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Living in Society

Archiving Twitter

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I heard about the Library of Congress partnership with Twitter to archive all of Twitter, past, present and future since its launch in 2006. I hadn’t heard the project went bust with insufficient funding in 2017. Too many tweets, one presumes.

Should we care? We should, but not because there is profound knowledge on Twitter.

Yes, noted scholars create multi-tweet threads with reasoned arguments, citations, and links to references. Yet what role does that play in advancing learning? The potential audience seems limited on Twitter. Wouldn’t the same argument inform more effectively in a newspaper, blog, or scholarly journal? It would be more targeted, for sure. Such targeting would garner better impact on learning than the transitory ephemera of Twitter..

News writers use tweets as a source of quotations from prominent people. A quote is a quote, I guess. It’s easy, which prompts the related sentence, “they are lazy.” What point are they making? Why not get an actual quote from a news maker? I know the answer: access is easier on Twitter. Definition of the word “access” is peculiar here.

With hundreds of millions of tweets per day, who could read all of that to glean valuable content? Some form of artificial intelligence or tweet-bot, maybe. Not a human. I can’t think of who would want to review all of that. I hardly look at my own tweets from yesterday, let alone something I posted in 2008. There are three hundred million or more tweets per day.

If a user considers their universe in Twitter, a time line can be carefully curated. It is only within this curation that any of it has much meaning. Archiving Twitter would seem to preserve little of that personal vantage point. Tweets are a fungible commodity only to the extent an individual user loses their individuality. We Americans resist that.

The role for libraries and archives with regard to Twitter and other social media platforms is to push governments to define better laws regarding collection, archiving, and ownership of our posting. As the example of Cambridge Analytica during the recent presidential election illustrates, there were few rules about scraping the internet to collect detailed voter information and using the aggregated data to influence the election. At what point does that become an illegal invasion of privacy? The answer hasn’t been defined and doing so falls in the wheelhouse of people who spend their lives compiling archives of information and documents.

When we examine the history of libraries and archives, my bet is as much that was important has been lost as was saved. I think of the Protestant Reformation and its raiding of libraries and archives to destroy the physical records of the Catholic Church. There are plenty of other examples. Regarding Twitter, if the Library of Congress can’t preserve it, then who can and to what end?

With planetary warming, we may not have to trouble ourselves with these questions for much longer. If archives exist to tell the story of humanity’s demise to beings living multiple millennia from now, there is no point. Like us, I doubt future such beings will be much interested in those billions of tweets.