THE U.S. Library of Congress will take your Tweets now. The social networking site Twitter has allowed the largest library in the world to archive all “Tweets”—online status updates not exceeding 140 characters—that were published on its site ever since 2006. More than 50 million Tweets are published everyday, so the total number of posts for the four years the site has been online must be staggering.

Preserving online news materials isn’t something alien to the Library. It started collecting political campaign websites since year 2000, and it now has more than 100 terabytes of data. The news about this particular acquisition was first released, understandably, on the Twitter page of the Library of Congress. This was followed by a news feed on Facebook, another social networking site, and it eventually made its way to other news websites. The online community is mostly undecided on this one—some people find it stupid that a library would even consider filling its archives with mostly mundane posts on what people are doing at the moment. Others think that this is probably one of the purer ways of preserving history. A Library press release cites the first-ever tweet from site co-founder Jack Dorsey, Barack Obama’s Tweet on his winning the 2008 elections, and even a series of tweets from a photojournalist who was wrongly imprisoned in Egypt.

In this country, Twitter was instrumental in relief operations for Ondoy and Pepeng, and it also served as a sounding board on news and opinions about the twin typhoons for weeks to come. Also, the project’s defenders are quick to point out in history, first-hand accounts are favored over second- or third-hand ones.

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Grouped status updates on pertinent issues—those that fall under a specific “hashtag” (#)—are some of those that will be worth collecting and reviewing. In March 2009, for instance, a group of educators and like-minded people gathered in Manhattan for a private conference. Dubbed Hacking Education, it was basically about the fate of education in America, and had only about 40 people present. However, a virtual conference room was set up in Twitter, one which the whole world was privy to. The participants in Hacking Education were posting status updates about the conference, as well as their reactions to the issues discussed. Thus, a live commentary on the proceedings of the event started, one which branched out dramatically. As TIME Magazine writer Steven Johnson, who was one of the participants in the conference said, “Injecting Twitter into that conversation fundamentally changed the rules of engagement.” The participants Tweeted what they heard, and people responded to their Tweets. Others pulled information from the update stream and talked about it in the conference. Still others linked their Tweets to external links that they think would be useful. What is probably the most interesting thing that happened to the commentary is that people who weren’t in the conference physically were given a chance to participate in it. Searching for #hackedu in Twitter, will produce dozens more comments after the last one made during the conference.

This multi-faceted, multi-layered way of responding is a unique product of today’s very fast technologies. Because of Twitter, and other microblogging websites like it, people can follow more than two streams of thought at once. The conversations are enriched and there are more avenues opened because of each status update. However, this can also be used to a disadvantage. Imagine seeing a couple together in a coffee shop, not talking to each other, but Tweeting their replies. It’s just like how some people do not talk to each other, but just texting their conversation—even if they’re inside the same room. It’s ironic how sometimes, technology made for communication actually hinders people from doing just that. And when people do communicate, is it genuine discourse or just small talk?

E-leaps and bounds

Preserving data for posterity is always a good thing. However, saving the entire archive of a website seems a bit like overkill. For every profound or socially important status update, there must be lots more that are just chitchat. The challenge, then, is to find out which updates are worth saving and which ones are not. If the Library can figure out a way to store terabytes of data, they should be able to find a way to select their Tweets.


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