A torrent of tweets

January 9, 2013

The rise of email and social media has allowed us to stay in close contact with family and friends who live near and far on a daily basis. But, ironically, all those tweets and Facebook posts must surely make historians break out in a cold sweat.

On the one hand, we’ve shoved a lode of personal information into cyberspace, but very little of it has the same literary quality that letter writers applied to their endeavors over the centuries. There are more than 250 letters from George Washington that are known to exist, and whole books and exhibits have been constructed around the letters of titanic cultural figures like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Leonard Bernstein. Will anyone be perusing “The Tweets of Taylor Swift”?

And electronic communications is, in some respects, more fragile than ink and paper. All it takes is one fried hard drive, one server crashing and burning or one overactive finger on the delete key for hundreds of email messages to evaporate.

But historians as yet unborn will have one heck of an opportunity to study how we lived in the 2010s thanks to the dogged preservation work of the Library of Congress. It was announced last week that the archive of Twitter messages it has been building since 2010 already has accumulated 170 billion tweets. A spokesman said they pour in at a rate of almost half a billion per day.

Just think: That tweet you sent about lunch could one day be fodder for somebody’s master’s thesis.



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