WeChat–China’s largest social media platform–is officially part of design history. Friday, the V&A Museum, in London, announced that it acquired the WeChat app for its permanent collection.
“As more and more of our designed world either becomes digital or is experienced digitally, there’s an express urgency to find ways of collecting and preserving the important aspects of our digital culture,” museum curator Brendan Cormier wrote in a blog post.
Collecting–and defining–design has always been a challenge for museums. Mass-produced objects might be de rigueur for design exhibitions, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1934, MoMA caused a stir with its Machine Art exhibition, which elevated industrially produced products like tableware, springs, hub caps, scientific glassware, and more into objects of beauty. Similarly, each new category that comes under consideration for inclusion in design history becomes open to debate: weapons, vehicles, symbols.
Today’s collecting frontier is digital technology and interaction design, which is raising similar questions about what is acquired, how it is preserved, and how it is exhibited. Emoji, video games, and apps are part of major design museums. The V&A Museum spent two-and-a-half years debating its acquisition of WeChat, raising many important questions about how digital culture is remembered and preserved in the process.
The V&A Museum decided to acquire WeChat because of its enormous impact on Chinese culture. Curators describe it as the Swiss Army knife of apps since users can do myriad things directly thorough its interface–make mobile payments, text, order taxis, and so on–and it has become an ingrained part of daily life. The question became about how future generations would understand what the platform achieved and how people interacted with it:
When we talk about WeChat 100 years from now, how will we be able to show people what it is? This proved to be a powerful way of thinking, because suddenly the acquisition became focused on the question of preservation, and preserving the legacy of what these designers were doing. It wasn’t simply about a museum taking something, but how we address the larger issue of digital preservation.
Two of the specific issues with WeChat involved how the platform was stored and the ethical, legal, and privacy issues involved with personal data that is stored in it:
All social media applications require connection to a server in order to run . . . If the server didn’t exist in 100 years, then the app wouldn’t work. Given the pace of technological change, we couldn’t rely on the server being the same for the next 10 years, let alone 100. The second challenge was about content. Social media is not just about the interface, but how it is filled with people’s messages, photos, and so on. And there were obvious legal and privacy issues to taking anybody’s content and preserving it somewhere offline.
After the V&A explained some of the challenges with collecting the platform, WeChat proposed a solution: acquiring an early demo version of the WeChat app. Before Apple admits apps into its store, the company screens apps thoroughly and requests offline versions to vet. As the V&A explains:
The demo was server-free, a pure and closed piece of software that in theory could sit on a phone for 100 years, and still work when you turned it on again.
To solve the user privacy challenge, WeChat developed a hypothetical “typical” user of the app, named Star, and scripted chats, added photos that would normally appear on the platform, invented a list of contacts, and added content to her time line.
When museum-goers see the app on display, they’ll see a video (played on a smartphone) of screengrabs of “Star” using the app to talk to friends, hail cabs, order food, and more. However, the museum doesn’t plan to exhibit it for quite sometime since the app is so prevalent in its current iteration today. “We need to let our acquisition age,” the museum writes.
The V&A hopes that making the process of acquiring WeChat transparent will help other institutions learn how to preserve digital culture, which, in the era of constant iteration, is rapidly evolving and transforming. Websites constantly update; services sunset. This is a pesky annoyance for today’s users, but to an historian it’s actually a problem with disappearing hallmarks of everyday experiences about which future generations are likely to be curious:
What we hope is that this process suggests a way of possibly acquiring other major social media platforms that are defining our daily lives in the 21st century. Could Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat all prepare offline versions for museums to store? Can we reverse-engineer the process to preserve fast-disappearing sites like Friendster and MySpace? And is there a way we can improve on this process, to better preserve the dynamic feeling of these sites, the immense flow of content that streams through them every day?