History in 140 Characters

A couple weeks ago, the Library of Congress announced that they had acquired the expensive backlog of tweets from Twitter, adding in millions of bits of information to the archives. While each tweet is no more than 140 characters, it will likely represent one of the larger collections that the Library holds, preserving quite a lot of information for the long foreseeable future. It also sounds like it will be one of the more ridiculous holding that the Library holds, for with that mess of information contains abbreviations, thousands of individual statements and other ‘useless’ bits of information that in and of itself has little practical value. I was incredulous at the news at first, simply wondering why anyone would be interested in such a thing. However, it’s since occurred to me that the massive amount of information that Twitter has acquired is a unique look into a society.

Twitter in and of itself is a communications tool. It’s one that I’ve thought of as a ridiculous waste of time, not good for much, as have my friends and co-workers, who see its 140 character limit as something that is not only limiting, but a form of preening communication. I’ve come to use it myself, and while there are certainly a lot of people out there who’ll say things for no reason at all, I’ve found that it’s a fairly good, informal way to keep in touch with some people, businesses, and as a way to distribute information.

I follow several news sources, such as the BBC and the New York Times, which updates constantly on the news of the moment. But I also follow a number of celebrities, websites and figures, and find that at points, it’s an interesting way to get an inside look into what is going on at their end. Craig Engler, the SVP & GM of Digital for the SyFy channel, regularly updates fans on some inside information on how the television business works, as does David Blue, who stars in SyFy’s Stargate Universe. There’s numerous other people in addition to that list, but it’s also an interesting way to keep in touch with several other friends that I don’t normally speak with in other channels.

Beyond that, the acquisition of Twitter by the Library of Congress makes a bit of sense when you look at the archive as a whole. Millions of people have signed up for the service, and there’s a large number of people who do use the service. While it’s not necessarily representative of the population as a whole, it is a highly visible, print record of people talking to each other, about everything. With that in mind, consider that a recent study found that by analysing tweets across the world, by keyword and frequency, researchers could accurately predict what a film’s opening weekend take at the box office would be. While that’s just one somewhat frivolous thing to study, imagine taking that study and applying it to the reaction to the Haitian, Chilian or Tibetan earthquakes that just occurred. Or a major presidential election, social events, major news stories and so on. People talk about these items, and by placing it into the Library of Congress, it essentially becomes historical record, for future historians to read and study long after we’re gone. Individually, the tweets probably can’t tell you much, but as a whole, there’s a lot that can probably be learned, especially when you look at social mediums.

Beyond websites such as Twitter, there are numerous other blogs, wikis and other, more substantial websites that offer much more than 140 characters. With my own site, I try and work on analysis, review, and research, often presenting an argument that I try and prove with backed up information. Authors of numerous genres and backgrounds publish a great variety of information, and in all likelihood, internet authorship will rival print media in the nearish future.

As the internet becomes more ingrained into everyday life, it will be important to take a closer look into finding ways to preserve what is said, either social media sites, such as Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, WordPress, and even e-mail. In the past, historians relied on what they could find relating to a source: photographs, letters, journals, which show a small window and limited view into any given events. The diary of a Civil War soldier might tell much about him, but not about the war as a whole. With hundreds of journals together, a much different picture emerges. The same goes with websites like Twitter. Historians of the future will likely have greater resources at looking at our time long in the future. Their challenges will be to sort through it all.

BTW, you can follow me here.

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