Tweet Eternal: Pros and Cons of the Library of Congress Twitter Archive

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters : Techland Illustration

Tweeters of the world, feel proud: You are creating history, 140 characters at a time… even if you didn’t know you were doing it, or even intended to. Thanks to a deal between Twitter and the United States Library of Congress, every public tweet sent on the social messaging service since its creation will become part of the Library of Congress’ digital archive, available to researchers and historians as an example of contemporary life and culture.

The partnership was actually initially announced in April 2010, by—what else?—tweet, with the Library of Congress announcing that it had acquired “ENTIRE Twitter archive. ALL tweets.” That turned out to be a slight simplification—private direct messages and locked accounts weren’t included in the transfer, much to the relief of many.

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But following the initial announcement, little more was said about the deal until this week when the Library’s digital initiatives program manager Bill Lefurgy talked to Federal News Radio about the arrangement, calling the Twitter archive “a unique record of our time,” adding, “It’s also a unique way of communication. It’s not so much that people are going to be interested in what you or I had for lunch, which some people like to say on Twitter.”

Lefurgy described the arrangement between Twitter and the Library by saying that “We have an agreement with Twitter where they have a bunch of servers with their historic archive of tweets, everything that was sent out and declared to be public… They’ve had to do some pretty nifty experimentation and invention to develop the tools and a process to be able to move all of that data over to us.” It might seem like a surprise that Twitter had to experiment, invent and develop tools to access the previous tweets, but according to Suw Charman-Anderson, that might be because the company is actually “anti-search.”

Charman-Anderson’s accusation centers around the limits that Twitter has placed on making old tweets available to the average user. Not only do user timelines cut off after a week prior to the current date, but the site’s advanced search function has been moved three-clicks away from the site’s front page, a decision she considers to be an example of the service’s poor searchability:

Although Twitter keeps copies of all messages sent over its system, it doesn’t let you see them without a URL. If you have a direct link to an old Tweet, it’s still there, but you won’t find it using Twitter’s search via their website or API… Even when you specify the domain in a Google search, you won’t get a nice, neat list of Tweets in chronological order, you’ll get a random selection of Tweets that match your criteria from a variety of sources scattered over the web.

This stands in strange contrast to Lefurgy’s comments about the value of the Library of Congress’ Twitter archive to researchers looking to data-mine public sentiment on specific subjects or at specific times. In order to use Twitter as a research resource in the future, will we have to use the Library of Congress? Is Twitter basically outsourcing its public archives with this agreement?

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Something that also seems curious about this partnership between Twitter and the Library of Congress: What about the people who don’t want their tweets to be part of this archive? They could, of course, make their accounts private, but I feel as if there should be some kind of middle ground made available for those who like the openness of Twitter but don’t necessarily feel comfortable with their feelings about the Muppet movie or Rihanna’s latest single becoming part of a permanent, governmental record that’s available for years, decades and maybe even centuries to come. Is it too much to ask for the ability to opt out of the archive in some way?

I’m not asking for myself, you understand. Personally, I’m in favor of this whole idea. Just as year-end charts of the most popular Twitter hashtags from the last 12 months can shame us into remembering what we really cared about that year (I think we should all feel a little embarrassed over the dominance Charlie Sheen has apparently enjoyed over our thoughts in 2011), this kind of record demonstrates a much more honest idea of what history was actually like for generations to come, much in the same way that pop culture ephemera like magazines, comic books and pop songs have done so in the past. I love the idea that the mass collective that is Twitter will contribute to people’s understanding of history years from now. I just hope that this effort doesn’t replace Twitter’s own efforts at making their archives available, or become compulsory for those who’d rather history overlooked them.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.