Data Lifeboat Update 2a: Deeper research into the challenge of archiving social media objects

By Jenn Phillips-Bacher

For all of us at Flickr Foundation, the idea of Flickr as an archive in waiting inspires our core purpose. We believe the billions of photos that have amassed on Flickr in the last 20 years have potential to be the material of future historical research. With so much of our everyday lives being captured digitally and posted to public platforms, we – both the Flickr Foundation and the wider cultural heritage community – have begun figuring out how to proactively gather, make available, and preserve digital images and their metadata for the long term.

In this blog post, I’m setting my sights beyond technology to consider the institutional and social aspects that enable the collection of digital photography from online platforms.

It’s made of people

Our Data Lifeboat project is now underway. Its goal is to build a mechanism to make it possible to assemble and decentralize slivers of Flickr photos for potential future users. (You can read project update 1 and project update 2 for the background). The outcome of the first project phase will be one or more prototypes we will show to our Flickr Commons partners for feedback. We’re already looking ahead to the second phase where we will work with cultural heritage institutions within the wider Flickr Commons network to make sure that anything we put into production best suits cultural heritage institutions’ real-world needs.

We’ve been considering multiple possible use cases for creating, and importantly, docking a Data Lifeboat in a safe place. The two primary institutional use cases we see are:

  1. Cultural heritage institutions want to proactively collect born digital photography on topics relevant to their collections
  2. In an emergency situation, cultural heritage institutions (and maybe other Flickr members) want to save what they can from a sinking online platform – either photos they’ve uploaded or generously saving whatever they can. (And let me be clear: is thriving! But it’s better to design for a worst-case scenario than to find ourselves scrambling for a solution with no time to spare.)

We are working towards our Flickr Commons members (and other interested institutions) being able to accept Data Lifeboats as archival materials. For this to succeed, “dock” institutions will need to:

  • Be able to use it, and have the technology to accept it
  • Already have a view on collecting born digital photography, and ideally this type of media is included in their collection development strategy. (This is probably more important.)

This isn’t just a technology problem. It’s a problem made of everything else the technology is made of: people who work in cultural heritage institutions, their policies, organizational strategies, legal obligations, funding, commitment to maintenance, the willing consent of people who post their photos to online platforms and lots more.

To preserve born digital photos from the web requires the enthusiastic backing of institutions—which are fundamentally social creatures—to do what they’re designed to do, which is to save and ensure access to the raw material of future research.

Collecting social photography

I’ve been doing some background research to inform the early stages of Data Lifeboat development. I came across the 2020 Collecting Social Photography (CoSoPho) research project, which set out to understand how photography is used in social media in order to be able to develop methods for collection and transmission to future generations. Their report, ‘Connect to Collect: approaches to collecting social digital photography in museums and archives’, is freely available as PDF.

The project collaborators were:

  • The Nordic Museum / Nordiska Museet
  • Stockholm County Museum / Stockholms Läns Museum
  • Aalborg City Archives / Aalborg Stadsarkiv
  • The Finnish Museum of Photography / Finland’s Fotografiska Museum
  • Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

The CoSoPho project was a response to the current state of digital social photography and its collection/acquisition – or lack thereof – by museums and archives.

Implicit to the team’s research is that digital photography from online platforms is worth collecting. Three big questions were centered in their research:

  1. How can data collection policies and practices be adapted to create relevant and accessible collections of social digital photography?
  2. How can digital archives, collection databases and interfaces be relevantly adapted – considering the character of the social digital photograph and digital context – to serve different stakeholders and end users?
  3. How can museums and archives change their role when collecting and disseminating, to increase user influence in the whole life circle of the vernacular photographic cultural heritage?

There’s a lot in this report that is relevant to the Data Lifeboat project. The team’s research focussed on ‘digital social photography’, taken to mean any born digital photos that are taken for the purpose of sharing on social media. It interrogates Flickr alongside Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, as well as region-specific social media sites like IRC-Galleria (a very early 2000s Finnish social media platform).

I would consider Flickr a bit different to the other apps mentioned, only because it doesn’t address the other Flickr-specific use cases such as:

  • Showcasing photography as craft
  • Using Flickr as a public photo repository or image library where photos can be downloaded and re-used outside of Flickr, unlike walled garden apps like Instagram or Snapchat.

The ‘massification’ of images

The CoSoPho project highlighted the challenges of collecting digital photos of today while simultaneously digitizing analog images from the past, the latter of which cultural heritage institutions have been actively doing for many years. Anna Dahlgren describes this as a “‘massification’ of images online”. The complexities of digital social photos, with their continually changing and growing dynamic connections, combined with the unstoppable growth of social platforms, pose certain challenges for libraries, archives and museums to collect and preserve.

To collect digital photos requires a concerted effort to change the paradigm:

  • from static accumulation to dynamic connection
  • from hierarchical files to interlinked files
  • and from pre-selected quantities of documents to aggregation of unpredictably variable image and data objects.

Dahlgren argues that “…in order to collect and preserve digital cultural heritage, the infrastructure of memory institutions has to be decisively changed.”

The value of collecting and contributing

“Put bluntly, if images on Instagram, Facebook or any other open online platform should be collected by museums and archives what would the added value be? Or, put differently, if the images and texts appearing on these sites are already open and public, what is the role of the museum, or what is the added value of having the same contents and images available on a museum site?” (A. Dahlgren)

Those of us working in the cultural heritage sector can imagine many good responses to this question. At the Flickr Foundation, we look to our recent internet history and how many web platforms have been taken offline. Our digital lives are at risk of disappearing. Museums, libraries and archives have that long-term commitment to preservation. They are repositories of future knowledge, and expect to be there to provide access to it.

Cultural heritage institutions that choose to collect from social online spaces can forge a path for a multiplicity of voices within collections, moving beyond standardized metadata toward richer, more varied descriptions from the communities from which the photos are drawn. There is significant potential to collect in collaboration with the publics the institution serves. This is a great opportunity to design for a more inclusive ethics of care into collections.

But what about potential contributors whose photos are being considered for collection by institutions? What values might they apply to these collections?

CoSoPho uncovered useful insights about how people participating in community-driven collecting projects considered their own contributions. Contributors wanted to be selective about which of their photos would make it into a collection; this could be for aesthetic reasons (choosing the best, most representative photos) or concerns for their own or others’ anonymity. Explicit consent to include one’s photos in a future archive was a common theme – and one which we’re thinking deeply about.

Overall, people responded positively to the idea of cultural institutions collecting digital social photos – they too can be part of history!— and also think it’s important that the community from which those photos are drawn have a say in what is collected and how it’s made available. Future user researchers at Flickr Foundation might want to explore contributor sentiment even further.

What’s this got to do with Data Lifeboats?

As an intermediary between billions of Flickr photos and cultural heritage institutions, we need to create the possibilities for long-term preservation of this rich vein of digital history. These considerations will help us to design a system that works for Flickr members and museums and archives.

Adapting collection development practices

All signs point to cultural heritage institutions needing to prepare to take on born digital items. Many are already doing this as part of their acquisition strategies, but most often this born digital material comes entangled in a larger archival collection.

If institutions aren’t ready to proactively collect born digital material from the public web, this is a risk to the longevity of this type of knowledge. And if this isn’t a problem that currently matters to institutions, how can we convince them to save Flickr photos?

As we move into the next phase of the Data Lifeboat project, we want to find out:

  • Are Flickr Commons member institutions already collecting, or considering collecting, born digital material?
  • What kinds of barriers do they face?

Enabling consent and self-determination

CoSoPho’s research surfaced the critical importance of consent, ownership and self-determination in determining how public users/contributors engage with their role in creating a new digital archive.

  • How do we address issues of consent when preserving photos that belong to creators?
  • How do we create a system that allows living contributors to have a say in what is preserved, and how it’s presented?
  • How do we design a system that enables the informed collection of a living archive?
    Is there a form of donor agreement or an opt-in to encourage this ethics of care?

Getting choosy

With 50 billion Flickr photos, not all of them visible to the public or openly licensed, we are working from the assumption that the Data Lifeboat needs to enable selective collecting.

  • Are there acquisition practices and policies within Flickr Commons institutions that can inform how we enable users to choose what goes into a Data Lifeboat?
  • What policies for protecting data subjects in collections need to be observed?
  • Are there existing paradigms for public engagement for proactive, social collecting that the Data Lifeboat technology can enable?

Co-designing usable software

Cultural heritage institutions have massively complex technical environments with a wide variety of collection management systems, digital asset management systems and more. This complexity often means that institutions miss out on chances to integrate community-created content into their collections.

The CoSoPho research team developed a prototype for collecting digital social photography. That work was attempting to address some of these significant tech challenges, which Flickr Foundation is already considering:

  • Individual institutions need reliable, modern software that interfaces with their internal systems; few institutions have internal engineering capacity to design, build and maintain their own custom software
  • Current collection management systems don’t have a lot of room for community-driven metadata; this information is often wedged in to local data fields
  • Collection management systems lack the ability to synchronize data with social media platforms (and vice versa) if the data changes. That makes it more difficult to use third-party platforms for community description and collecting projects.

So there’s a huge opportunity for the Flickr Foundation to contribute software that works with this complexity to solve real challenges for institutions. Co-design–that is, a design process that draws on your professional expertise and institutional realities–is the way forward!

We need you!

We are working on the challenge of keeping Flickr photos visible for 100 years and we believe it’s essential that cultural heritage institutions are involved. Therefore, we want to make sure we’re building something that works for as many organizations as possible – both big and small – no matter where you are in your plans to collect born digital content from the web.

If you’re part of the Flickr Commons network already, we are planning two co-design workshops for Autumn 2024, one to be held in the US and the other likely to be in London. Keep your eyes peeled for Save-the-Date invitations, or let us know you’re interested, and we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop directly.

This work is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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