Twitter and History

Twitter has become an… interesting place in the last few months. Interesting things happening on Twitter seems to be something that comes and goes, with it being used to support some movement or help some event happen, and then it kind of quietly goes back to being random-thought-sharing and link dumps. That’s more on the other end of the societal spectrum of Twitter, where we get the idea that our attention span has reached a point where we can only pay attention for 140 characters or so.

As a librarian, Twitter has always been a little interesting for me just for the whole invention of the hashtag – that little bit of user-generated metadata to allow for searching. Because Twitter otherwise was lacking in any sort of normal searching and indexing and archiving, making it difficult to really see what had happened on Twitter – it’s otherwise all about the present, it’s about what’s trending this second.

I actually participated in a trending hashtag…

As a historian, that trend-of-the-moment aspect to Twitter, that difficulty with archiving and searching it (a larger problem with social media in general), makes me really wonder how this current era of social media will be studied in the future. What primary sources will be used, when all this digital media is out there, or maybe is irretrievable, deleted, or still password and privacy protected?

Well, some will be easy to access. For instance, the President is currently using Twitter both to bypass the media and to drive the conversation in the media. As such, basically everything he tweets now – and at this point probably a great deal of his past tweets – have made their way into the news, have been saved in other fashions (other than just Twitter itself), and will live on. But history has never had a problem with getting access to the writings and information about the powerful in history. Indeed, most of the history of history is just that: studying the stuff that is easy to access, and which has the greatest impacts. The kings, rulers, emperors, presidents, generals, what have you.

Of course, one of the other things Twitter has allowed for is easier or more direct access to celebrities and public figures – with us all able to see what they’re thinking and saying, what they do with their lives, and allowing us to talk to them directly. However, that’s still a group that gets plenty of historical coverage – biographies, autobiographies, portraits, in the news…

What about your average person? Things like local newspapers (dying off) and journals or diaries are great sources for the inner thoughts of people from the past. However, it’s probably safe to say that the personal journals and diaries of today are our social media feeds. We take our random thoughts (or meal pix) and we tweet them, we Facebook them, we Instagram them. What is a historian to do?

Relevant historical fact.

Even if all of our data is being saved by the companies that own these social media sites in a searchable and useful way… would that data carry on if the company folds, or is bought, or something like that? Will a historian 100 years from now be able to find any tweets? Well, yes, I suppose so – in the news, at least. The big ones.

So while on the one hand, social media can leave us feeling like it’s a brave new world, where the rules have all changed and the status quo has been upset… on the other hand, it’s kind of just business as usual.

Ironically found while working on this post.

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