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Twitter archive at Library of Congress could help redefine history's scope
But once the rush ended and Brands's subjects went home, "they all dropped out of sight," he says. Absent the flash of gold, their lives seemed too humdrum to write about, so they didn't. Which brings Brands to his third point:
"The very hard part is writing about ordinary people during ordinary times."
This is why Twitter will become important.
"Twitter is a very informal mechanism," says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University president and Civil War historian. "People are likely to be unguarded; they're not going to process what they're saying. . . . There will be a kind of spontaneity and authenticity" to tweets that does not often exist in preserved records. "What they remind me of are diary entries."
In fact, the few existing diaries of ordinary people have become crucial historical records. Samuel Pepys was a British naval administrator who recorded everything from his battle with kidney stones to his new wigs. His 10-year diary has become one of the main resources about daily life in 17th-century England.
Similarly, the value of television tweets lies in the fact that they are so utterly mundane. In 300 years, readers may find Evangeline Lilly as foreign as we find Anne Marshall, the 17th-century actress who performed with the King's Company in London. Twitter provides a deeply personal insight into the daily lives of average individuals -- on a scale that is completely unprecedented.
"This is a fascinating coming together of two strains in the broadening of history," says Dan Cohen, the director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. "On one side, you have the democratization of history and the inclusion of ordinary people. On the other side, you have an online stream that allows for a very large mass of human expression."
Some tweets the library can already pinpoint as potentially historically significant. Consider Barack Obama's first tweet after winning the election: "We just made history. . . . All of this happened because of you. Thanks." (Wife Michelle posted her first tweet at the recent White House correspondents' dinner.) Or take the tweets from Iranian protesters who used the service to broadcast news of violence after traditional media were shut down.
But the more interesting possibility is that there are tweets whose value we do not yet see. "Somewhere in [the digital world], we don't know where," Cohen says, "there is a kindergarten photograph or a link to a personal blog of a future president." Somewhere, there are tweets that foreshadow enormous moments in history. We just haven't learned what they are yet.
The humor site Historical Tweets plays off this concept by relaying the fictional ramblings of important dead people. "Anyone got a more creative way of saying '87 years?' " HonestAbe asks his followers on Nov. 18, 1863. It's funny because we now know the impact of the Gettysburg Address.
Can we yet identify any real-life examples?
On Feb. 2, 2009, a Floridian named Mary Rakovich posted her very first tweet: "Making calls to take America back in the RIGHT direction."