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Twitter archive at Library of Congress could help redefine history's scope

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A01

When the Library of Congress announced this month that it had recently acquired Twitter's entire archive of public tweets, the snarkosphere quickly broke out the popular refrain "Nobody cares that you just watched 'Lost.' " Television tweets are always the shorthand by which naysayers express how idiotic they find Twitter, the microblogging site on which millions of users share their thoughts and activities in 140 characters or fewer.

"If tweets are in, how about craigslist.org postings?" one poster wrote on the library's blog in response to the announcement. Because "all of that information is just as culturally vacant."

The purview of historians has always been the tangible: letters, journals, official documents.

The purview of Twitter, on the other hand, is the ephemeral: random spewings that some argue represent the degeneration of society. Would a Founding Father ever have tweeted his crush on Evangeline Lilly?

But on the other hand, says Michael Beschloss, historian and author of "Presidential Courage," "What historian today wouldn't give his right arm to have the adult Madison's contemporaneous Twitters about the secret debates inside the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?"

The 21st-century equivalent might already be happening: When Kitty Kelley was researching her new Oprah Winfrey bio, Kelley's assistant spotted a tweet from Winfrey about attending a gala and hugging Whoopi Goldberg. The throwaway shout-out was significant to Kelley, who knew that there had been tension between the women and viewed the tweet as a subtle olive branch. "If you believe that God is in the details -- and all biographers do," Kelley says, "then Twitter will be a godsend!"

Although the library's acquisition might seem to be a capitulation to frivolity and short attention spans, historians say, it's actually about how digital archives such as this are shaping the future of history.

"We are in a period of great transition," Martha Anderson says. "We're trying to figure out the best way to leave evidence for future generations of scholarship."

Anderson works for the library's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. She is the person charged with figuring out what to do with the billions of tweets in Twitter's archives. Some 50 million new tweets are posted every day; all of the public ones will become available to the library after a six-month delay from their posting, to better delineate between current events and history.

'Broadening of history'

For centuries, history has been biased toward the powerful: presidents, kings, starlets. In recent years, however, interest in the lives of non-celebrities has grown. It's a democratic impulse that, unfortunately, poses a collection problem: Ordinary individuals of the past did not generally document their lives. Preservation happened by neglect; a sheaf of papers thoughtlessly shoved in an attic might be unearthed decades later.

"It's entirely possible to write about extraordinary people during ordinary times, because someone always keeps your letters when you're famous," says historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands. "And you can also write about ordinary people during extraordinary times," which is when average folks keep records. Think, for example, of Anne Frank's diary.

When Brands was working on "The Age of Gold," his book about the California Gold Rush, many of his subjects were not famous, but he was able to chart their lives through journals and letters that prospectors sent to family members back east.

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."

Already historic

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."

Rakovich organized what the Palm Beach Post cited as the first of the types of protests that later became known as the "tea party" movement. It took place Feb. 10.

Of course, for Twitter to be a useful resource for future generations of researchers, today's librarians must make sure that those researchers can access it. Experts have been thinking about the best way to organize digital archives for years now -- San Francisco's Internet Archive has been around since 1996; George Mason's Center for History and New Media was founded in the early 1990s.

Twitter, however, provides additional technological challenges. Whereas early Web pages were static, which made it easy for the Internet Archive to capture screen shots, today's Twitter and Facebook pages are breathing, streaming spaces. Each person's Twitter home page is unique.

Sorting the tweets

"Human language is so much more complicated than a key-word search," says the Library of Congress's Anderson. The library plans to put together teams of librarians, linguists, historians and computer scientists who will wrangle the tweets into a cogent catalogue, a project that will begin this summer.

One scholar Anderson has been talking with is Cohen; another is Ian Soboroff, a computer scientist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who studies how well technology works with human language. Soboroff hopes that in the future, Twitter can be used to help researchers understand how information was dispersed and what human networks in the early 21st century looked like. But the existing information is vast. "All we know is that [the library] will have this data, and it's a butt-load," Soboroff says, laughing. "Is it a metric butt-load or an empiric butt-load? We don't know."

For research purposes, "I was taught in grad school that you read it all," Cohen says -- read everything available on the subject you are writing about. "But if you tried that with, say, [the e-mail documents of] the Clinton administration, you have 40 million e-mails. It's no longer possible to read it all."

Once a searchable Twitter archive is developed, it would give historians the ability to zero in on useful information, to understand such things as transportation problems caused by Icelandic volcanoes in 2010, the cultural impact of celebrity deaths and how Americans' increasing waistlines might all be traced back to the fact that we were so busy watching Sawyer's washboard abs that we forgot to work on our own.

Beschloss, for his part, offers a warning to researchers of the future who would put too much stock in a service that is disproportionately embraced by the well-educated and the tech-savvy. "A good future historian would have to say, 'This can tell you a lot about a certain group of Americans,' " Beschloss says. "But there are still huge groups of people who have never heard of Twitter."

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