Platform Issues

Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble. (Photo: Stacie Williams)

“IT’S BEEN A BAD WEEK FOR SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES.” So started Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble’s keynote speech at Rhizome’s Ethics and Archiving the Web conference, hosted at the New Museum from March 22 to March 24. Noting that Mark Zuckerberg’s apology over the Cambridge Analytica revelations sounded “like an old boyfriend or lover who’s like, ‘I’m sorry I let you down and I won’t do it again,’” Noble also observed the language of perfection that surrounds technology companies and their supposed mistakes, which are often discussed as glitches, bugs, or viruses that mar “an otherwise perfectly operating system.” “This is absolutely not a glitch, but more so the logic that undergirds a lot of the commercial systems that we work with,” she explained.

The problems of capitalism were apparent in nearly all the conference sessions. Kicking off the event, Michael Connor of Rhizome mused on the issues that arise as artists and creators rely on money-driven, proprietary platforms to create, distribute, and house their work. “What happens when you have an artist working in Instagram making a profile as their artwork? Suddenly you have this proprietary environment . . . as well as all the user contributions of comments,” he said. “What happens when those things become part of the universe of a work?”

The sessions focused on two main questions: First, how do we update archival work for the internet age, in a way that takes privacy and surveillance into account? And second, how do we ethically archive work created on the Web, particularly when the author might not be easily identifiable?

Standing Rock organizers Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter, Marcella Gilbert, discussed the movement’s use of Facebook, which enabled global reach and access to resources but which also created evidence that would later be used against them in criminal trials. Jarrett Drake and Stacie Williams, part of A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, also struggled with how to inform participants of the ways in which they may or may not be identified by sharing their stories. Chido Muchemwa, an archivist at the University of Texas at Austin, reflected on the tweets she archived during the 2017 Zimbabwean coup. She was driven to collect the posts to preserve history but has yet to publicize them, as their release could mean legal retaliation against their authors. “How would I reconcile with the fact that active archiving could be facilitating oppression?” she asked.

Though in some ways less dire, the questions raised by the session titled “The Ethics of Digital Folklore” shared some concerns with earlier presentations. In “Y’all Mind If I Praise Some Memes,” Ruth Gebreyesus explored the complex course of evolution for all internet memes, and how these uncredited adaptations usually obscure the identities of their original creators, who are often young and black. The question of how to credit the unpaid labor of meme-ufacturing loomed large, but even more concerning was what happens to these creations when the social media platform hosting them no longer deems the enterprise profitable.

After USC doctoral student Frances Corry detailed the ways in which Geocities, MySpace, and Vine were allowed to be archived (or not) before their shutdowns, Rhizome preservation director Dragan Espenschied looked at the ways in which people have taken it upon themselves to document this earlier iteration of the internet, and what an ethical archive looks like. From cameronsworld.net, which re-creates the pixelated, MIDI-soundtracked splendor of browsing Geocities, to cannotsleepwithsnoringhusband.online, which takes one AOL user’s leaked search data and presents it in a scrolling, typing interface, these projects allow us to create a history not just of words and thoughts but of processes and experiences.

From left: Dragan Espenschied of Rhizome, writer Ruth Gebreyesus, Ari Spool of GIPHY, Ian Milligan from the University of Waterloo, and Frances Corry. (Photo: Mindy Seu)