"I'm no PhD."
So begins today's Library of Congress blog post by Director of Communications Matt Raymond, which breaks the news that the LOC has acquired every public tweet published since Twitter launched in 2006: billions of lines of text each numbering 140 characters or less. On hearing this announcement over NPR airwaves this evening, I experienced both curiosity and concern about the Library's plans to preserve this vast digital archive. My concern is less about privacy, however, and more about how the LOC and Twitter are framing the archive's implications for nothing short of democracy, history and intellectual inquiry of all kinds.
Consider Raymond's claims for the archive's scholarly value: "I'm no PhD, but it boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data. And I'm certain we'll learn things that none of us now can even possibly conceive." My quarrel with Raymond––and by extension the LOC––is that they present Twitter (and social networks more broadly) not as a serious object of study that demands the expertise of scholars (specifically scholars of media theory and emerging media) but as a "wealth of data" about, well, everything and anything but the media itself.
At the same time, I find myself taking issue with Twitter's framing of the digital preservation project as a testament to primarily the media's power. Expressing the company's excitement that "tweets are becoming part of history," Twitter suggests that tweets enter history––and thus create an "open" and "global" exchange of ideas––simply by entering a digital archive. Yet the archive in question, we should note, is national rather than global. And, more pointedly, tweets are both already in the historical record––thanks in part to the newly-launched Google Replay site––and, as a single body of text, utterly illegible. In other words, tweets about Justice Stevens's retirement (the chosen example of the LOC archive's potential importance to scholars) have very little to do with tweets about either the Copenhagen Climate Talks or Radiohead's "sliding-fee-scale" online release of In Rainbows.
My point here is simply that the significance of this archive––which prompted my own flutter of intellectual interest––is undercut by both the LOC's neglect of the tweet's particularities as a media and Twitter's implicit suggestion that the content of any particular tweet matters little to the historical and political significance of preserving all the tweets for all time.*
With these initial reflections then, I close by asking how, as critics and scholars, we might think about (or perhaps rethink and reframe) this archive of the super-ephemeral?
*I should note, following Twitter's lead, that "only after a six-month delay can the Tweets be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation."