If you go to an archive today and look for a personal heritage, what would you expect? Notebooks, letters, photographs, calendars, the documentation of printed publications, drafts of articles or books with hand-written comments, and the like. But how about born-digital contents? In the best case, you will find a backup of the hard disk drive of the person you are researching on. The letters of earlier times have changed to eMails, SMS and WhatsApp messages, Facebook entries, Twitter posts; publications may have changed to online articles, PDF files, and blog contributions distributed all over the net. And that’s the point: What may have been part of somebody’s personal inheritance in paper format, may have nowadays become part of Big Data. Yes, Big Data: They do not consist only of incredibly large tables, with variables and columns filled with numbers; a good part of Big Data consists simply of text files with social media contents (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on).
At first glance, this sounds astonishing. The ‘private’ character of personal heritage seems to have vanished, the proportion of content available in the public sphere seems to have grown. It seems. But this is not surprising; we are reminded of one of the most influential studies on this topic, Jürgen Habermas’ “Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”. What Habermas analyses here are the constant changes and shifts of the border between private and public. His examination starts in the late 18th and early 19th century, with the formation of an ideal type of bourgeois discourse marked by what Habermas calls “Räsonnement”. This reasoning aims at arguing, but also, in its pejorative form, at grumbling. The study begins with bourgeois members of the public meeting in Salons, coffee houses, and literary round tables, pursuing reasoned exchange by contributing to journals, practicing subjectivity, individualism, and sentimentalism by writing letters and diaries destined either to be published (think of Gellert, Gleim, and Goethe) or to become part of personal heritage. Habermas draws long lines into the 20th century, where his book ends with the opposition between public and private characteristic of that time: Employment is part of the public space, while leisure time is dedicated to private activities; letters and lecture have become much less important, only the high bourgeoisie keeps their own libraries; mass media enhance the passivity of consumerism. This can also be read from personal heritages: The functional differentiation of a modern society created presumed experts for Räsonnement, like journalists, politicians, and publicists, who deliver opinion formation as a service, while editors and scientists professionalise the critique of politics. Habermas is overtly critical in view of the mass media and their potentials for manipulation since they reduce citizens to recipients without agency.
The last edition of Habermas’ book was printed in 1990. Since that time, a lot has changed, especially with the emergence of the internet. The border between public and private has been moved, and the societal-political commitment of citizens has changed. Social media grant an incredibly agency and empower citizens. Hyperdigital hipsters are working in cafés, co-working spaces or start-ups, without having the private leisure time characteristic of the 20th century. Digital media network people across large spaces and form new transnational collectives. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has spoken of “diasporic public spheres” in this respect – small groups of people discussing face to face in pubs have been transformed into “communities of sentiment” grumbling at politics. Formerly silent recipients have mutated into counter publics, the sentimental bourgeois has become an enraged citizen. Habermas wouldn’t have liked this development, since his ideal type of Räsonnement doesn’t fit with current realities, and what he overlooked – the existence of large parts of the society consisting of people who don’t participate in mass media discourses because they don’t want to – nowadays informs e.g. right-wing populism.
This latest transformation of the public sphere has consequences for archivists as well as historians. Consequently, archivists should regard social media contents as part of personal heritages and have thus to struggle with data management and storage problems. Historians (at least historians of the future) have to become familiar with quantitative analysis in order to e.g. examine Twitter-networks in order to determine the impact of the Alt-Right movement onto the presidential election in the U.S. Born-digital contents can therefore be seen as valuable parts of personal heritage. And coming from this point of view, there is certainly a lot that historians can contribute to discussions on Big Data.
Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity 1989.
Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1996.