Some Thoughts on Facebook as a Research Resource

By Chris Dawson

Last year I reluctantly set up a Facebook account in order to create a Facebook page for the Historical Society that I am a member of. Like other longstanding skeptics I viewed the social networking platform as being largely inane, but closer experience has shown that some Facebook pages can be surprisingly valuable tools for historical research.

A quick explanation for the uninitiated: Facebook allows a person to have their own online personal page in which they can share messages and photographs with friends and family who ‘join’ that page. An individual can also set up common-interest ‘community’ pages on subjects of particular interest to them. Like minded people can then join these groups and share messages and images.

These community pages can either be ‘open’, for all the world to see, or ‘closed’ like a private members club. You need to ask to join a closed group and be approved by the page administrator before you can see the contents. I have set up one closed group and joined another, and it was these experiences that got me thinking about the potential use of Facebook pages as a form of oral history.

The page I set up myself was for people who grew up in the same street as me in northern England during the 1960s-‘80s. Word spread and within a short space of time we had an online community of 90 people, most of whom I had not seen in three decades. It was, in effect, an online reunion of childhood friends and a powerfully emotional experience. We shared stories and reminisced, and found ourselves filling in blanks and names in each others memories, as well as sharing old photographs.

After a while it occurred to me that much of what was being posted on this page was in fact a form of communal oral history, and I copied and saved the material before it was somehow lost. The result provided something of insight into the shortcomings of memory in oral history, as I was surprised by how much I had misremembered or forgotten.

The closed group that I joined, for the Brisbane suburb of Inala where I now live, was more of an etic experience. This group has over 1,100 members, many of whom grew up in the area and frequently share memories and personal (but now historical) photographs of the area from when they were children. While I am unfamiliar with most subject matter, I have developed a much stronger understanding of the way the suburb used to be in the decades before I arrived.

While tending to be somewhat brief, erratic and uneven in quality, the material on these pages is somewhat similar to what would be derived from conducting oral history. Of course all relevant permissions would need to be sought beforehand, but a person researching a social history of certain suburbs and towns could draw a large amount of material from such pages in a very short space of time. These pages provide excellent starting points, allowing follow-up questions to be asked online while presenting contact opportunities with a large number of potential informants.

The use of Facebook in this way does have limitations, but it is a largely new concept that warrants further investigation and would be an interesting research topic for a social sciences student.