Talking to Dead People: Is Facebook a Primary Source?

I’m not much of a Facebook guy. Twitter is far and away my favorite social media outlet, but Facebook certainly has its uses. It is great for keeping in touch with far away friends, making plans, and of course, talking to dead people.

Let me explain:

I grew up attending church with a wonderful woman named Gail. She was the most joyful person I’ve ever met; one who truly lived life to the fullest. Sadly, she was afflicted with cerebral palsy and passed away some time ago. But, she made quite the impact on those around her, as evidenced by a post to her Facebook wall just the other day. The message was a simple “I miss you,” from one friend to another, but I found it fascinating. Gail is no longer on this earth, yet someone was taking the time to speak to her. I am by no means trying to take away from the magnitude of Gail’s death, but I find the situation fascinating. I stared at that post for several minutes considering its context, its culture, and its meaning. My inner historian just about had a conniption as I contemplated the implications of such a curious event.

On a certain level, albeit a basic level, doing history is a matter of chatting with the dead. Caesar, Honest Abe, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand have been gone for a good long while, but we continue to interact with them. We read about them, read their very own words, and if we are doing it properly, we truly hear their voice. Traditionally, this a matter of camping out in the archives, pouring over primary source material. We can connect to the dead people we happen to be studying, but only so intimately. We are separated by years, and cultures, and contexts, and pages, but that is starting to change. Now, we are separated by nothing more than a half-decent internet connection.

This might be a little too ethereal for some, but there is some concrete stuff here. Digital history is quickly moving beyond the supplemental tool phase and a good chunk of primary source material can be found online. So where does that leave Facebook (or twitter, or even this blog!)? Can it someday be considered a legitimate primary source? If so, when does a Facebook page become a primary source? Is all of this even worth thinking about at all?

Take Gail, for example. Everything she put on her Facebook wall, for the most part, came straight from her own head and hands. By definition, that makes it primary source material. Further, Gail is no longer with us. Technically, she is a historical figure. Could anything on her page be used? I am inclined to say yes. The medium has certainly changed, but the message has not. It is not necessarily the historian’s job to judge the source, but to wrestle with its contents and create meaning. Social media brings with it a whole new world of information to sift through like its very own lingo and the fact that people are far more bold with their opinions when seated behind the false veil of security a keyboard provides.

That ultimately raises the question, however, of when social media becomes fair historical game. I do not have the answer, but I think it is a question that applies to any potential primary source and even the entire discipline. Where is the line between current events and history and who has the authority to draw it?

History is evolving rapidly. Social media, Facebook in particular, is completely changing the game and I am excited to be writing as it happens. Who knows, perhaps my first book will be written solely in status updates. Be sure to “Like” it when it drops.

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Twitter Handle: @buddy_hocutt Buddy graduated from Messiah College in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in history and peace and conflict studies. Currently, he works as a content writer for Clark Associates in Lancaster, PA Buddy has a wide range of historical interests, but 20th century Europe, especially the former Soviet Union, holds a special place in his heart. He has spent significant time traveling through Northern Europe and has experienced some of that history for himself during visits to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Baltic states. Buddy also loves intellectual history, a passion he was turned on to during his senior history seminar. Buddy hopes to emphasize the unique role history plays in every facet of life. He loves to explore different ideas, particularly ideas counter to the status quo, the roles those ideas played in the past, and the effect of those ideas on the present. Buddy eventually plans to further his education in graduate school.

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