We know almost nothing about the college years of the 43rd president of the US. We know that George Bush attended Yale University, was a cheerleader, played rugby, and did not excel as a student. Compare that with what we will know about the 49th president. It is very likely she will have a Facebook profile. She may have had a blog. Chances are good that her emails to friends, colleagues, teachers, and lovers will all be preserved, not in a centralized archive, but in the distributed memory of the web. This way of experiencing and recording the world provides new means of learning and of creating and distributing knowledge, and successful knowledge-centric institutions must adapt to this explosion in second-hand experience.
Such a distributed form of memory is by no means new: we would know nothing of the trials of Ulysses or of Jesus without it. But social memory has been extended electronically, providing us with ways of experiencing more of the world, more easily, without having to be there in person. This revolution in surveillance is remarkable. That is true of the sort of visual experience of the world we more readily express as surveillance: the ability to check in on our pets while we are in the office, or later stages of a Google Maps that will allow us to view a street-corner as through a time machine. But the kind of second-hand surveillance—one of the functions of the news media that Laswell identified in the late 1940s—is also becoming far more common. I know more about what my family members, who are flung around the globe, do than I ever would have ten or fifteen years ago. I follow their Tweets, they Skype me from work, we see each other’s photos on Flickr.
There is reasonable concern, particularly among national libraries, about archiving these ephemeral materials. Most early approaches attempt to bend existing tools and techniques of archiving to networked media. As knowledge creation more closely resembles a tapestry woven by a crowd than an organized warehouse, creating an archive—a distributed memory—necessarily requires new strategies. An examination of some of the theoretical concerns (fidelity, privacy, selection) provides a framework to understand existing technologies that enable archiving, and suggests practical, incremental steps toward exploiting these opportunities to provide for a democratic, layered, distributed archive of the social web.