Twitter Is Forever

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>The Library of Congress announced Wednesday via its official Twitter feed that it would be adding tweets to its inventory of published works. The addition of the vast body of public tweets sent since Twitter's founding in March 2006 is the latest step in the Library of Congress' effort to incorporate digitally published works into its archives. With an official press release forthcoming, the Library posted a teaser on its blog:

Expect to see an emphasis on the scholarly and research implications of the acquisition. I'm no Ph.D., but it boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data. And I'm certain we'll learn things that none of us now can possibly conceive.

Just a few examples of important tweets in the past few years include the first-ever tweet from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (http://twitter.com/jack/status/20), President Obama's tweet about winning the 2008 election (http://twitter.com/barackobama/status/992176676), and a set of two tweets from a photojournalist who was arrested in Egypt and then freed because of a series of events set into motion by his use of Twitter (http://twitter.com/jamesbuck/status/786571964) and (http://twitter.com/jamesbuck/status/787167620). ...

So if you think the Library of Congress is "just books," think of this: The Library has been collecting materials from the web since it began harvesting congressional and presidential campaign websites in 2000. Today we hold more than 167 terabytes of web-based information, including legal blogs, websites of candidates for national office, and websites of Members of Congress.

Twitter cofounder Biz Stone explained the decisions as part of the service's ongoing commitment to openness. "The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact," he wrote on Twitter's official blog.

The announcement has elicited plenty of Internet chatter, particularly from tech and social media bloggers. Nancy Scola at TechPresident pondered the long-term feasibility of the project. "Is this going to be a continuously updated tweet archive? Will it be searchable by researchers? Will it track retweets and responses? Why not archive Facebook?" Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb inquired into some of the specifics. "Will the archive include friend/follower connection data? Will it be usable for commercial purposes? Will there be a web interface for searching it and will that change the face of Twitter search for good?"

But while the blogosphere buzzes with curiosity over the logistics, a larger question looms: is including Twitter in the Library of Congress a good idea, at all?

I, for one, find myself somewhere between confusion and revulsion. The Library of Congress, founded in 1800, was intended to be a repository for America's cultural history, a permanent record of our country's progress and a resource for historians and researchers. Initially, I found it somewhat irksome that 140-character spurts should have the same significance as written works. Of course, remanding the task of determining cultural and literary significance to a set group of individuals is equally problematic, but while Twilight may find a place on the Library's shelves, the more scattershot or vulgar contributions to the Twitterverse don't necessarily stack up.  Do short-form spats between Aimee Mann and Ice T really share the same cultural gravitas as How The Other Half Lives? And what insights will future historians gain into the nature of American society based on my joke tweets about my own neurosis?

Then again, including the entire history of Twitter -- no matter how banal, trivial, or purely disgusting the content may be -- seems to fall within the goals of the Library of Congress. In its efforts to capture the nation's cultural development, the Library receives copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, and piece of music registered in the U.S. through the United States Copyright Office. The movement to collect, archive, and disseminate online works is the logical continuation of this mission, especially as online publishing  -- via blogs or social networks -- becomes increasingly egalitarian.
 
The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a study in October 2009 stating that 19 percent of Americans on the Internet use Twitter to share content, up from 11 percent the previous April. Today, Twitter users send a total of 55 million tweets a day. TechCrunch's Jason Kincaid reports that Twitter boasts over 100 million registered users, with 300,000 new users joining daily. The rapid growth of the microblogging service and its social media competitors suggests that no end is in sight for the explosion of personalized online publishing.

If the goal of the Library of Congress is to create a cultural snapshot of a given moment in American history, capturing and archiving the totality of Twitter might be the most earnest way to do it. Most long-form written works tend to be highly structured, methodically executed, and stylistically packaged, and while their content certainly refines and articulates specific cultural perceptions, their contemplative origins create a disconnect between the experiences lived and expressed.
 
Twitter's perpetual narrative captures the mundane and extraordinary with equal measure. President Obama's first tweet may be a "historic" moment for technology and American government, but my brother's musings on the decline of Blockbuster provide an equally important insight into the minds of average Americans. What seems trivial to us -- from the feverish anticipation of the newest Justin Bieber album to a declaration of one's intent to purchase milk and eggs -- is part of the constantly metamorphosing character of American culture.
 
What lesson can the average Twitter user glean from this occasion? Twitter is forever; make your tweets count.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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