Friday, August 13, 2010

What is Your Social Footprint?

As an amateur genealogist, I’m frequently frustrated and astonished by the few traces my ancestors have left behind that says “Hey I was once here!” I’m sure many of my ancestors pondered many of the same thoughts as me and many others “Will I be remembered? What will they say of me in generations to come?”

Signature of my great-great grandfather David Knecht
 from December 1851
Proves he could at least write his name in Hebrew/Yiddish

Of course for genealogists there are various birth, marriage and death certificates and the occasional surviving tombstone (unfortunately for me, many of my family’s were destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust). What I’m really focusing on is the “Social Footprint” they left behind that says something about what their life was and who they were.

Definition: Social Footprint – the social impact of an individual on their family, peers and society

Occasionally I’ll find a census record so I’ll know where they lived; perhaps that they owned property, which family members or friends lived with them and what they did for a living. Back in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s there was little opportunity for the average person to leave a social footprint beyond oral stories and a tombstone, unless you were a famous person, who perhaps wrote a book or two or even better that someone else wrote a biography of your life.

Yet today the opportunities to leave your mark behind are plentiful, growing in number and evolving thanks to the Internet. At everyone’s disposal is the ability to write a blog and save it (just in case your blogging host disappears, Tweet it, Facebook it, etc. and assuming that that the technology to read them will be around the potential is that they can last forever unlike written diaries (popular in the 1800s) which rarely survived (paper is so fragile).

Just the other day, Twitter announced a new policy to preserve (save a backup of) the Twitter feed of a deceased loved one . This means that all those Tweets you’ve been making about subjects of interest - where you eating, your opinions on movies, books, etc. - can be preserved forever and for generations to come providing a great insight into who you were. Facebook developed their policy back in October 2009 and I’m sure that other social media sites such as LinkedIn and Flickr can’t be too far behind (if they haven’t already) in developing their own protocols. 

Consider the social footprint you’ve left behind by posting & documenting your photos on Flickr, or in a Facebook album. Everything we do online now has the potential to tell the world who we were, long after we’re gone. While many have written of the dangers of posting everything online (lost job opportunities because some video of you during at a Frat party 10 years earlier, etc.) few have written about the long term positive impact.

So while there are analytic tools emerging every day to measure your current impact on your social network, it will only be in the long run that the true impact of your social footprint will be felt. And as we say in the book there is nothing new, and the desire to leave a mark on future generations is as old as Adam and Eve. It is just that technology has granted virtually all of us an easy way to document it.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. When we discussed this on Twitter the other day I thought we were coming at this from different angles - my view was that "social footprint" is an aggregate of socially-available/shared content over time (per your post) whereas you seemed to be saying that you saw social footprints as singular marks, e.g. a single shared photo on Flickr. Either way, as an historian, I'm also fascinated by the amount of content that we are now sharing, and how and how effectively historians may be able to mine this data in the future, assuming that it is preserved. Digital data is far more open to manipulation than original paper / photos, too. It's an interesting area.