Friday, April 16, 2010


Tweeting your way into the Library of Congress

Do you use Twitter? Millions do, to the tune of more than a billion “tweets” per month, currently, with the number increasing all the time. Some 50 million messages a day, from people of all ages, all nationalities, all walks of life, each message 140 characters or fewer. And Twitter has been around since 2006.

What do you think has happened to all those messages? Where do they go, when they “go away”?

Well, it’s the Internet: they don’t actually go away; nothing does. And now the Library of Congress will hold the archives or every message posted to Twitter, ever, since the 2006 beginning.

The library will archive the collected works of Twitter, the blogging service, whose users currently send a daily flood of 55 million messages, all that contain 140 or fewer characters.

Library officials explained the agreement as another step in the library’s embrace of digital media. Twitter, the Silicon Valley start-up, declared it “very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history.”

[Here’s the Library of Congress blog on the acquisition.]

There are privacy concerns, but they hardly seem to be legitimate when Twitter’s been set up as a public environment in the first place. Besides, the LoC folks tell us that “the archive would be available only for scholarly and research purposes.”

The tweets are becoming part of history. As Yale librarian Fred Shapiro says, “This is an entirely new addition to the historical record, the second-by-second history of ordinary people.” That means, for example, that the following will all be in the historical record, available forever... but only for scholarly and research purposes, mind:

  • these cashews look like dried mini scrotums
  • Fuck a burpee. Fuck a gorilla run. And fuck a duck walk. Amen.
  • lol im 22 and i love cookie monster lol i aint judgin
  • keep the earth clean, it’s not uranus!
  • sickkkk too my stomachh!!!! i hate thiss about wat mama
  • lol at boonies..naw like on private property...n da woods...smh lol
  • Fizzing skittles are da bomb!
  • #WhatWouldItBeLike to insert both fists into your anus?

Those are all actual tweets made not too long before I wrote this, selected semi-randomly. They will soon be enshrined in the Library of Congress, in case anyone should one day want to look back on 2010 in a scholarly way.

Anyway, the point here is that nothing on the Internet ever goes away. It’s all there somewhere, in an archive, in a backup, in the Wayback Machine. Or in the Library of Congress. Beware what you put here. You never know who will find, years or decades or centuries from now, your thoughts about cashews, or duck walks, or both fists (as opposed to just one?).

That should be sobering.

1 comment:

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Something actually worth preserving is getting saved along with all the dross -- I find this a fascinating and useful service:

Analyzing trends over time on this feed would be an interesting window on society!