We are recording more stories than ever

  • By Jonathan Good
  • December 14, 2011
Part 2: We are recording more stories than ever

2011 was the year when the history books were finally thrown open. From Tahrir Square[1], to Facebook Timeline, we proclaimed for the first time ever, history would be the story of everyone, infused with billions of voices and trillions of images.

For a couple of hundred thousand years most people’s stories were an oral history, passed down for a generation or two and then forgotten. A few lucky people escaped this information black-hole with a thumbnail entry in an encyclopedia. But it really was a few - the 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had just 65,000 entries, spanning places, people, historical events and ideas[2]. Then, 10 years ago, Wikipedia revolutionized the idea of an encyclopedia, writing the collaborative history of many, many more people. Today Wikipedia has at least 40 times as many names as a traditional encyclopedia[3]. But it is still the history of an elite few. Wikipedia imposes a standard of notability that few people can meet. It doesn’t consider my story, my mom’s story or my granddad’s story "important enough" to be included. (Wikipedia takes down close to 100,000 pages a year for individuals who aren’t "notable")[4].

And yet, our stories are history and they can and should be recorded. So we have found an outlet elsewhere, in social media. For over 800 million of us, our Facebook page has become a (very incomplete) history of who we are[5]. But those 800 million fragments are the richest history we have ever had, and as close to democratizing history as we have yet come. In just 10 years we have gone from 20,000 thumbnail entries in an encyclopedia to 800 million stories recorded in rich images, videos and our own voices.

Number of people remembered in encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Facebook

Recording more stories

In the midst of this explosion of social media it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we still don’t know the names of most people who ever lived, let alone their stories. Wikipedia contains entries for just over half a million individuals from history, suggesting that just one in 100,000 people from history has been lucky enough to be remembered[6]. Even including the blogs, Facebook pages and Myspace profiles left behind by those who have passed, less than 0.1% of people in history are remembered today[7].

In contrast, the 7 billion people alive today are much more likely to live on in the history books. Over 1 in 10 people alive has a Facebook page and on top of that there are services like LinkedIn, RenRen and others that capture even more people. The best way to estimate the overall number of people using social media today is to take the 2.1 billion of us with Internet access[8] and multiply by the 70% who in surveys say they use some form of social media[9]. That suggests 1.4 billion social media users, which is one in five people alive today.

The number of stories recorded through history

Recording richer stories

This new paradigm of history doesn’t just allow us to record more people’s stories—it also allows these stories to be much richer, collaborative and full of detail. One of the saddest moments in 2011 was the passing of Steve Jobs on October 5th. His passing led to an unparalleled outpouring of grief, emotion and a new kind of online history. Sure Walter Isaacson’s new biography, "Steve Jobs"[10], captures a detailed, thoughtful and insightful view of his life story, but Jobs' real legacy is the treasure trove of 2.3 billion pieces of content that Google has indexed. Compare that to the 22 million about Thomas Edison[11] and you start to see how modern history is changing how we collect all of the thoughts, emotions, and digital fragments of memory associated with someone. After Jobs’ passing, Twitter reported an astounding 6,049 tweets per second, over tens times the collective biography written in the aftermath of Michael Jackson’s death in 2009[12].

Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison online references

More stories, but will they last?

2011 was the year when humanity finally "cast off the shackles" and let everyone’s story be written into history. Each of our individual "dents in the universe" are being recorded in exponentially richer detail. That said, history is only history if it lasts—which begs the question whether the collaborative memory we are building online is a fleeting falsity or the new Chauvet Cave[13]...

Next: A place that lasts forever

Or click here to see the whole series.

Footnotes and sources

1. We were proud to have played a small part in helping Egyptians (and the world) record the names, faces and stories of those killed in the revolution earlier this year.
2. See comparative statistics here
3. Total Wikipedia pages for people were estimated by summing all births listed by year, decade, century and millennium.
4. Wikipedia take down "hundreds of pages" that people create for individuals each day. Their exact policy and philosophy of page removal is detailed here
5. Facebook announced that it hit 800 million users in September this year
6. Earlier this year we estimated that 56 billion humans have ever lived, so just 13% of all the people who have ever lived are alive today. Comparing the 49 billion individuals who have passed with the half a million on Wikipedia yields the 1 in 100,000 ratio.
7. Facebook and other social media record many more individuals from history through their re-purposing as an an "online memorial". We estimated earlier this year that over 3 million Facebook users would pass away this year alone.
8. It is estimated that there were 2.1 billion Internet users in the world as at March 2011. Read more here
9. Percentage of social media users is estimated here.
10. This week Amazon announced that "Steve Jobs" is it’s top-selling book of 2011, with almost 400,000 physical books sold.
11. Total references was calculated by running a google search of "Steve Jobs" and "Thomas Edison" with the custom dates set to open-ended.
12. Twitter’s statistics are here. Michael Jackson’s death was reported to lead to 483 tweets per second.
13. For aan amazing view of the Chauvet Cave watch one of the best movies of the year, "Cave of Forgottem Dreams" by Werner Hertzog. Check out the trailer here

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