Saturday, May 8, 2010

Drips, Thousands of Them

Last month the Library of Congress took the bold and inevitable/ inenviable move of deciding to preserve all of Twitter's feeds since its inception in 2006. This was cause for concern in many cultural circles - the corpus of "tweets" are famously inconsequential, brief (140 characters means they have to be as concise as haiku and they don't even rhyme) and so very much of the moment.

They exist outside any context beyond the immediate, without footnotes or backstory, disconnected to meaningful singular or tracable threads.

Or not. It seems like so much digital noise, either seldom serious or way too personal. I imagine the anxiety in some quarters has to do not with the content as much as the size of this archive. How is this possibly going to illuminate any future historical research?

The problem isn't necessarily in the weight of the corpus - millions of small and disjointed tweets about who and god knows what. They refer to timely and ephemeral cultural events that fade as quickly as they rise in the search-fed trending charts. A cursory look at Twittter's own page of trending topics ("Right Now" vs. "Today" vs. "This Week") reveals the distorted view from the rear view mirror of historical perspective. Objects are closer than they appear.

A bigger question is how are we'll know who wrote these tweets or why. These terse, clever, obscure koans are anonymous to the larger population - the usernames are often pseudonyms, synonyms, acronyms, homonyms. Is that being archived as well, Twitter's proprietary user backend with ISP#s and geo-locations embedded? What if users disabled that feature? Is there a privacy issue at stake? Who is represented geographically and who is anonymous?

And who's tweets will have greater historical weight in the future? Which ones will be more heavily researched simply because they have more surrounding context? Spelled things correctly? Levels of "impact," re-tweet factor, rate of followers, whatever?

Many news stories broke on Twitter in "real time" including the widespread dissemination of Michael Jackson's ride to the hospital in the sky - there are legit reasons to track what's discussed in this skewed and auto-democratic forum. The Iranian election protests in June 2009 on the streets caused 200,000 users to change their avatar green (and some are still are). What does this say about Iran... or about the average Twitter user - that they're politically committed or that they forgot?

It's a new level of discourse, outside journalism and academia. The importance of this LOC archive if it lasts - if it's actually maintained - won't be in what people say in those 140-character text-bubbles but how.

Language when repressed or limited expands in strange and revealing ways. People express themselves differently if they think they're anonymous and if they got no time to finesse. When Twitter goes away, and it will, this collection of immediate inconsequential snapshots, these text notes under the bed, will reveal a time and a place in which, facilitated by mobile devices and the attention spans that all the new toys of our age engender, will show us as a community digitally connected in ways never thought possible, still trying to say something meaningful to the people around us.

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