Traditionally we have relied on museums and archives to offer us, and future generations a way to imagine and understand the past. However, with the advent of social media and smartphones, the rate at which we can create content is almost as fast as the camera flash. The relevance of all this content is that it can reveal the thoughts, ideas and lifestyles of societies and cultures throughout the world but while we may have endless supplies of content at our fingertips, how much of it is truly authentic?
Previously, historians could only paint fragmented pictures of the past and of ancient celebrities through remnants of sculptures, paintings and writing. Take the charismatic Roman general Julius Caesar, for example, there are plenty of sculptures and paintings of him that show what he looked like, or that is, what he wanted to be made to look like, that have allowed us to build up a picture not only of his appearance but also of his driven personality. Nobody’s denying his achievements but given his vanity he certainly would have had a hand in how his image would have been presented, just as now I’m sure he’d have an @jcaesar account with millions of followers. Facebook, and in particular Instagram allows people not only to express, but also to record their lives predominantly through images. Both spontaneously and with careful planning we can now leave behind a much larger picture of ourselves, and moreover, a picture which we can edit, essentially creating our own histories, persona’s and legacies.
Remember flicking through an old family scrapbook trying to imagine what life was like way back when from the same few faded photos? Each time you look, you might spot another clue. Your grandchildren probably won’t experience this dilemma as there will be so many pictures of our time that the appearance of cause and effect leading up to their life ought to be relatively easy to re-construct. It is therefore necessary to consider that with this extreme abundance of autobiographical content what we will choose to leave behind? Although technically even deleted content still exists somewhere, we can to a large extent to edit, delete and save those parts of our life which we desire to project to contemporary and future generations.
On a more collective level, what will the museums and historical archives of the future choose to conserve and how will they decide what is worth keeping? The way in which we house our history is evolving and it will be interesting to see how museums will adapt to preserve the changes that have had the greatest impact on shaping our present time.
It is undeniable that Instagram and other social media platforms contain valuable and crucial pieces of contemporary society and culture. Surely then some of the most prolific images ought to be saved somewhere safe for the future, however superficial they may seem now. (See below for a few of the most liked Instagram photos to date.)
Good luck to the future historians searching for evidence of the past and churning through the old Facebook profiles mostly filled with cat memes and selfies. Good luck too, trying to figure out what this age of social media was all about because with this wealth of easily accessible information and content creation the evidence is so vast and varied that it becomes easy to lose sight of the truth about people and the most influential elements of our time.