Archivists are cataloguing every tweet, article and spreadsheet the #MeToo movement has ever produced
Harvard University's Schlesinger Library is preserving the history in case it disappears from the internet
While conventional wisdom says that everything online lives forever, archivists at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library aren't taking any risks.
They're collecting over 19 million digital fragments from the #MeToo movement — tweets, Facebook comments, Reddit threads, news articles and YouTube videos — for future researchers.
"Just because something is everywhere on the web ... doesn't mean that it's going to be preserved in perpetuity forever," said Amanda Strauss, the library's special projects manager, refuting conventional warnings that things online live forever.
"If you think back to the early '90s, and perhaps you were using AOL Instant Messenger, I bet you couldn't access those instant messages now."
It's an ambitious project.
The #MeToo hashtag was coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, but gained widespread awareness in late 2017, spurred by allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Since then, countless opinions and posts have filtered through social media and news outlets.
Each week, Strauss' team scrapes about 150,000 new tweets using the hashtag #MeToo, and those on the movement's periphery, including #MuteRKelly and #TimesUp.
"The role of archivists and librarians is to preserve this material in perpetuity which means that in 150 years, researchers will be able to access and view and use this content," Strauss told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
'Silences in the archival record'
Though the Schlesinger Library is focused on the history of women in America, featuring collections about women's rights and the feminist movement among other aspects of domestic life, Strauss says it has no ideological stance on #MeToo.
"We are interested in its advocates and in its critics, and in all of the complex and messy conversations and legal battles that are happening," she said. Indeed, their collection includes tweets that seek to discredit the movement, using the hashtags like #MeTooLiars.
As a testament to the internet's impermanence, some documents have already proven hard to find.
The "Shitty Media Men" list, a spreadsheet created by journalist Moira Donegan to anonymously document the sexual misconduct of men in media, is one of them.
"There were other lists like that put together for other fields, like in architecture, and those were referenced in social media and made available but have been taken down," she said.
If they can't be uncovered, Strauss says not all is lost.
"Sometimes the record of something having been there and then gone away is actually just as important," she told Day 6. "We think about silences in the archival record."
A reference for the future
While historical collections are typically made up of works or documents by notable people, it's inevitable that comments by everyday people — possibly from some who wouldn't expect their tweets or comments to carry historical significance — will be part of the collection.
The library is still figuring out how to handle that, but Strauss stresses that those viewpoints are crucial.
"Some of our most valuable research collections are of people who are you know everyday people — you know, the housewife's diary about what it was like to give birth to a child," she said.
"I think we're all part of history in one way or another in our daily lives," Strauss said, adding, "but I do think that people should think a little bit about the reach of what they say online."
Currently the project is limited to content published in the United States, but a sister project is looking at the movement globally.
According to Strauss, the Schlesinger Library has committed to updating the collection until the #MeToo conversation has died down.
Strauss' greatest hope? That they'll have created something that's referenced in 2050, "and that we will have done something to contribute to an archival record that would have otherwise just disappeared in bits and bytes on the internet."
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