Thursday, April 15, 2010

Immortal tweets and history -- April 15, 2010 column


My friends who have resisted Twitter, hoping it’s just a gnat in the face of communication, got bad news this week.

The decision by the Library of Congress to archive the entire digital collection of public tweets since 2006 means that Twitter no longer is as ephemeral as smoke rings. It’s the substance of scholarship.

The library is guaranteeing that American history will reflect life in the Twitterhood. Historians many generations from now will draw conclusions about our times by examining our tweets. Twitter is no passing fad we can safely ignore. We are writing history 140 characters at a time.

The very thought makes Twitter skeptics and non-tweeters break out in hives. What can they do? Their best hope is to join the conversation. Hop into the Twitterverse early and often and throw out their own snippets as a counterweight to such real tweets as:
“OMG :) i love you justin bieber :) when are u coming at minnesota ? please reply back :)”

Justin Bieber, in case you’ve not been in the presence of a 12-year-old lately, is a teenage singer who rules hearts and tweets.

It’s startling to think that the Library of Congress’ stamp of approval on Twitter, Justin Bieber and all, may be as significant in the 21st century as preserving the library of Thomas Jefferson was in the 19th . Jefferson gave his leather-bound volumes to rebuild the collection after British troops set fire to the Capitol.

Here’s Librarian of Congress James H. Billington: “The Twitter digital archive has extraordinary potential for research into our contemporary way of life." Tweets, he said, provide “detailed evidence about how technology-based social networks form and evolve over time. The collection also documents a remarkable range of social trends.”

Fred R. Shapiro, associate librarian and lecturer at the Yale Law School, told the New York Times, “This is an entirely new addition to the historical record, the second-by-second history of ordinary people.”

Whether tweets should be embraced as representative of ordinary people is an open question. One can argue, however, that 55 million tweets a day – Twitter says that many are sent worldwide – is a reasonable cross-section of opinion. The library expects future historians to study such momentous tweets as Barack Obama’s about winning the 2008 election and those by eyewitnesses in war zones and natural disasters.

But most tweets describe daily life: “Oatmeal for brkfst!”

It’s easy to dismiss these inane tidbits by self-selected chroniclers, but who can say whether a Samuel Pepys for our age inhabits the Twitterverse. Some people enjoy reading reports by the 17th century English diarist at Pepys (pronounced peeps) spares few quotidian details. He could never be confined to 140 characters. A brief excerpt from his diary on Sunday, April 14, 1667:

“(Lord’s day). Up, and to read a little in my new History of Turkey, and so with my wife to church, and then home…A good dinner of roast beef. After dinner I away to take water at the Tower, and thence to Westminster, where Mrs. Martin was not at home. So to White Hall, and there walked up and down, and among other things visited Sir G. Carteret, and much talk with him, who is discontented, as he hath reason, to see how things are like to come all to naught…”

Pepys had more to tell that day, but you get the idea. All he needed were a pen and paper and time.

To write history on Twitter, our scribes need a way to access the Internet. And, as the Library of Congress honors tweets with immortality, consider that roughly one-third of us never goes online, let alone to

About 32 percent of the people in this country don’t use the Internet at home or anywhere else, according to “Digital Nation,” a report issued in February by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration.

The two factors people cited most often for not using the Internet were cost and that they either had no computer or their computer was inadequate.

Congress and the Obama administration are struggling with how to extend universal broadband coverage. It can’t come soon enough.

Without the Internet, people miss out on educational and business opportunities, civic discussions, health and financial information, government services – and on writing for the ages on Twitter.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Marsha Mercer does a great job here. As one who has never twittered, I found this account very educational and interesting. I wonder what will happen at the Library of Congress when they have accumulated years and years of twitters - will historians really be able to make sense of this vast number of unconnected words? I suppose I will have to learn to twitter if I am going to keep up with the modern world. Oh my.....