The Shadow Archive, Pt. 1

I attended the Digital Caucus of the American Studies Association’s panel, The Shadow Archive: Digital (Re)Assemblages of Ephemera at the ASA annual meeting last week. The four papers were uniformly excellent and this panel was one of the highlights of the conference for me.

The theme of the panel was photographer and theorist Allan Sekula’s idea of the “shadow archive,” the all-inclusive social context which ties together seemingly disparate “traditional” archives. Using an example from Miriam Posner’s wide-ranging and fascinating paper, photographs for a Victorian family album may seem incommensurable with the criminal mugshots which came into being around the same time. Although they appear to be mutually exclusive, with the mugshots containing elements of society which the bourgeois Victorian family would recoil from, they are connected by the shadow archive, the all-encompassing
context that comprises them both.


Each of the four papers dealt in some way with the digital shadow archive and what distinguishes it from or connects it to its older iterations. Kimberly Hall talked about the shadow archive that lies behind supposedly ephemeral social media platforms like SnapChat and YikYak. She took on the work of SnapChat researcher Nathan Jurgenson, who writes about these services and their promise of ephemerality as creating a new kind of identity, the “liquid self,” a kind of performative selfhood that flows and moves, going out of existence as it comes in, as opposed to the “solid” self of apps like Facebook or even older social mediathat create an archive of user information.

It is seductive to think that performing oneself ephemerally allows testing out new ways of navigating the (virtual) world (although Jurgenson elsewhere makes the case that the virtual and the material worlds are collapsing and augmenting each other). Durability, one of the defining characteristics of the older forms social media, inhibits such experimentation — or it would if teens were older and realized the implications of having that in their archive!

Hall notes that while the “public” archive may seem ephemeral, the private one is not. She points out that for all their claims of ephemerality, SnapChat and Yik Yak collect and render durable a tremendous amount of shadow data that is simply invisible and inaccessible to the user but nonetheless there for corporate buyers, law enforcement, and the surveillance state to access. In fact, the permanence of these ephemeral services is the basis of their plans for monetization. Or as the internet folk wisdom goes, “If you aren’t paying for it, you’re the product.”  Interestingly, when I was looking for more information on the shadow archive, the first result once a video game had been filtered out was for a shadow archive for surveillance systems.

While its owners contend that Yik Yak, where posts live and die by their popularity (via up and down votes) is a democratizing force, studies that Hall references point out that some college students find it to be a divisive force and an avenue for cyberbullying. Others agree with the proprietors — maybe those whose posts are upvoted?  Thus another democratizing techno-utopian future bites the dust, or at least becomes less simply a good thing.

That is it for part one. I’ll post part two as soon as I get back to Honolulu and my typing fingers defrost (Actually the Toronto weather was lovely). That will be David Kim’s account of the dynamic tension between open access advocates and the the authors of the “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.” My notes are not as extensive for Miriam Posner’s or Lauren Tilton’s respective papers, so I will let them go although they were equally interesting. Thank you to all for the great panel.