Photo from AHGSA ‘17 conference Facebook page from GothShakira’s presentation.
Archives Against Instagram: Becoming Our Own Internet Historians
By Cody Walker & Eileen Mary Holowka | March 6th 2017
GothShakira says we need internet historians. But historians need archives, and Instagram’s history is locked down. Is it up to us to create our own archives?
On January 27, 2017, Instagram feminist meme artist GothShakira spoke at Concordia’s Art History (AHGSA) conference “no neutral art, no neutral art historians.” As a Latinx and a Colombian citizen, GothShakira’s autobiographical memes put into conversation the lived experiences of women of colour in Internet culture. During her presentation, GothShakira called for more subversive, accessible, and diverse internet art, arguing that the creation of these works offers an alternative archive of lived experience to the largely male-dominated meme culture.
“I think what we need are just some really good historians and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how internet historian[s are] gonna be a thing, and it should be a thing now because we need that. […] there needs to be a way of documenting this, and I don’t know, maybe we’re the people to do it”
If we are the people to do it, then we’re going to need better archives.
It happened with Snapchat memories and with Instagram’s bookmarks. These apps index our posts and compile our bookmarks into a history that’s mostly inaccessible to us. And we invest in that history every time we post. This is how apps get us to invest in their promise of immediacy, while they soak up the value of our histories. The messaging app Slack, for example, offers its services for free, but demands payment for access to old posts. This is how our history and affective labour is turned into a commodity. Our history is hidden from us behind their paywall. It’s their archive after all. This raises the question: shouldn’t we be able to access our own images? After all, our collective presence on these apps is what gives them their value.
Screenshot from GothShakira’s Instagram of her “Big Ass Meme.”
Shortly after Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, Instagram dismantled most of its API (application program interface). The API is what an app uses to share its content and a closed API like Instagram’s makes it much more difficult to create archives. Instagram claimed that it closed the API because of privacy concerns, but in its current state, it simply makes it hard to ask Instagram for the dates and images of our posts. As GothShakira said, she can no longer see her “cringey Instagram from 2012.”
Without Instagram’s support, there are few ways to create archives independently: we can find our usernames on the internet archive, export our photos with a paid tool like Instaport, or even take screenshots of our posts when it suits us. But the internet archive’s record is spotty at best (even GothShakira’s posts aren’t archived) and using a tool like Instaport is a huge privacy concern. Overall, these approaches are incomplete, labour-intensive, and isolated–we need a concerted effort to wrest our histories from Instagram’s walled garden.
If we’re going to try and make our own archives, archives that are usable by a community of scholars, artists and researchers, then we will need to make an effort to adapt their API to suit our needs. By sharing our archives with each other and demanding change from Instagram on its data policy, we create alternative systems of meaning and feeling. The writing of history is communal and the affective labour we circulate is what gives Instagram value. But that affective labour also creates alternative Internet movements, such as GothShakira’s intersectional feminist memes, that make long-erased histories visible and accessible through powerful archives of feeling.
We deserve the right to our own history. And we deserve the right to make that history visible.
Cody Walker is a PhD student at Concordia University where he is researching the cultural and material history of text editors. He’s interested in German Romanticism, New Media, and developing tools for posthuman writing practices. He also plays music and makes games.
Eileen Mary Holowka is a Milieux member and head of Pause Button. She works as a writer, editor, researcher in Montreal and is currently finishing her MA at Concordia University in English and Creative Writing. Her most recent project is an interactive narrative video game about the act of narrating sexual trauma within institutional spaces. Her current research focuses on self-imaging, Instagram, online affective labour, and the intersections of media and trauma.