What Do People Do with Their Twitter Archives? So Far Not Much

Twitter is working on a way to give tweeters access to their entire archive, leading us to wonder why anyone would want that in the first place.

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Twitter is working on a way to give tweeters access to their entire archive, leading us to wonder why anyone would want that in the first place. The company hasn't given much detail on what this future tool will look like. But it will involve what sounds like a slightly arduous exporting process. "We’re working on a tool to let users export all of their tweets," CEO Dick Costolo told The New York Times's Jenna Wortham. "You’ll be able to download a file of them." Right now, Twitter has an API that lets you download any user's tweets. But the company limits access to the most recent 3,200 tweets while all the old ones stay on their servers. That's enough to capture, say, my personal account, but not The Atlantic Wire's. There are already some outside tools that will store your Twitter activity in a database, like BackUpMyTweets or ThinkUp, but the process can be cumbersome and you have to start downloading before you hit that 3,200 tweet limit if you want a complete record of your account. And why would you want that? Some argue the point on principle. That's what Buzzfeed's Matt Buchanan means when he calls this idea "reclaiming our tweets." You crafted all of those nuggets of info and wit, you ought to be able to keep them somewhere. It's a persuasive argument, on simple fairness terms. But is there any utility beyond that? Not really.

Since the notion of downloading your tweets is not new (though downloading all 3,200+ will be), there have already been people who have tried making projects out of their own Twitter archives. We took a look around and saw what people have come up with.

  • Some people want a "virtual diary." Unlike Facebook, which has forced us to recreate our past, the current Twitter model erases our childhoods. PCWorld imagines what it would be like to take a stroll down our Twitter memory lane. Computerworld made it sound less narcissistic and more cathartic. "So the idea of a person being able to see perhaps tens of thousands of his thoughts over time, all in one place, is pretty compelling. For some people it would work out to be like a virtual diary and news chronicle all in one," writes Christina DesMarais.
  • Others could use it as fodder for a possible twitter based memoir. Steve Martin did it, with his book The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.: The Tweets of Steve Martin. Someone with a big, witty Twitter archive might want to do the same. 
  • Or, one might make a digital scrapbook. Since we live our lives on these platforms, some people use their digital moments to create digital scrapbooks on places like Memolane. Here people "rediscover your greatest memories with your friends," as the site banner reads. That sounds appealing for nostalgia reasons, the same way a virtual diary does. Sometimes we find ourselves flipping through old Facebook wall posts or messages to remind ourselves of Internet times passed.

The most valuable of those propositions is the book deal. And how many of us, who aren't already famous comedians, can bank on our earliest tweets being of interest to anyone? Other than that, there isn't much happening with old tweets -- at least not yet. Perhaps it has something to do with the value of the service as a picture the current conversation. Having our own tweets in isolation don't do much to recreate that.

But you know what would be really useful? An solid Twitter search engine that let you search everyone's tweets going all the way back to the beginning of the service. Journalists, for example, might find it a useful biographical tool for a subject. Employers might want to look back for clues to job performance. A historian might find ethnography tweets of yore. Big data companies could mine it for information. Twitter already sells some old tweets to marketing companies, but for now, Twitter says it will keep others' tweets that far back private because of technological difficulties. "It’s two different search problems," added Costolo. "It’s a different way of architecting search, going through all tweets of all time. You can’t just put three engineers on it," he said.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.