Oral History and Social Networks

Oral History and Social Networks:
From Promotion to Relationship Building

by Juliana Nykolaiszyn

Social networks have transformed the way we communicate, not only with each other but also with the greater public. As the Internet continues to rapidly evolve, the race to keep up with emerging technologies is ever present, even for oral historians. Traditionally, oral historians have been leaders in adopting new standards in recording technology. And while some practitioners have taken advantage of Web 2.0 concepts, many have yet to fully embrace the power of social networks beyond the traditional Web.

Coined by Tim O’Reilly, the term Web 2.0 focuses on technologies that not only harness the collective intelligence of the Web, but also incorporate rich user experiences (O’Reilly, 2005). At the heart of Web 2.0 is the ability to participate, share, communicate, and build community online. Different entities took notice of O’Reilly’s view of the ever-changing and evolving Internet and, as such, we have seen the rise of parallel concepts specific to specialized areas, for example, Library 2.0.

It is under the umbrella of Web 2.0 that social networking enters the picture. Social networking sites can be defined according to Boyd & Ellison (2008) as “Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 211). Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube open the door for everyone, including oral historians, to share content, build relationships, generate conversation, and more in a virtual collaborative environment.

Why “Get Social”?

Your oral history organization or project may have a Web site up and running. That Web site may include a mix of contact information, interview listings/topics, and– in some cases– links to audio, video, or transcript materials. Think about the last time new content appeared on your Web site. And, even if occasionally updated, how do you get the word out that something new is available? Enter social networking.

According to Pew Research, 65% of adult Internet users take advantage of social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace (Madden & Zichuhr, 2011, 2). While oral histories may be housed in a variety of institutional repositories, sometimes you need to go where the people are to help spread the word about the work you do. And in today’s rich technological landscape, connecting with new audiences through social networking is the next logical step.

In addition, social networking can help serve as an entry point to your already published online content. Consider social networking as a way to create multiple points of access leading back to your Web-based collections. For example, you may upload a short video oral history excerpt to YouTube which could then lead researchers back to your traditional Web site for more information. You could post a direct link on Facebook or Twitter to a transcript housed on your Web site, leading interested parties back to your material. But, keep in mind, social networks are more than a promotional tool. The beauty of Web 2.0 is the notion that the Internet is a place where users can not only create but also comment, share and, collaborate. With this in mind, it is important to think about how to reach users with oral history content and, at the same time, connect and communicate with interested audiences in new ways.

Connecting with the public through social networks can be further explored through relationship building. At the heart of social networks is the ability not only to develop how the world sees our organization, oral history projects, or collections, but also to become a responsive resource in which we, as oral historians, engage in discussions and elicit responses in the virtual environment. For example, your oral history organization can pose questions, ask for suggestions, seek feedback on past efforts, or even request assistance in narrator recruitment– just to name a few. When questions are asked by users in a social networking community, being proactive in answering requests is the key to developing and building relationships virtually.

Determining Your Social Network

Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn–  all of these social networks scratch the surface of thousands available to Internet consumers. Blogging on a variety of platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr also come to mind. Let us not forget the sharing of videos on YouTube and Vimeo or photo sharing on Flickr and Picasa. It is easy to get lost in the world of social networking, because options are really endless and ever changing. How to decide what works best for your oral history efforts? First, look at what others are doing. Some oral historians are involved with just a few social networking platforms, others more. Oral history programs or projects interested in generating multiple points of access usually have links to their social networking endeavors highlighted on their main Web site. Additionally, you can search the Internet to explore the oral history landscape within the scope of social network participation.

When deciding which way to go, think about the initial time it takes in administering, who will be responsible for updating/generating content, and what you hope to gain. Remember, it takes a level of commitment to build your social network. It never hurts to try something out, but if you cannot keep up the level of commitment, consider deleting accounts or platforms that are no longer relevant. In most cases, social networking is a free and fun adventure. The primary cost in most respects involves time invested.

Popular social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Vimeo, are all wonderful platforms to consider. Each one has positives and negatives, but can really assist in your efforts to not only spread the word about your collections, but also generate community and conversation. Plus, it is easy to take advantage of cross-promotion between platforms. For example, if you post a video to YouTube or Vimeo, you can also highlight the link on Facebook and/or Twitter, thus increasing your level of impact across social networks.

Planning Content with Purpose

Despite the social network or Web 2.0 technology you currently use (or hope to embrace in the future), planning is key when it comes to posting content to your platform of choice. Think about your collection in terms of milestones such as anniversaries important to your state or local community, memories of historical importance on national or international levels, or even in response to current events. Every month, you should have a plan mapped out with respect to your proposed social network activity, including a buffer of great filler material to use as needed.

To create new material to post online is one thing, but also keep in mind the repurposing of content as well. You may already have material available on your traditional Web site that fits the bill, from transcripts to photographs. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, link back to content that is already available for public consumption. As discussed earlier, creating multiple points of access back to your current collection is a great benefit of social networking.

Frequency of posting is another important consideration. Depending on your social network, level of participation varies in order to remain relevant. Remember, you want the public thinking about oral history content, thus building awareness and—hopefully– relationships beyond your physical location. With that in mind, frequency of updates becomes an issue. Time and staffing all come into play, but with planning, engaging in social networking becomes more manageable.

Looking at oral history in context of the social networking world, here is a suggested level of posting frequency. For sites like Facebook, posting at least one to two times a week, if not more, is essential. With respect to the microblogging service Twitter, posting needs to occur at a minimum of once per day, but more than this is generally the public’s expected norm. Writing blog entries or uploading videos can occur more sporadically, such as once every two weeks at a minimum. The overall rule is that, despite the social network, the more you post the more you will increase your reach to new audiences.

In addition to posting content, it is also important to become involved in the social network itself. For example, if you create a Twitter account, follow other users, pose questions/answers, retweet messages and utilize hashtags (#) to identify keywords in your posts. In Facebook, if followers comment on oral history content you upload, communicate a message back to the community. A little bit of communication goes a long way in bridging the gap between the physical and virtual world.

Metrics and Evaluation

Web statistics have long provided a way to measure visits to oral history programs or collection-based Web sites. The same is also true for social networks. Some platforms, like Facebook, have free built-in statistics for those with an organizational/fan page. Not all social networks provide a way to measure statistics. For those that lack the ability, there are a host of free third-party or pay options available to measure use. Despite the method you use, tracking usage is important. Going beyond page hits, e-mails, or phone calls that result from your social networking connections is also important to track when documenting impact.

The Future

Looking ahead, the Internet will increasingly evolve and change. Social networking platforms will continue to be developed and what was once popular today will be old news tomorrow. While the thought that oral historians have to keep up with new technology may discourage some from entering the social networking ranks, it is the story of our profession in terms of recording technologies and the move from analog to digital. Oral historians are early adopters on many levels, but some have been slow at welcoming concepts of Web 2.0 and social networking into the framework of our profession. It is not that many do not want to cross the bridge. Considerations with release forms for interviews pre-Internet can be a concern when making content available online, especially in new ways.

The future of social networks and oral history will not necessarily be computer-based. Smartphone technology continues to improve to the point where you do not need to be a developer to create an application. For example, free location-based services such as Broadcastr allow for integrating audio into a mapping program, allowing for the ability to develop walking tours, overviews of communities, and more. These new features are not only for listening online, but also on cell phones and other mobile devices.

Final Thoughts

Integrating oral history into social networks is a good match, not only when it comes to promoting collections but also in reaching out and building community beyond a physical location or archive. Social networks allow interested users to have a way to discover hidden collections, interesting topics, stimulating communication, and– in some cases– further reach and potential for future research. While time, planning, and staffing are important, benefits tend to outweigh most negatives when engaging in social networking efforts. And while traditional Web sites are still important, social media is a great way to add depth to current oral history program/collection-based sites, allow for new ways to connect with the public, receive feedback, and share voices from the archives with others through new and exciting methods of communication.

Works Cited

Boyd, D., & Ellison, N. (2008). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(2008), 210-230.

O’Reilly, T. (2005). What is Web 2.0: Design patters and business models for the next generation of software. Retrieved from http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

Madden, M., & Zichuhr, K. (2011). 65% of online adults use social networking sites. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-Networking-Sites.aspx

Citation for Article


Nykolaiszyn, J. (2012). Oral history and social networks: from promotion to relationship building. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-and-social-networks/.


Nykolaiszyn, Juliana. “Oral History and Social Networks: From Promotion to Relationship Building,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-and-social-networks/


This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

Permanent link to this article: http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/oral-history-and-social-networks/

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