23 April 2010

Twitter to be archived at the Library of Congress

Amazing news for future historians. Starting next month, the entirety of Twitter will be archived by the Library of Congress, as Christopher Beam reports in Slate:
Among the many criticisms of Twitter, the most common by far is that no one cares what you ate for breakfast.

In fact, quite a few people care. "I actually think it's very useful," says Paul Freedman, a professor at Yale University who studies the history of food. For him, a 140-character ode to your KFC Double Down—along with the worshipful photo you took before devouring it—could be a priceless historical document. "Historians are interested in ordinary life," Freedman says. "And Twitter is an incredible resource for ordinary life."

Wow, it's the phenomenological approach to the cultural history of KFC. I love it.

Do the future a favor and do as the little bird says.

Beam brings a variety of important methodological issues, such as data richness:

The question is, does the preservation of digital content, from tweets to Facebook updates to blog comments, make the job of historians easier or harder?

The answer is: both. On the one hand, there's more useful information for historians to sift. On the other, there's more useless information. And without the benefit of hindsight, it's impossible to tell which is which. It's like what John Wanamaker supposedly said about advertising: He knew half of it was wasted, he just didn't know which half.

The trick will be organization. Hashtags—the # symbols people use to create discussion threads, such as #ashtag for the Iceland volcano cloud and #snowpocalypse for the February snowstorm that swept Washington, D.C.—are a start. But many tweeters don't bother to tag their posts. Historians will probably be able to search by keyword. But that can lead them astray, too. How do you know if someone is complaining about the windows in their house or the Windows on their computer?

Hashtags - and metadata in general - serve as a bridge between the world of objects and the world of text. As someone that's always had a foot in both worlds (or, more accurately, read too many postmodernists and is thus inclined to treat everything as text) I love the idea of the two being blended so intimately.

The article also raises the issue of new analytical technologies that do work that used to take historians huge swaths of time:

Twitter as historical document would also allow scholars to trace phenomena in real time. Historians have long tried to reconstruct how word of AIDS spread in New York in the early 1980s. But it's hard to document who knew what when. "A lot of those conversations are lost except for people like me who might remember the time 30 years ago," says David Mindich, a journalism professor at Saint Michael's College. Twitter preserves those cultural moments. Google has already created a program called Replay that maps Twitter topics over time.

Technology that automatically seriates the evolution of cultural phenomena! A historian's dream I suppose. It raises the specter of the de-skilling of historical work, and also the tantalizing potential of technologies that can analyse pre-digital archives for similar trends.

The article also touches on selection bias and the partiality of Twitter or any other single messaging service in reconstructing social trends. Read the rest here.

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