Will Digital Archive of Tweets Change HIstory?

James Harker
May 11, 2010
Image of the Twitter logo.

Last month the Library of Congress announced that it would archive all public "tweets" on the popular social networking site Twitter. This vast digital archive has the capacity to range from a collection of trivial messages to a whole new approach to history.

In the Washington Post, Monica Hesse recently observed, "The purview of historians has always been the tangible: letters, journals, official documents." Tweets, though, are "ephemeral."

Those official documents tend to portray those in power.  Hesse surmises, "For centuries, history has been biased toward the powerful: presidents, kings, starlets. In recent years, however, interest in the lives of non-celebrities has grown. It's a democratic impulse that, unfortunately, poses a collection problem: Ordinary individuals of the past did not generally document their lives. Preservation happened by neglect; a sheaf of papers thoughtlessly shoved in an attic might be unearthed decades later."

The Twitter archive, in contrast, has the potential to preserve the thoughts, expressions, and habits of "ordinary" people indefinitely.  Will understandings of the ordinary experience be richer, in the future looking back to the post-Twitter age, than anything we've thus far seen? Time will tell...