How Historians Will Use the Twitter Archives

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Last week the Library of Congress announced that it would archive all public tweets (Twitter messages). This led to some speculation about why in the world anyone would want to archive the ramblings of people on Twitter -- in other words, who cares that I got a new gizmo, or that I liked last night's episode of Lost? Well, today I bring you #Posterity, a great Slate article addressing this question -- author Christopher Beam talks to historians and details what makes this archive useful. Here's a snippet:

The question is, does the preservation of digital content, from tweets to Facebook updates to blog comments, make the job of historians easier or harder?

The answer is: both. On the one hand, there's more useful information for historians to sift. On the other, there's more useless information. And without the benefit of hindsight, it's impossible to tell which is which. It's like what John Wanamaker supposedly said about advertising: He knew half of it was wasted, he just didn't know which half.

The trick will be organization. Hashtags—the # symbols people use to create discussion threads, such as #ashtag for the Iceland volcano cloud and #snowpocalypse for the February snowstorm that swept Washington, D.C.—are a start. ...

... Whether historians can make sense of this data depends on the tools they have to sort through it. "This is what historians have always done: they create order out of chaos," says Martha Anderson, the director of the LOC's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. "It's kind of like saying, 'Are newspapers useful for historians?'" says Elaine Tyler May, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin and president of the Organization of American Historians. "We know that they are, but you have to know what you're looking for."

Read the rest for an insightful look at why your tweets actually have historical relevance. You can also follow me on Twitter if you want to know what I had for breakfast.

(Via historian Greg Shine's Twitter feed.) Photo of the LOC Reading Room by Wikipedia user Raul654.

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April 21, 2010 - 9:39am
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