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.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Elissa

Tweets belong in the Whitney--or perhaps the Archives--but surely not the Library of Congress!

Steve Lunceford

Blogged about this a couple of weeks back at GovTwit.com and I believe it's appropriate for no other reason that we are preserving a snapshot of what communications was like in the decade. There are also a number of messages/tweets that arguably hold historic value.

Some of the comments to that post were quite interesting, including why the archiving fell to the Library of Congress vs. The National Archives. Read more on that here: http://www.blog.govtwit.com/2010/04/19/every-tweet-you-make-theyll-be-watching-you/

Eric Beehler

The great thing about that stream of data is the ability to filter it and find trends and analysis, but the types of data can show extremes that were not necessarily present in the mainstream population. The effect of loudmouths wanting to do the most tweeting may mean we get the perspective of the wrong people (and the spammers) instead and turn that into a representation of our experience.

Bill Soistmann

Having a snapshot of not only the way we communicate but of what we speak will prove invaluable. Future historians will be able to make all sorts of connections that would otherwise have been lost.

James

The function of the LOC is not to be a repository of archaeological data for future historians. The point is to help Congress make relevant decisions. Don't we have more imminent problems to take care of today, as opposed to some vague ivory-tower future? If the point of this data is for a future historian, then a university library should have purchased the tweets.

Alex

Future archeologists, if there are any, will care more about how our civilization ground to a halt under any of the doomsday scenarios we have done nothing to prevent. Saving all tweets is a waste of our money unless enforcement agencies plan to mine them later, if there are any of them left.

Jack Kessler

Not silly, more a matter of money, must be something better for LC 2 to spend its money on?

Meridia

Wow....good job.

Debate Room Idea

Twittering is not journalism: Twitter is a fantastic way for news organizations and individuals to distribute news stories. It is also a remarkable tool for communicating events as they happen. But it is not journalism. Journalism is not a mere recitation of facts. It is the selection, verification and presentation of the most important facts in a context and viewpoint that helps us make sense of the world. That is not possible in 140 characters.

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