Lost Melbourne: A Digital Ethnography of a Facebook Local History Group

Stefan Schutt, Marsha Berry and Lisa Cianci
Victoria University, RMIT University

Abstract

Places and historical artefacts are being reimagined through social media on a daily and routine basis. Using an approach drawn from digital ethnography we analyse a 24-hour snapshot of the ‘Lost Melbourne’ Facebook community from an insider’s perspective. Lost Melbourne generates new perspectives on local history on a daily basis in its recombinant and messy assemblage of content, directed by its administrators and created by both administrators and members. Its content consists largely of digitised photographs and old films taken from personal collections as well as other online archives. In this essay, we explore the implications of these new archives and associated emergent amateur memory practices. Our research suggests that Lost Melbourne might best be seen as an example of ‘network sociality’ (Wittel, 2001), involving people motivated largely by a yearning for connection and continuity.

Keywords: Social media, Archive, Digital Ethnography, History, Practice Turn

 

Introduction

For an increasing number of people, the use of online social media has become integrated with everyday life (Pew Internet, 2012) as “an immediate culturally inflected genre of usage or practice” (Horst & Miller, 2012, p. 108). Such usage is determined both by the technical structures and protocols of social media platforms, and the ways social media users adopt or adapt them for specific purposes. By examining the interactions within a popular local history Facebook page called Lost Melbourne, we seek to explore social media-driven amateur memory practices, where amateur online historians/archivists share and discuss items of mutual interest for personal benefit (Stebbins, 1992). These practices point to technology-driven transformations of the social, from traditional notions of community to “network sociality” (Wittel, 2001), which is “ephemeral but intense, it is informational and technological, it combines work and play, it is disembedded and generic, and it emerges in the context of individualization (Wittel, 2001, p. 1).” The Lost Melbourne page is continually in flux and is used intermittently by thousands of people. We have chosen a contained 24-hour period to observe the interactions occurring within Lost Melbourne, an online version of fieldwork, or “the study of people within a naturally occurring setting…which capture their social meanings and ordinary activities” (Brewer, 2000, p.6). As in physical ethnography, we aim to examine “the messy particularity of life in specific times and places” (Jackson, 2002, p. 504). We are interested in how people express their networked identities (boyd, 2006) within a bounded online setting that constitutes a ‘place’ like any other (Horst and Miller, 2012; Pink, 2009).

 

Lost Melbourne’s founders describe the page thus:

Photos of forgotten Melbourne. See if you can recognise the places in the photos and tag them if you wish. Please feel free to add photos, make comments or relate any memories you might have about the places in the photos. Enjoy…..

 

Lost Melbourne was created on 30 December 2012 and its popularity has grown exponentially. By 6 May 2013, 5,000 people had ‘liked’ the page. By 28 July this number had risen to 23,520, rising to 42,045 by March 4, 2014, thanks to significant media interest. This pattern of growth is consistent with similar local history pages.

 

Lost Melbourne’s content consists largely of digitised photographs and some videos. It is ‘crowdsourced’ (Howe, 2006) by both members and administrators. Some posted content is personal, but much is sourced from other online archives: the State Library of Victoria, Museum Victoria, Public Records Office Victoria and Victoria Police Museum. Administrators also curate the page by moderating members’ contributions and by selectively reposting them to the ‘timeline’, which exposes them to a wider audience via the Facebook content ‘feed’. Thereby, administrators exercise significant control over the visibility and popularity of posted items. Furthermore, administrators are sometimes entrusted with new collections of historical material, such as the Brendon White Collection, a group of photographs rescued from demolition sites by a construction worker.

 

Taken together, this activity constitutes what the cultural geographer Tim Cresswell would term a leaky archive of place with “a contested set of valuations concerning which objects count as worthy and signification” (Cresswell, 2011, p. 164). These valuations incorporate not only uploading and posting choices, but also the ‘likes’ and comments generated by posts. Taken together, these interactions create an anthropological place (Pink and Postill, 2012; Pink, 2009), a unique palimpsest of Melbourne and its residents generated within a bounded online setting. This palimpsest is reflective both of administrators’ interests (which remain relatively consistent), and of the flow of contributions from users (which does not).

 

Although social media have largely “become domesticated as normative” (Horst and Miller, 2012, p107), we suggest that their rules of engagement still remain ambiguous and open to interpretation; indeed, there is little research on how the technical and interaction architectures of social media platforms shape interaction. As noted by Horst and Miller (2012), the materiality of digital infrastructures should be recognised in discussions of digital media. Whether we analyse social media by their technological assemblages (Lang & Benbunan-Fich, 2010), or by the social activities, routines and rituals associated with them, system and usage are closely interwoven. This can be seen in boyd and Ellison’s definition of social network sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (boyd and Ellison, 2007, p. 211).

 

In this essay, we focus on the practices that constitute human activity (Cetina et al, 2001; Reckwitz, 2002) as they are manifested within Facebook’s ‘bounded system’. These are “embodied, materially mediated arrays of activities centrally organized around a shared understanding” (Schatzki, 2001, p.11). We aim to “listen beyond the echoes of media process” (Couldry, 2006, p.7) and understand how people socialise through informal online archives that are woven into the overall fabric of their lives.

 

It should also be noted that all three authors are long-term members of Lost Melbourne and engage with it as part of our everyday social media interactions. Whether or not this positions us as participant-observers is a subject of debate in the emerging and contested field of digital ethnography. Our position follows BoellStorff, Nardi, Pearce and Taylor in that we seek to grasp “everyday perspectives” (BoellStorff et al., 2012, p. 3) by deploying an interdisciplinary approach informed by human-computer interaction, cultural studies, digital media and archival theory. The choice of a 24-hour observation period and subsequent content analysis aims to capture a sense of the richness of interaction within Lost Melbourne as a first step towards understanding the appeal of informal online archives. It is informed by our personal experience with Lost Melbourne, which suggests that participating in and observing these interactions is inherently a hybrid activity, drawing from a range of practices and traditions.

 

We now present the idea of the ‘New Archive’ as a form of internet-facilitated network sociality, and some implications.

 

The New Archive

We start by following Tim Cresswell’s proposition that “things are at the heart of the process of constructing an archive of a place” (2012, p. 165). We also refer to Malraux’s (1953) prescient notion of a ‘museum without walls’: a free and open space for presentation of content. Amateur aficionados enact Malraux’s concept by sharing digital ‘things’ online: ephemeral fragments/glimpses of places and lives. Through the resulting interactions, places and lives are re-imagined and reconstituted in new, ever-evolving ways.

 

These practices deploy, and often combine, the many available social media systems including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, Google Maps, blog systems (WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, etc.) and video sharing sites (Youtube, Vimeo, etc.). Blog feeds can be linked to Twitter and Facebook. Online archives can be simultaneously created and disseminated to different audiences. These technologies are largely free and open to participation. As Ketelaar states, “social navigation and community-based adaptation technologies can transform archives into social spaces by empowering records to be open social entities”’ (Ketelaar, 2008; p. 7). Museums and galleries are increasingly incorporating such strategies into their preservation practices, including the harnessing of crowdsourcing.

 

Lost Melbourne’s collation and recombination of archival content can be seen as a form of the McKemmish & Upward concept of ‘archival continuum’ (2001). The capture, organisation and ‘pluralisation’ of existing archival content allow for a non-linear “blurring of separateness of individual points” (Upward, 2005); discrete items within the online archive are continuously transformed by interactions through time and space, resulting in the development of collective memory. Thus it could be said that Lost Melbourne creates something new in its recombinant assemblage of content – a process directed by administrators but involving both administrators and member participants.

 

There are tensions in this process. When content moves to social media, it becomes an artefact of a new kind, and if archival entropy’ (Archivepost, 2012) ensues due to lack of usage/access, the content fades from view and is effectively lost within the online system. Further, although the properties of social media software allow for rapid pluralisation of content through their interconnected ‘ambient frameworks’, such content is impermanent and fragile: systems are owned by third parties, technologies change, and those who maintain content may discontinue managing it or providing access to it. Online archival assemblages are also subject to different meanings and interpretations. Archives are a “dynamic process involving an infinite number of stakeholders over time and space” (Ketelaar, 2012), attracted by what Crinson (2005), citing historian Pierre Nora, calls “the ‘specificity of the trace’ for which we feel a superstitious veneration” (p. xiv).

 

The Lost Melbourne assemblage presents both artefacts and varying representations of those artefacts, as well as future possibilities for understanding and reproducing them. The contents operate as ‘touchstones’ of memory (Millar, 2006) that are in a constant state of becoming within Facebook’s live, ambient framework.

 

A 24-hour snapshot of Lost Melbourne

As stated previously, there are two nodes of activity on Lost Melbourne. These nodes arise from the structure of Facebook. The first is members’ comments and replies, generated either in response to administrators’ posts, or with self-initiated uploads. Member-generated uploads appear on Lost Melbourne, but need to be actively discovered since they do not appear in its feed stream. The second is posts by owners and administrators. They appear on the Lost Melbourne ‘timeline’, and therefore within member’s feed streams.

 

Below we present an arbitrarily-chosen 24-hour period snapshot of Lost Melbourne activity. Only text is presented: photographs are represented by the legend [pic], identifying details replaced with ‘xxx’, and names have been changed.

 

A. Member-generated posts:

  • [pic] Brian: Bethesda Hospital, Erin street Richmond about 1955
  • [pic] Michelle: Does anyone remember an Earth Day tour xxx mud brick builder xxx’s former residence in the late 1980s. See our Facebook page[etc]
  • [pic] Neil: Breakfast 1971 style….you can almost smell the salmonella and heart disease!
  • [pic] John: 1960 Victoria Police Wireless Patrol car. Outside Russell St. HQ. Edna, an ex-British Policewoman. Female constables were still not that common.
  • [pic] Neil: 1974, Bert and Patti on the cover of Womens Weekly.
  • [pic] John: Aerial View Early 60’s
  • [pic] Julia: This photo is of tram conductors sometime in the early 1950’s, the photo was taken Sydney Rd, Brunswick.
  • [pic] Neil: 1938, Lanes Motors, 89 Exhibition st.
  • [pic] Peta: (Photo of Motor Body Works)
  • [pic] Anthony: Opening of the Show Room for Melford Motors, 1940
  • [pic] Russell: This is a photo of xxx Chapel St Windsor circa 1887 of xxx. The building has recently been restored and is now trading as xxx Restaurant (link to page)
  • Briony: I am seeking relatives of xxx and xxx whom were friends with my grand-father[etc]
  • [pic] Mike: Can anybody tell me about these little bricks, have several all the same[etc]
  • [pic] Craig: Chiko Roll advertisement

Here we can see the variety of content posted by members, consisting of personal or reposted material. Personal material includes images of artefacts and requests for information. Most posts are driven by personal interest in a place, person or memory, with the occasional marketing ploy. The wide variety of topics and, seemingly, motivations reveal an environment subject to constantly testing and contesting. Discussions regularly take place about what is/is not appropriate to post, including debate about the provenance of posted photographs, ‘trolling’ and thematic relevance. At times administrators step in to announce decisions on specific matters. There are generally few comments and ‘likes’ attached to posts by members, presumably because they are not seen by many other members unless they are reposted by administrators (see below).

 

B. Owners/administrator-generated posts. Comments are indented and shortened with [etc]):

  • Hi Folks, We have had a request from Chris….”Hi there, I’m looking for any images of the British Phosphate Commission building of 515 Collins Street. Any help would be appreciated!” Cheers (admin).
  • Warren: try looking on trove [etc]
  • Leonie: Chris check out the National Archives of Australia webpage [etc]
  • [pic] LANES MOTORS – 89 Exhibition Street Melbourne: 1938. A Morris 8/40 from £229 to £279. Thanks to Peter for sending this pic in.
  • John: every Lanes Motors delivery had a small brass plate attached [etc]
  • Thomas: I bought my first car from Lanes in 1966 – A Mini Deluxe [etc]
  • Vera: My father worked as the Spare Parts Manager for Lanes [etc]
  • Janine: I am currently doing a Morris 8 roadster up, what a great advertisement.
  • Norbert: The roadster would be about $18.400 in today’s money [etc]
  • Albert: My mother drove a little 8/40 for years. I loved that little car except when it rained [etc]
  • Susan: Gosh, I remember driving into Melbourne when I worked for xxxxx [etc]
  • Gilbert: I bought my first car [EH Holden] From Lanes Motors in about 1972 for $330.
  • Aidan: Cool stuff. I pass James Lane Motors every day [etc]
  • Vincent: Did you work on theseBarry?
  • [pic] Lost Melbourne shared Isaac’s photo: This is a photo of xxx Chapel St Windsor circa 1887 [etc]
  • Jane: Has anyone got photos of xxx hotel on crn of burke and Russell st??? [etc]
  • Marvin: Was that xxx the Tobacconist Company my father worked for them
  • Michelle: Wasn’t that the old bike shop?
  • Mark: Linoleums. Best breakdance mats ever.
  • Isabel: the original discount store 20% off [etc]
  • Polly: Was this maxims in the late 80’s early 90’s?
  • (admin) posted an album to Lost Melbourne’s timeline: xxx Farm. Discovered this place today while out riding on the back roads of Leongatha.

 

Here, administrators post items they judge as worthy of sharing with the entire Lost Melbourne membership. This includes reposting selected member-generated posts, which then become visible to a much larger group – as seen in the 163 ‘likes’ generated in 14 hours by the Lanes Motors repost, and the 267 ‘likes’ in 18 hours of the Windsor building repost. Some topics generated more active responses in the form of written comments, as opposed to ‘likes’. The Lanes Motors repost attracted ten comments, mostly related to old cars, whereas the Windsor building repost attracted six comments even though it had received many more ‘likes’. A communal impulse can be gleaned from many comments: members are keen to share their histories (often in response to posts that are only partially related), to assist others in searches for information, and to offer information on posted items.

Our preliminary exploration has revealed to us that potential exists for a more detailed analysis of such interactions, for examining both online and offline identities of posters, as well as for tracing the movement of posted content through social media systems.

Tactics of Continuity

The interactions above can be seen as emblematic of technology-enabled tactics for connecting with a sense of shared history, even if it does sometimes take the form of nostalgie de la boue, or memory with the pain taken out (Crinson, 2005, p. xii). The theme of grappling for a lost or elusive past can be observed in popular culture more generally, with Derrida’s 1993 ‘hauntology’ concept repurposed in music criticism to describe a preoccupation with the aesthetics of a ghostly pseudo-past that signals the sense of history ending, of a time seriously out of joint (Gallix, 2011). As Mark Crinson (2005) puts it in his discussion of urban memory:

The past is everywhere and it is nowhere. We seem at times overwhelmed by the oceanic feeling of a limitless archive, of which the city is the most physical example and the ‘memory’ of our computers is the most ethereal yet the most trusted, and at others afflicted by a fear that the material traces of the past might be swept away, taking memory with them. (p. ix)

Lost Melbourne can be seen as a digital form of Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire, or sites of memory, created in compensation for the ‘crisis of memory’ and loss of communal continuity that typifies our age (Crinson, 2005, p. xv). It can be seen as the expression of a desire not only to make sense of one’s life, but to have one’s experience and memory validated by others. It deploys a shared form of narrative meaning-making in order to maintain a coherent sense of self in the face of the fragmentation of modern existence (Ricoeur, 1990).

For Nora (1989), memory is a lived experience closely connected to community. It is interesting then that some theorists see the internet as heralding the return of aspects of oral culture such as its conversationality and directness (Snowden, 1999). Still, there are differences. Lost Melbourne’s rapidly growing membership might be called a community of interest, but to us it looks closer to network sociality. This might not be what Nora had in mind, but it is a substitute suited to our times, a form of compensation perhaps.

This raises interesting methodological considerations. As digital ethnographers how do we study these emergent and networked socialities? Clearly there are connections to offline amateur and local history societies as well as to traditional custodians of archival materials such as libraries and museums.  The relationships between formal and informal ‘messy’ archives (Cresswell, 2012) have become fluid as well as mobile through the affordances of social media. We suggest that digital ethnography invites us to rethink the materiality and movement of archival artefacts as well as the networked socialities these artefacts generate. In this paper we have presented our experience of Lost Melbourne through a content analysis of a 24-hour snapshot. The next step would be to extend our research into the offline world to further explore the connections between formal and informal archives, as well as the people who interact with them.

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