Social media updates might seem like very ephemeral things with no long term value or significance, but at least one major cultural institution disagrees: the United States’ Library of Congress has announced that it has acquired the entire Twitter archive, and will be saving digital versions of every public tweet, going back to Twitter’s founding in March 2006. However, as one might expect, the Library of Congress’s interest in the Twitter archive doesn’t stem from untold billions of tweets consisting of little more than “WTF” and “LOL”—instead, the Library of Congress is looking at Twitter feeds as a potential gold mine of information to future researchers and scholars, who will not only be able to use the service to pinpoint specific historic events and statements (say, Barak Obama’s tweet on winning the 2008 U.S. presidential election) but also how news spreads, how Twitter posting can have an impact on real-life events and policy.
The Library of Congress also operates the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, which makes an effort to collect and archive digital media dn information that might be of particular research or scholarly interest to future generations.
The LOC’s move to archive public Twitter postings is the institution’s first major move into social media, and while it’s tempting to interpret the action as an endorsement of Twitter, it’s important to remember the LOC takes a very long view on archiving information and cultural materials. The LOC’s move doesn’t so much mean that Twitter is significant in and of itself, but that online social media is now enough of a cultural force that the LOC feels it would be remiss not to be archiving it. That probably means the arrangement with Twitter will only be the first of several similar archiving arrangement as the sector evolves.
The idea of preserving online social media postings is also appealing to academics and researchers as a way of “democratizing” information that’s being preserved for future generations. Historically, materially saved in archives tends to be vetted by academics and cultural elites and is often not very representative of a population as a whole. Of course, messages posted to a social messaging service aren’t representative of any particular population either, but they may provide researchers with a unique minute-by-minute glimpse of history unfolding.