Waxing Philosophical on Library of Congress's Twitter Archive

It's scary, it's historical, it's meta

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The Library of Congress announced Wednesday it will archive all public content on Twitter. In an unrelated development, Google is also introducing a feature making tweets much easier to search and sift through. Both announcements have triggered a firestorm of observations about privacy, history, and the digital age. Even the Library of Congress blogger Matt Raymond, commenting on the announcement, says: "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." He's not the only one whose mind is boggled:

  • 'God, the Future Is Going to Think We Are Such Imbeciles,' remarks New York Magazine's Chris Rovzar, prompting hilarity in the comments section.
  • Dude ... Meta!  The "move [is] clearly intended to out-postmodern MoMA's acquisition of the @ symbol," writes Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner. Speaking of postmodern, she points out that there's already discussion about the move "on Twitter right now, the entirety of which will be preserved for posterity, forever. Go, join the chat, sacrifice 140 characters of your choice to the gods of History."
  • Who Said They Could Do This?  The Big Money's Heidi Moore isn't happy, saying there's a problem of not so much "privacy" but "ownership." Her question: "Who says my tweets belong to Google or the Library of Congress?" As far as she's concerned
Twitter had a duty to let its users know—clearly, not in vague terms—that their ephemeral tweets would become permanent and searchable. That's basic corporate misrepresentation.
  • Actually, No Different Than What the Internet Already Does, counters Moore's Big Money colleague Chadwick Matlin, explaining why Google is essentially a searchable archive of blogs.
Heidi, when you write a book--and, come to think of it, you should write a book!—does it end up in the Library of Congress? Yes. Is it still your work when it goes in there? Yes. We're not talking about Google (... LoC "owning" your intellectual property. We're talking about archiving it. The only reason you can tweet is because Twitter provides you the platform to do so ... They are still your property, yes, but they are a part of Twitter's domain. And Twitter has rights to sell its domain wherever it like. If you don't like it, stop tweeting.
  • Actually, It Is: What About Deleted Tweets?  Doctoral student Fred Stutzman, who studies social media, looks at Twitter's terms of service and thinks those dismissing privacy concerns might want to revisit the problem. Specifically, there's the matter of what to do with tweets users currently revisit and, upon consideration, decide to delete. Is this decision now taken out of their hands?
The way I read this is that as long as your content is on Twitter, Twitter can do what they want with it.  Fine.  But what if you remove your content from Twitter?  Wouldn’t Twitter's licensing of your content to the LoC also expire? Twitter needs to address exactly how we can pull our content out of the archive when we want. 
  • Procrastination 2.0  "Imagine the possibilities," says Glenn Davis of Geekosystem, "of every tweet being searchable, with no 'Older tweets are temporarily unavailable' catch. If people think Twitter itself is a productivity killer…"
  • Dating the Decline of Civilization  "Now," declares The Weekly Standard's Mary Katharine Ham, "historians will be able to pinpoint the exact second when Western society succumbed to a sustained assault of abbreviated Kate Gosselin, Twilight, and Justin Bieber commentary."
  • Changing Times  Wired's Ryan Singel adds extra insight to a common observation: "In four years, the service turned simple, 140-character status updates on what people are doing into a global publishing phenomenon that tracks and creates the Zeitgeist ... So be careful out there with your Tweets and Buzzes and status updates. Your great-great-great grandchildren will have to do 'book' reports on them someday."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.