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The race to save the first draft of coronavirus history from internet oblivion

How researchers, archivists, and citizens are racing to preserve a record of how we lived and changed during this strange period of history.
image of woman in green sweatshirt hoodie taking selfie with phone in apartment during coronavirus quarantine on phone with journal background isolation journal suleika jaouad
Ms Tech | Pexels

Eight years ago, Suleika Jaouad was alone in a hospital room, undergoing aggressive treatment for leukemia and awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Just out of college and harboring dreams of becoming a war correspondent, Jaouad was instead confined to her hospital room and felt desperately, stiflingly alone.

In the end, journaling helped Jaouad through her medical isolation. Nearly a decade later, in remission but immunocompromised, she found herself in an eerily familiar situation as the coronavirus crisis forced her to shelter in place at home in New York.

So she launched The Isolation Journals, a project designed to encourage people to capture their experiences as they navigate life during the pandemic. She reached out to people including artist Mari Andrew, author Elizabeth Gilbert, and blues singer Mavis Staples to brainstorm prompts that are emailed to participants at 5 a.m. US Eastern time. “Within five hours, we had 20,000 people sign up,” Jaouad says. “Now, it’s about 60,000 participants.”

While it’s possible to take part with just pen and paper, many users have posted their responses on Instagram and Twitter, tagged with #theisolationjournals. Contributions range from simple photos to interpretive dance videos, original music and art, and blog posts.

As lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing threaten to stretch out into the weeks, months, and even years ahead, there is a scramble to collect, in real time, the overwhelming abundance of information being produced online. Without it, the record of how we lived, how we changed, and how we addressed the global pandemic would be left incomplete and at the mercy of a constantly shifting internet, where even recent history has a tendency to get buried or vanish.

Looking at how we document our lives is an obvious first step. Journaling has always been a way for people to understand and contextualize their world, particularly during tumultuous times. It has been shown to be therapeutic, particularly for those who have gone through trauma. The dawn of the internet played into this very human desire: Blogspot, Tumblr, and even early Facebook and Twitter had an element of "Dear Diary" to them.

Now, recording thoughts freeform on an Instagram live session, posting art on Tumblr, or choreographing a meme-y dance for TikTok all fulfill the same function as journaling: commemorating an experience and expressing its effect on you. In theory, these creative efforts should form a ready-made repository of crucial information about this period and how we lived through it.

But while it may seem important to collect this information, it’s hard to know exactly what will matter in 10, 50, or 100 years. The last comparable online-era global cataclysm—September 11—happened on a version of the internet that is unrecognizable in 2020. Social media as we know it didn’t exist, and people didn’t have smartphones. We lived online differently then. We will likely live online differently 10 years from now.

And that’s not to mention what happens when the platforms we use disappear. Myspace, one of the most influential social networks of the 2000s, was culturally defunct long before announcing in 2019 that it had accidentally deleted everything uploaded to the site before 2016. The 38 million personal websites hosted by Geocities would have disappeared completely when the service shut down for good in 2009 had there not been an effort to archive it. Now modern social networks like Snapchat and Instagram—really, anything with a storytelling feature where posts disappear over time—have ephemerality built in.

Jaouad wants to get ahead of the curve. But how to do so is another matter. “We certainly have plans for an archive with the permission of people who are contributing,” she says. Still, it can be hard to collect all the information in one place.

Keeping a record of the times is particularly important given the volatility of people’s lives right now. As Karen Blair, a psychology professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, says: “Each day might seem like a monotonous continuation, but when you really look at it, things are changing rapidly—even your own behavior.”

Blair has co-launched the Covid-19 Interpersonal and Social Coping Study to understand how people are dealing with social distancing during this period. Participants are asked to keep a diary recording how they interact with other people within the same household while isolated.

“We cobbled this together,” she says. “We knew we had no time to get funding for it.” So she tweeted out a plea, set up a website, and crossed her fingers.

Within a week, Blair’s tweet got the attention of 200 participants worldwide, along with academics who either wanted to help or wanted advice on how to conduct their own diary studies during quarantine.

Projects like Blair’s and Jaouad’s will preserve portions of our lived experience during the pandemic. But getting the internet to archive as much as possible about this moment is a monumental, ongoing task.

Mark Graham is the director of the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, a group that is now part of the race to archive important content related to the covid-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus collection project, launched on February 13 with the International Internet Preservation Consortium, is collecting and archiving pages and resources connected to the pandemic.

“Archiving has never been about saving everything. It’s about trying to save a representation,” says Graham.

According to Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive’s founder, his organization is already collecting about 1 billion URLs a day across the web. Archiving the pandemic means trying to identify and collect the pages their ordinary efforts might otherwise overlook, relying on a network of library professionals and members of the public: local and international public health pages, petitions, resources for medical professionals trying to fight covid-19, and accounts from those who have had the virus. It’s not easy. “The average life of a web page is only 100 days before it’s changed or deleted,” he says.

Archives have shaped how we understand our past. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, there was a massive effort to document aspects of American life: the Farm Security Administration sent photographers across the country on assignment to document specific topics and ideas. The resulting work, 175,000 photographic negatives, is a valuable pictorial record of life during the Depression. But the internet is on a much bigger scale, and all those who post are potentially their own documentarian and curator. Capturing the covid pandemic online isn’t just about saving a URL; it’s about saving the right URLs over and over again, to show how things have changed over time.

“You don’t know quite what’s going to be useful until you’ve not done it, and then you have the head-slap moment,” says Kahle. And so it becomes vital to just do as much collecting as you can. Let history tell us what was important and what was not.

That’s how the Library of Congress’s web archiving team is approaching this moment. “We don’t really have a collection defined yet for this. We’re kind of seeing how this evolves,” says Abbie Grotke, the team’s lead. “We’re going to make sense of it in a few months when we have time to breathe.”

The Library of Congress and the Internet Archive both know they’re going to miss broad parts of the covid pandemic playing out online. The LOC has to seek permission from site owners to collect and provide public access to an archived version of a domain, and the Internet Archive is up against a web that might shift more quickly than it is able to capture.

The process is already recording shifts in how powerful institutions are addressing the crisis. For example, the language on the government web page describing the National Strategic Stockpile was altered after Jared Kushner suggested that the store of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals wasn’t intended for states to use. The new description removed language that appeared to contradict this statement. Both versions were captured by the Wayback Machine, which was saving versions of that page every few hours. There may be many other small, but valuable, data points we might miss that could give future historians a fuller understanding of this period.

The pandemic and the forced change in our behavior is also changing the way we interact with our personal social-media archives. During the pandemic, people are taking nostalgia-driven journeys into their own online histories, seeking comfort by looking at the way we were. Even this is becoming part of the story of how we lived online during a global crisis.

For example, a generation of young adults are flocking to Tumblr, which has seen a bump in traffic since people began socially isolating in mid-March, for nostalgic comfort and memories of their younger selves (this might explain the recent spike in searches on Tumblr for “emo hair”). Users are spending isolation reblogging old photographs, talking about malls, and sharing “cottagecore” images and other cozy content. (“Cottagecore” is an aesthetic that centers on an idealized version of living in the country. It’s where many people wish they were spending lockdown.)

 “College students are now back at home because their dorms are closed,” says Amanda Brennan, a librarian at Tumblr. “This is a very big time for them to just be like, ‘Look at how much I’ve grown’ and ‘These are things I used to love the last time I was in this bedroom.’”

Brennan says such deeply personal sites can function a bit like commonplace books, the Renaissance-era scrapbooks where scholars would compile quotes and ideas, documenting the development of their thinking. Part of understanding history is about what happened. But commonplace books, and personal archives like Tumblr, can help tell us who we were.

Blair’s inspiration for attempting to protect our understanding of how we are living now is much more recent: the Holocaust. “We’re always looking at that as a historical event that happened, but we forget that it was current for the people who lived through it,” she says. “We are looking into the future’s history now. This is a historical event, we are in it, and we are shaping the telling of that story.”

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