preserves webpages), or private like your own personal iTunes library. ‘Archive’ can refer to a structured, protected collection with a collections policy and guardianship by an archivist, or it could simply refer to a collection of things arranged together (Ranger 2011). The term, therefore, presents its own challenges, and definitions are not necessarily compatible or recognisable as the same thing from organisation to organisation, or to different researchers. Interdisciplinarity presents further complications: where researchers may use the same terminology to describe different spaces and practices. But if, for now, we take the word ‘archive’ as referring to a curated collection of sources, what does that do for our understanding of social media?
If a social media profile is a personal archive, then who is the archivist? Who will preserve them, and the context that they exist in? And who might provide access? There is an implied guardianship at play, especially for those used to the process of going to a physical building and requesting carefully catalogued sources from storage. This idea reprises questions concerning consent and ownership, and I suspect that the answers really lie in untangling these critical ethical issues. Does our use of others’ lived experience as told in social media posts change if we conceive of it as a personal archive, a collection, or an oral history? Or a combination of the three? Definitions matter, but at the core of this emerging issue I find myself wondering if the relationship between researcher and subject, and the emotional responses of both parties, might be more pressing. , we must be rigorous in questioning our own motives as historians, and our role in protecting our research subjects. However, I cautiously suggest that some forms of ‘protection’ could be read as academic gatekeeping. Because, ultimately, while we must safeguard our research subjects and ourselves, who are we to prevent others from accessing the same information (Jordanova 2020)?
These issues are essential to the matter of using social media content and will be the central concern of one chapter of a new edited collection, which addresses the present lack of an ethical framework to consult when using historical images and video. Forthcoming: Fay Bound Alberti, Sarah Hall, and Victoria Hoyle (eds.) Ethics, Emotions and Historical Images: The Medicalised Body (Palgrave Macmillan).
Sarah Hall is Public Engagement and Events Officer on the AboutFace Project. She is interested in academic outreach and engaging with creative methods for disseminating academic research to different audiences. She is also an historian of seventeenth century puritanism, with expertise in digital humanities methods. More broadly, this has generated an interest in social history and the histories of ‘ordinary’ people and their lived experiences. She brings this interdisciplinary experience to the AboutFace Project. Keep updated on the AboutFace Project on Twitter and Instagram and follow Sarah’s work on Twitter and Instagram at @SarahK_Hall.
Bound Alberti, F. and Victoria Hoyle. (2021). Face Transplants: An International History. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 76(3), pp. 319-345.
Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger (eds.) Oral History in the Digital Age. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Available from: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/a-creative-commons-solution/
Dougherty, Jack and Candace Simpson. (2012). ‘Who Owns Oral History? A Creative Commons Solution,’ in: Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger (eds.) Oral History in the Digital Age. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Available from: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/a-creative-commons-solution/
Jordanova, Ludmilla. (2020). ‘Attentive Looking’. Aboutface blog. 29 Jul. Available from: https://aboutfaceyork.com/2020/07/attentive-looking/
Kaufman, Peter B. (2013). ‘Oral History in the Video Age’. Oral History Review. 40(1), pp. 1-7.
Millard, C.J. (2020). Using personal experience in the academic medical humanities: a genealogy. Social Theory and Health 18, pp. 184-198.
Ranger, Joshua. (2012). ‘Why I Won’t Be Using the Word Archive Anymore’. AVP blog. 10 Nov. Available from: https://blog.weareavp.com/why-i-wont-be-using-the-word-archive-anymore
Theimer, Kate. (2012). Archives in Context and as Context. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(2). Available from: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/
Weissman, Scott. (2020). Who Owns Your Social Media Content? Copyrightlaws.com Blog. 22 January. Available from: https://www.copyrightlaws.com/who-owns-your-social-media-content