Twitter gives us a new version of 'the first rough draft of history.' But tweets are fragile things.
In April, OR Books published Tweets from Tahrir, a book of tweets sent from Ground Zero of the democratic revolution that played out in Egypt last year. The book, its promotions declare, "brings together a selection of key tweets in a compelling, fast-paced narrative, allowing the story of the uprising to be told directly by the people in Cairo's Tahrir Square. History has never before been written in this fashion."
But tweets are fragile things. A year after the Tahrir's tweets were posted, much of the information they first shared has gone missing. According to a study conducted by Hany SalahEldeen Khalil, a phD student in computer science and Web preservation at Old Dominion University, a third of the images initially included in Tweets from Tahrir -- 7 out of 23 -- seem to have disappeared entirely from the Web. A small slice of the historical record, gone -- archived not digitally, but in the pages of a book.
Those tweets, though, were lucky. Most social media content doesn't have the luxury of paper-bound back-up. Services like Storify have risen up not only to curate social media, but also to archive its content; those services, however, rely on third-party partner relationships -- they refer to media assets, rather than storing them -- and so work as archives only in the broadest sense.
On Storify, in SalahEldeen's sample, 222 of the set's tweets pointed to external resources like images, videos, and links. Today, only 198 of those tweets retain those external assets -- a loss of nearly 11 percent.
(To remove the possibility of transient errors skewing the results, SalahEldeen and his colleagues repeated their experiment 3 times over a period of three weeks before finally declaring a resource to be missing.)
On IAmJan25, which sprang up to curate social media records of the revolution, 559 of an initial 5,315 resources -- 10.52 percent -- are currently missing.
Overall, SalahEldeen found, a whopping 10 percent of the social media documentation of the Egyptian revolution -- for the study's purposes, the stretch between January 20 and March 1, 2011 -- has disappeared.
There are several different reasons why that could be the case, SalahEldeen told me, some intentional and some not. A user, for example, could have posted a video, photo, or comment and later regretted it, out of fear of government reprisal or a simple change in mood. For the same reasons, a user might delete his or her entire account on a service like YouTube. And then there's also, of course, the government's interest in repressing information and its ability to act on that desire. "In the case of the Egyptian revolution," SalahEldeen says, "there are other reasons among which the past regime brought down some of this content that might incriminate them. Or the bloggers/photographers get arrested and their accounts and contents got confiscated. Or, as a final resort, the content got old and got over-written."
These factors, SalahEldeen notes, are issues he'll tackle in a follow-up study. Meanwhile, he says, the current results point to a need for the Web community overall to be much more proactive and systematic about archiving the information that springs up from the front lines of history. "If the decay continued at the same rate and if we didn't do anything to preserve this digital heritage of the revolution," he points out, "in less than 10 years there will be no story to tell for the future generations and we will lose these magnificent collections that can show what thousands of books couldn't convey."
And that holds for "not only the Egyptian revolution or other revolutions in the Arab spring, but all incidents in general." In the case of Hurricane Irene, SalahEldeen says, "you can read an article about it, but where are all the tweets, Facebook posts, images, videos that thousands of users collected? ....It's hard to say. Wouldn't it be better to view this public-submitted content to give a more realistic view?" Social media is more than social; it's narrative. "This is history in the making, and history should never forget."
Image: Reuters/Suhaib Salem.