I was alerted today to an interesting archival project taking place on Facebook.
The Singapore General Election 2011 came to an end in the early hours of Sunday, May 8 2011 when the results for the last constituency was revealed. From nomination day, which was held on April 27, till the votes were cast there was an abundance of political commentary flooding my Facebook news feed. Everyone and their non-voting friend had become an armchair political pundit during this brief period.
To capture this moment in time the architects of the Facebook Archiving GE2011 project aim to collect (not analyse) all your Facebook comments, wall posts, notes and other data created during this period. Their means of doing so are explained in a detailed note and the method is striking for its simplicity. All you have to do is save your Facebook profile as a webpage and mail it to their dedicated email address.
This project raises a number of interesting questions which arise out of using Facebook as a means of data archival. Firstly, the issue of data portability permeates the project as there is no clear method of collecting the information. Secondly, the use of Facebook as a tool for political commentary is an interesting notion in itself. Finally, the relevance of archival itself is questionable.
Of course one cannot discuss Facebook without touching on its perceived lassez-faire attitude towards privacy and protection of its users data. Interestingly, in this case it is not the protection that is the problem, but rather the access. Indeed up until a few months ago it was impossible to download any of your data from Facebook. Hence, the simplistic method used by this project to download the data of your profile from a specific period in time, appears to be the only means of actually gathering that data. This is a flaw in Facebook's design that open-source advocates have long rallied against. Although the privacy war-cry is sexier, data portability is an important consideration when your life is laid out on servers half-way around the world.
To combat the closed nature of Facebook, an open-source project called Diaspora sprang up with much fanfare, including eliciting patronage from Zuckerburg himself. However, this project has yet to officially launch and it is unlikely users will jump ship unless there is compelling reason to do so.
In essence we are stuck with Facebook and its unwillingness to allow its own users to manipulate their own data.
Platform for Commentary
First, there were "letters to the editor, then there were blog posts and now we are left with Facebook notes, comments and wall posts. The democratisation of content creation has allowed armchair pundits to spring out of the most unlikeliest of places. So, during the GE I had all sorts of interesting comments appear on my news feed adding a new perspective to the largely one-dimensional commentary provided by the mainstream media.
Facebook has made commentary easy because all it takes is a few words and hitting enter (there isn't even a send button any longer). Your friends are then able to communicate with you and a political discussion ensues out of thin air. This ease of interaction was impossible before Facebook and it is important that it survives.
The Internet Archive, more popularly knows as the Wayback Machine, has been keeping an archive of all websites since 1996. However, Facebook is a closed system and the Wayback Machine has no way of archiving the data within users' Facebook profiles. Hence, a large segment of the web has, in essence, not been archived for the passed few years. This is troubling as there is no record of the web that lies within Facebook. As the Archiving GE2011 project has shown, there is a lot of interesting and relevant content that should be saved for posterity, and currently there is no method of doing so.
In contrast, the data on Twitter is largely open and available to all and the US Library of Congress has taken advantage of this by archiving every public tweet since Twitters inception in March 2006. This is a massive project, but it is doable with resources of a governmental organisation. Similarly, the complete archival of Facebook must be left up to a third-party with significant resources. We cannot trust Facebook to do this and ad-hoc methods, while laudable, will not capture the full depth of content sitting in Facebook's services. However, for the time being it seems unlikely that Facebook will be amenable to sharing its valuable data.