Alex Steer

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Recording trends in social media

577 words

Today I remembered something I'd forgotten about the early years of Facebook. The rule that status updates had to start with the word 'is'.

This was phased out in November 2007, around the time that Facebook reached 50 million users. It was a huge win for thousands of users who had signed petitions to ditch the verb, and who (rightly) saw it as unnecessarily restrictive, a hanger-on from an early assumption that statuses were for broadcasting where you were, or what you were doing. Rather than, say, your thoughts or feelings. (Is it a cheap shot to make a joke about the inner lives of software engineers? Probably.)

I'd forgotten all about it. And when I remembered, I did a quick bit of calculating. Facebook has 955 million users (FB stats, 30 Sept 2012). That means that 95% of Facebook users don't remember the 'is'.

That means they were never burdened with the 'is' constraint. But it also means they don't remember the bizarre sub-genre of deliberately grammatically mangled status updates that it spawned. The Wired post nodded to this at the time:

Many people ignore it, choosing instead to commit grammatical atrocities such as "Sarah is likes to dance."

That's a rather tame example. There was some rare brilliance there - from 'James is pub' to 'Jenny is WHY DISTRICT LINE WHY???' The is-busting was deliberate and perverse and gleeful. Like putting stupid things in your 'Interests' and 'Political Beliefs' (before Facebook made it harder to enter free text in these fields), it was a way of playing with the conventions of the platform.

In that sense the loss of the 'is' feels like a slight shame, because it destroyed a kind of creativity that thrived under the constraint. But then, that's the same argument that turns minority cultures into museum pieces, or that insists that dying languages should be kept on life-support. So do I wish we still had to start our status updates with 'is'? No, but I think we need a better way of recording some of these fleeting online social phenomena - given that by definition digital activity should be recordable. Just as field linguistics has arisen in response to the need to keep records of dying languages and their stores of knowledge and cultural practice, without insisting that we should all still be speaking those languages, so it's worth having a way of capturing these behaviours before we move on, without insisting that we don't move on.

There's more to say on this, but the tricky part is finding the resources and will to do it. The actors involved in studying and responding to trends as they emerge (businesses, creatives, etc.) are not the same as the ones needed to step in as they decline (historians, archivists, anthropologists). And the incentives are, of course, very different. You'd struggle to make a living advising people on dying trends - or telling them to keep everything in case it comes in useful one day. But since I suspect the need for long-term storage is going to become a sore point in the adoption of big data technology, the relationship between innovation and archiving is going to need to be worked out.

# Alex Steer (30/09/2012)