Social Media as Social Movement Archives

By Charlie Kleinfeld

Editorial note: Charlie Kleinfeld is currently finishing his Masters degree in American Studies from Leipzig University. He is writing his thesis on the uses and symbolism of food in U.S. hegemony in post-Cold War Europe. His primary research interests include intellectual histories of post-1945 political philosophy, with a particular focus on the relationships between national identity, ecology, and globalisation. He also has general interests in spatialization and the history of North American labour and climate activism, as well as public memory. He completed his internship at the GHI Washington in spring 2023.

In 2010, as Twitter was emerging as a dominant digital communications platform, a newly formed partnership between the social media site and the Library of Congress (LOC) set the stage for an unprecedented archival project. In exchange for Twitter’s entire archive thus far, the LOC announced its intention to preserve every single tweet moving forward, at the time totalling around 55 million a day.[1] Twitter was heralded as a “second-by-second history of ordinary people,”[2] and the project as crucial for the future study of the twenty-first century. This view was seemingly vindicated the following year, as Twitter was seen to play a vital role in the Arab Spring, particularly as it played out in Egypt (although the precise role of social media in causing the Arab Spring is often challenged,[3] the platform certainly helped document the protests, serving as a pipeline of information to interested parties abroad.[4]) The LOC’s project therefore grew from an archive of everyday life to a sweeping social history of a revolution. Since then, we have seen many social movements—from BlackLivesMatter to the Women’s March to Extinction Rebellion—either emerge out of Twitter or use the site as an instrument to substantially grow its support base[5] and build traction. In addition, election campaigns have moved online, now predominately taking place over social media. With the LOC documenting and preserving all of this, the history of the 2010s was being written on social media.

Debates around social media ownership often revolve around its perceived role as a public square. The conversations that occur on Twitter and Facebook are said to fundamentally shape public discourse; therefore, the power to set the rules of these conversations, to ban individuals from contributing, and to promote or suppress certain topics constitutes a highly contested political issue. In the run up to his acquisition of Twitter, billionaire Elon Musk claimed that the current management of the site was failing to “rigorously adhere to the principle” of free speech, [6] and former CEO Jack Dorsey expressed a desire to make the platform open-sourced, unmasking the algorithm that decides which posts make it to a user’s feed and opening it up to public scrutiny.

However, often overlooked yet equally political in scope is social media’s role as a social archive. Twitter’s hashtag feature has not only given birth to various social movements but has also provided a toolset for historians to analyse and document the early histories of these movements; sociologists to document organising tactics and growth patterns; and most crucially activists themselves to construct coherent identities, facilitating the reproduction of their movement. This is most evident when looking at BlackLivesMatter, which was able to use a hashtag to turn individual grief and shock at the murder of Trayvon Martin into an organised, coherent movement[7] lasting over a decade. A big part of the resiliency of this movement was the very fact that new activists have access to the entire history of the hashtag and are able to trace it back to its origins, situating their contemporary struggle in historical context.

Three years after the LOC’s announcement, MySpace—itself a dominant digital communications platform for much of the previous decade—deleted its entire archive. The technology company had been struggling for years to keep up with emergent competitors and following several corporate restructurings and platform redesigns, the website made all user blogs inaccessible without warning,[8] effectively wiping out a decade of content. This case study reveals two interconnected pitfalls of a born digital social media archive: the ease at which they can disappear, and the fact that their fates lie not with the userbase of the platform, but with higher-level corporate machinations. These platforms are ultimately businesses, and their archives ultimately belong to their executives.

The LOC ended its tweet preservation project less than eight years in, [9] shifting from archiving all tweets automatically to preserving them “on a selective basis … including [during] events such as elections.”[10] And while the accounts of notable public figures are still included in the archive, the vast majority of tweets—those from the “ordinary people” described earlier—lay outside of this scope. This move privileges Twitter’s function as an archive of political history while eliminating its equally important social archive, effectively splitting responsibility over these two roles: The former remains under the domain of the publicly-owned LOC and National Archives (who have custody over official political records), while the latter now falls exclusively under the territory of an erratic billionaire, one who has taken public positions against many of the very social movements that gained traction under the platform he now owns—including BlackLivesMatter[11] and the movement for transgender rights.[12] However, this issue stretches far beyond Elon Musk as an individual, as Carl Öhman—lecturer at Uppsala University—has highlighted: the very business model of Big Tech (to “move fast and break things”)[13] appears at odds with the needs of social archivists. How, then, should we move forward?

Questions of archival ownership have always been controversial, particularly as it pertains to social media archives. Concerns surrounding free speech, public interest, copyright, and privacy must all be carefully balanced against each other. It makes sense that activists may not want their names and posts kept in perpetuity on a government archive, especially as police departments were known to use Twitter to surveille and identify protestors in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests.[14] However, the LOC and National Archives aren’t the only paths towards the preservation of a social media social history. The Internet Archive promises an archive independent of government control, although it is currently facing legal problems against its Controlled Digital Lending operation on copyright grounds.[15] The “Documenting the Now” initiative[16] introduced ethical considerations of privacy into their archival methods and seemed promising. However, much of their work relies heavily on Twitter’s API, which Musk is substantially reducing access to. If there’s any lesson here, it is that a fundamental (and perhaps irreconcilable) contradiction exists between corporate ownership of social media and the needs of social historians. It may even turn out that social media, once heralded as a key instrument in the formation of new social movements, may ultimately work to undermine the goals of these movements; their corporate structure reversing the significant growth of social movements seen through the 2010s, making once strong and coherent movements again disparate as their archives—and the collective identities upon which they rely—disappear overnight.













[13] Öhman, Carl. “The Case for a Digital World Heritage Label.” Information & Culture 57, no. 1 (2022): 82-95.