The Challenge of Archiving Digitally Networked Movements

When I recently reviewed the SNCC digital gateway (, I marveled at the opportunity to dig through the day to day communications of this transformative activist organization. Reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, I wondered what a future archive for the various movements she analyzes might look like. Tufekci notes that one of the challenges digitally networked movements face is that (ironically) due to the ease with which they can reach millions of people for rapid mass actions, today’s movements often do not develop the organizational infrastructure that facilitates long-term strategic maneuvering. Much of the contents of the SNCC digital gateway comprise the artifacts of this organizational infrastructure. That said, Tufekci notes that while the entire Tahrir Square uprising—for example—did not develop much organizational infrastructure, smaller elements of it such as the medical team did. This infrastructure operated almost exclusively digitally, begging the question of how one might capture their mass of Tweets, Facebook posts, and Google Sheets, as SNCC has captured the artifacts of its operations in print form.

Tufekci notes that one of her many sources came from “online ethnographic observations” during which she observed people’s online political behavior (xviii). In traditional practice, ethnographers capture that which is otherwise uncaptured—verbal conversations, gestures, etc. It is interesting to consider to what degree Tufekci’s observations can be considered ethnographic, being as I imagine the majority of the behavior she was observing transpired through the production of text or imagery, artifacts which theoretically were captured in the moment of their creation. Tufekci does not cite this data as discrete artifacts; she treats it as ethnographic observation. But how might a scholar fifty years from now writing about Tahrir or Gezi or Zuccotti Park locate or reference such artifacts—surely not as ethnography? What ethnographic aspects—timing, perhaps—might be impossible to capture in the archival record?

The issue of how to archive the digital is hardly confined to social movements. As Presidential tweets become daily news, and more and more scholarship is published without ever being printed, digital artifacts have become a crucial component of the record of nearly every aspect of 21st century human endeavor. The very digital affordances that Tufekci notes have transformed networked movements—the ability to rapidly transcend space and time—pose challenges to archival principles such as maintaining original order and provenance.

In addition to Tufekci’s assertion that digitally networked movements often suffer from the lack of organizational infrastructure, I would add that our memory of these movements may suffer from the lack of artifacts produced in the making of such organizational infrastructure. OR we may have unprecedented access to their inner workings due to the almost constant production of digital artifacts that toe the line between artifact and observable behavior. Either way, contemporary accounts such as Tufekci’s will be invaluable to our descendants who hope to make sense of this transformative digital and social moment.

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