Tweets Alongside the Gettysburg Address: So Wrong
The Library of Congress’ plan to keep a digital archive of every public tweet—messages of 140 characters or fewer—since the microblogging site Twitter was launched in 2006 is silly. Most tweets are better forgotten. Pro or con?
Pro: Microblogging Is Macro Foolishness
Twitter capitalizes on providing users with a means of advertisement. While journalists can benefit by plugging articles on Twitter, this internet forum is more often co-opted by bloggers with corporate and political agendas. Such tweets typically resemble sexy headlines and commercial jingles. The more banal side of Twitter is its function as a tabloid for celebrity drivel, mundane gossip, and low-level banter that reads more like alcohol-induced instant messaging than anything resembling socially relevant text.
Twitter functions, at best, as a journalistic plug, so perhaps the Library of Congress should limit itself to acquiring the articles, blogs, and other linked-to content directly. But I wonder if Congress or the American people will really benefit from such tweets as Ellen F’s post: "I didn’t do it, honest! Ellen stole all the Friday beer! ANARCHY!" Next the Library will be purchasing Americans’ text messages from phone companies, or has the FBI already got that covered?
This acquisition smacks of Patriot Act-like surveillance and does nothing to "foster a free and informed society," as the Library’s official Web site avows its purpose. U.S. taxpayers are not in the market for a Big Brother and it is not otherwise obvious how Twitter content will be "necessary for the use of Congress," as President John Adams, who signed the bill authorizing the Library of Congress, explained its mission.
While the growing capacity for free information flow is something worth celebrating on a global scale, services such as Twitter further the public good only by facilitating access to a relevant and external information pool. The tweets are beside the point, like the words Americans type into Google’s search box. The Library’s stated mission is "to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge." Since the value of Twitter is only to redirect users to external bodies of knowledge, the Library’s mission is not furthered by the acquisition of these signposts.
Con: Tweets Are Part of a Historical Portrait
The Library of Congress’ mission is to store our nation’s most important memories. When I visited there and got a tour of the photographic collections, I saw more than just important images that we’d all recognize. In the middle of the collections are more than 100,000 3D images, many of which don’t seem important to collect and save. Yet I’m glad we saved them from the dustbin of history. Why? Because each one gives insights into our past.
Some of those images are important only when seen as part of a greater whole. For instance, I saw images of Yosemite that alone weren’t that crucial but, as part of a collection of images, added up to an important look back at that park’s early history.
I’m thrilled that future generations will now be able to go back into the early history of Twitter and study what we were talking about and thinking about.
Yes, many of those early tweets are banal. Such stuff as "having a tuna salad for lunch." You can make an argument that they aren’t all that important, but in that haystack of tweets is also the one that shared a photo of the US Airways plane that fell into the Hudson River.
Or if you look carefully, you will see the first news from inside China after its huge earthquake and from inside Iran after protests began over its Presidential election.
Those tweets are important to save, along with all the more banal ones about what music we are listening to, which movie star we think is hot, or what we’re having for lunch. They add up to a more complete picture of us as human beings, circa 2006 to 2010, than we’d otherwise have.
I’m glad that the archivists will now actively save them for generations to study in the future. Now excuse me, I have to go tweet that I’m headed to bed.