Jan 22

Archives & Identity: Public, Private, and Communal

Modern Archons & Power

I’m most interested in Jacques Derrida’s focus on the arkheion, or “home of the archive that was ‘initially a house, a domicile, and address” with archons, or “magistrates…who commanded it” (Gane and Beer, 2008, p.73). Gane and Beer emphasize Derrida’s focus on connections between structure of an archive and power, especially in the role archons play in governing or controlling access to and acceptance of archival knowledge. As I’m reading this, I’m reminded of my reliance on Twapper Keeper and a power-struggle with Twitter last spring that sent me scrambling to archive my data.

Selection of Tweets from #oduemp, easily exported in Twapper Keeper prior to March 20, 2011

This struggle impacted me directly as I was archiving several Twitter hashtags for research on discourse, community, and social media. Twitter demanded that third party services, like Twapper Keeper, eliminate user access to export and download data from a twitter feed’s API. Although Twapper Keeper provided some avenues for getting around Spring 2011 “shut down,” this scenario illustrates Derrida’s concerns about political power and archive presence. Twitter litigation officers served as the archons, dictating who has access to read histories of tweets and own them through export and downloads. What I find ironic is that Twitter owns my tweets. I wonder if artists whose works end up in galleries ever feel this way? Their art is archived for the public to experience and see, yet controlled by private individuals who govern access and ownership of other artists’ work.

Everyday Archives & Identity

I am also struck by personal archiving done by individuals through online social media. We archive information about our families, what we’re doing each day, what movies we watch, and—perhaps the most inane–what we eat. As Gane and Beer (2008) write, “private lives are now routinely displayed and archived in public spaces that often have free and unrestricted access and which are governed in the loosest sense by their users” (p.73). One of the most interesting of archival sites is Caring Bridge, an online site dedicated to providing families with a space to notify others about their struggles with chronic illness. Mobile aps and email notifications provide readers with instant notification that a member has added information to his/her archive. Caring Bridge journals archive a patient’s publicized struggle through journal entries and images in ways that disrobe private struggles otherwise only disclosed to visiting friends or family.

I wonder how Derrida would respond to instant, networked archiving in public forums with (often) little regulation and control. I’m certain he would capitalize on the ways open source sites use and sell personal information easily posted, uploaded, or displayed through user-friendly interfaces. A few years ago, I was composing an email to a friend when I realized that Gmail was changing ads in a column to the right of my screen to match keywords in my message. Perhaps public archiving of private lives is easy, too easy, yet I still take part. An egocentric appeal for an audience, responsive and interested, in my life is too great (see  I Want Live Sheep!).

Memory, Individual and yet Communal

In their discussion of the “Archives of the Everyday,” Gane and Beer (2008) focus on mundane details people archive, especially those that become networked, tagged, and hyperlinked on the Internet. I appreciate how they discount Zygmunt Bauman’s dismissive characterization of this phenomena as evidence of “individualization” and a narcissistic generation (78). I even nodded while reading their account of Wikipedia as evidence of challenging the power of archons who traditionally control knowledge and archives, especially as further evidenced by their recent #blackout in protest of sopa and pipa.

“the Internet is not simply a playground for self-publicizing individuals, for potentially it is also a site for new virtual communities and perhaps even the emergence of an ‘electronic agora’: a virtual space in collective solutions can be sought to seemingly personal and private problems” (Gane and Beer, 2008, 78).

While I agree that communal identity is powerful, especially as affirming and assisting individuals, I want to think more about how a perceived audience/community constructs types of signifying that takes place in these personal posts. Rhetorically speaking, the way our discourse becomes significant within a community depends on how well situated it is within audience and context. Many of the “everyday” posts that Gane and Beer write about illustrate otherwise mundane but significantly “human” acts. If I  tweeted,  “Tonight I 8 citrus salmon, fresh fett alfredo, and lemon chess pie #yum” I’m not trying to account for my caloric intake. This typical example illustrates a human desire and activity. Such a post is my way of not only celebrating a delicious meal, but fishing for a community that finds my taste significant.

Discourse in social media is created and socialized within communities I seek to inhabit. This personal archiving is much less about details of a post and much more about identifying with a community who posts that way. I’ve been active in several long-standing social media networks: one Skype chat with a UNCCharlotte group (3 yrs), one friendfeed group of mothers (migrating from Twitter-Pownce-Yammer-FF, 4yrs), and one ODU PhD Backchannel group in Skype (2yrs). I actively participate in these spaces. What I have witnessed is a communal archive of discursive moves that privilege aspects of each communal identity and create unspoken boundaries about what kinds of archiving is acceptable/unacceptable there.

Online personal archiving is about more than a creating a storehouse, more than a commandment or commencement, and more than sustaining memory. I’m interested in ways that archiving practices are situated within shifting communities and tied to identity and agency through data entry performances.




Gane, N. and Beer, D. (2008) New media: The key concepts. New York: Berg.



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  1. Amanda David

    I’ve never thought about simple text feeds as being a form of archive, but it certainly is! Often, when I Skype with friends we will send each other links while video chatting. For example, I wanted to show my friend the car I was looking at buying so I dropped a link in the Skype window. Weeks and weeks later I was looking for the specific link and when I couldn’t find it I resorted to Skype because I knew that I had chatted about it. I also think that social bookmarking (such as Diigo) has an archive quality to it. In many years when I look back at grad school, I’m still going to have a list of websites that I categorized for myself even if I have changed computers.

  2. Laura Ray

    I really liked your post – the key concept of archives has really stood out to me throughout this course so far, and I liked the examples you gave of your personal experiences with issues related to digital archiving.

    I can’t believe what you went through in the TwapperKeeper ordeal – how stressful! What did you end up doing with your data?! Did you lose any? Were you able to export the data to another program? What happened to TwapperKeeper in the end? Also, I’m just curious – what was your research question, and did you write a paper? It sounds like it was an interesting project from the few things you mentioned about it…

    I’m also interested in questions of memory and identity with regard to archiving. I have to confess I have turned into one of those people who uses Facebook as a way to archive information about myself, and I even find myself referring back to my Facebook page as a reference. For example, when I’m trying to remember the specific date on which a particular event occurred, I might browse through my Facebook photos to refer to the dates when they were uploaded and figure it out from there. With the new timeline feature on Facebook, it is even easier for me to think of Facebook as an archive. For heavy users especially, Facebook can really paint the picture of an individual, and I really like where you are going with your interest in “ways that archiving practices are situated within shifting communities and tied to identity and agency through data entry performances.”

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