Last fall, University of Texas Professor Amelia Acker quietly received early access to an immense trove of data on U.S. President Barack Obama’s activities. And no, she wasn’t colluding with Russian hackers.
Acker was part of a White House project to give a handful of businesses, researchers and artists early access to the Obama administration’s social media data, including official White House accounts and the First Lady’s social media activities, as part of an effort to archive the content and make it useful and available.
His entire social media archives were made available to the general public last week.
Every American president leaves behind a trail of documents, letters, emails and sometimes even taped phone calls, that historians rely upon to piece together the story of what it was like to run a country.
But with Obama, historians and archivists will be grappling with how to study and learn from his social media archive, which is mandated by law to be stored and available to the public.
Obama is considered our first “social media” president, because he and the First Lady have embraced new forms of technology such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat to communicate or share photos.
Acker, along with her collaborator Adam Kriesberg, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Maryland, plan to conduct research that measures the Obama administration’s social media adoption and civic engagement across various social media platforms.
And University of Texas graduate students who signed up for this spring’s “Theories and Applications of Metadata” class will be using Obama’s social media archives for their final projects.
Acker, who will be teaching the class, said the archives carry a big historical significance. But it’s also an unusual opportunity for researchers to access social media data for one person across a large timespan.
The Obama presidency was a moment in time when we transitioned from Web 2.0 to social networks, she said. “Web 2.0 was read and comment,” she said. “But the cool part about social networks is they let you engage with the content.” It also means “new layers of metadata,” to sort through, Acker said.
Researchers will be able to group together data points, such as when a Tweet was sent, or how many times an Instagram post was shared, to gain new insights about how social media is being used by powerful governments to influence public opinion and communicate.
And this data can be used to study the growth of the social media platforms themselves.“What’s really fun is you can tell a biography of the platform by how people engaged with these accounts,” she said.
Some of the other projects that gained early access to the social media archive include: an effort to collect and make searchable all of the White House GIFs, an archive of Obama’s social media posts that can be searched by keyword, platform and date, and a Twitter bot that will re-publish Obama tweets to mark significant moments.