Slippery Historical Sources: Social Media, Holocaust Memory and Instagram
Instagram has approximately 13,400 photos under the hashtag “#holocaustmuseum”. This might seem arbitrary, but most of these images are the subject of my historical research. Professionally, I have labelled myself in several ways – as a public historian, a Holocaust scholar, and as a historian of social media. All of these labels have one thing in common: I am very interested in the ways in which people engage with history around them every day. How do museums, memorials, monuments, movies, or even postcards help people to relate to the past?
What happens if the story at hand is particularly difficult, contentious, or painful to discuss? For example, I am often asked whether taking a selfie at Auschwitz is inappropriate and disrespectful of Holocaust memory. I think deeply about such questions; the controversy surrounding most current photography trends at sites of genocide, horror, or trauma flows back to a singular question: how does sharing a photo on Instagram change or shape the way people engage with the history of the Holocaust?
As a public historian of the Holocaust, one of the challenging questions I receive about my research always relates to the nature of my sources. I am frequently asked how many sources I actually have or whether I am worried that my source base keeps growing; whether my sources will fade away, never to be seen again; whether photographs and selfies on Instagram actually “mean anything” to historical research. Interestingly enough, these are concerns that all historians face, whether they do most of their research with archival documents or – like me – they harvest photos from Instagram.
My rationale for using contemporary Instagram photos as my most prominent resource is historical in nature: the urge to photograph one’s experiences is not new; rather, the existence of photography is intricately connected to a “photographic impulse” to record and share human life. Though the advent of social media and the sharing of photographs in a digital format are relatively recent phenomena, this behaviour is not. How often have you sat with your family, exploring family photo albums and chatting about the past?
Walking through any art gallery, you may have noticed how much historical portraiture already exists. My research encourages people to think about social media activity as part of the wide spectrum of both human behaviour and emotion. For me, this relationship is essential. Understanding social media and photography in particular is key to understanding contemporary human social behaviours, and those social behaviours can tell us a lot about Holocaust memory in the twenty-first century.
If we begin to think about all the material we can access as being a “source” with a particular – if not contemporary – historicity, this opens up a wide avenue when considering the ways in which the public engage with and communicate historical representation. What is more, when we consider the contentious nature of the collision of popular culture with the history of the Holocaust (consider the effects of Pokémon Go! on sites like Auschwitz or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), we can also explore the root of this contention.
Social media as sources cannot stand alone, of course. Just like any historical source, they must be integrated into a fabric of historical source material, so that we can best understand the ways in which they function as sources “of their time” and in relation to sources from the past. For this reason, I try to look at as many other forms of visitor engagement as I can: museum guestbooks; how people move through the physical museum space; and visitor feedback surveys. All of these sources indicate various forms of engagement with the history of the Holocaust on the part of the public.
Sources like Instagram photos demonstrate that visitors to Holocaust museums and memorial sites felt that an aspect of their experience in that space was worth photographing and sharing. The “photographic impulse” of analog photography theory and the “impulse to share” of contemporary social media theory therefore intersect at a very crucial point, one which I believe highlights the importance of broadening our understanding of historical engagement today. The taking and sharing of a photograph – particularly a photograph of the memorial landscape of the Holocaust – constitutes a new wave of Holocaust remembrance in the twenty-first century. Though this particular act of remembrance may take the form of pixels, code, and continuous scrolling, Holocaust memory is continuously present and deeply reflected upon in the digital mediascape by millions.