A scripted social media performance
For Excellences & Perfections, Amalia Ulman used her social media profiles to stage a scripted performance inspired by extreme makeover culture. For three months, her posts carefully conformed to what social media seemed to demand—that she be, in her words, a “Hot Babe.”
The project drew controversy even before it was revealed to be a fiction: some users shared their own makeover experiences, others made vulgar propositions or abusive comments, and still others criticized her for conforming to unrealistic standards of feminine beauty and behavior.
Why preserve a social media account?
Ulman’s project has been shown and discussed widely, prompting The Telegraph to ask, “Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?” However, the work—comprising photos, captions, user interactions, and the exact presentation of these materials—existed entirely on Instagram’s servers, tied to Ulman’s personal account, yet outside of her control. In order to make the work available for public discussion, to ensure its longevity, it had to be archived. Even if the Instagram service continues to thrive and not lose any of the data, the practice of frequent redesign poses a risk to the artwork’s integrity and narrative.
Archiving social media projects like Excellences & Perfections poses significant technical challenges. Much of the modern web, while still giving the appearance of web “pages,” is made of complex applications running in users’ browsers and remote data centers, constantly changing in response to user behavior. This leaves archivists with few options. They could download a limited set of data directly from the platform, or create a derivative version, such as a video recording.
Enter Webrecorder: Rhizome’s Webrecorder project was developed to offer a more faithful approach.
Capturing network traffic between a user’s web browser and the web, it archives the “reactions” of remote web servers to a user’s “actions,” without requiring special knowledge of the inner workings of a system like Instagram.
This archive can then be accessed as a fully interactive, high-fidelity copy that works even for complex web platforms. Using Webrecorder, Rhizome was able to create a stable archive of an excerpt of Ulman’s Instagram that behaves like the original, preserving even Instagram’s now-defunct five-column web layout.
While Ulman’s work has achieved a certain kind of cultural significance, the culture that takes place on social media is often more community-driven and personalized: relationships, remembrances, or community organizing can all be of vital personal or cultural significance. Webrecorder is designed to put archiving tools into users’ hands, with the aim to create decentralized, user-driven archives that reflect the myriad uses of the contemporary web, creating a more inclusive and representative portrait of the current moment.
Who owns digital social memory?
Creating social media archives raises important questions of ownership and privacy. Rhizome did not create an archive of the Facebook posts created as part of Excellences & Perfections, since user comments in that context may have been made with an expectation of privacy. Even though Ulman’s Instagram account was technically public, it could also be argued that users’ comments in that context should not have been captured without their explicit permission.
Striking the right balance between the need to tell the story of the present and the need to protect users’ rights can be difficult. It is always important to consider the broader context: who is the subject of the archive? Are they at risk? Do they want their work archived? What is clear is that in the age of social media, archiving must be a conversation between archivists and the users whose work they represent.
The Webrecorder project is maintained by Ilya Kreymer, Dragan Espenschied, Mark Beasley, and Pat Shiu.
Curated by Rhizome's Artistic Director Michael Connor, Amalia Ulman: Excellences & Perfections is an online exhibition copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum, launched in October 2014 as part of the series First Look: New Art Online.