Archiving the Cloud: Twitter Meets the Library of Congress

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I'm thrilled that the Library of Congress (basically, the literary arm of the United States government) will be archiving all of Twitter. And I'm surprised that several smart people out there are mocking or complaining about this announcement. Most of the conversation is on Twitter, of course.

I don't get it. The historical value of the Twitter archive is self-evident, and it's not expensive to store (disk space is cheap, it takes up little space, and curation should be a breeze). So, since this is easy and inexpensive to do, why shouldn't the Library of Congress do it? Does anybody really believe that future generations won't want the option to access this archive for whatever research or personal interests they might have?

In fact, I don't understand how anybody can suggest in good conscience that the Twitter archive should not be saved. If the Library of Congress were not recording the most widely read sections of the Internet, I'd want to know what the hell they were spending money on.

Give me the choice of saving for posterity either the entire Twitter archive or, say, the combined works of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates. Well ... sorry to William and David and Joyce, but it's an easy choice for me. I'll keep the cloud. (And it'll probably take up less disk space. I'll be here all week!)

I hope the Library of Congress is also doing a good job of archiving web sites (I've often sensed that Archive.org's much touted Wayback Machine only stores a superficial sampling). I was pleased in 2002 to receive a letter from the Library of Congress stating that they had stored several LitKicks message boards from the weeks following September 11, 2001 for their archive of the Internet response to that disaster. I was very proud to be part of this archive (though I don't know what's happened to it since).

On a psychological level, I suspect the reason behind much of the vocal objection to the Library of Congress's good idea is that Twitter is open to all of us, and it embarrasses certain people to even consider or imagine that anything they might participate in has value. To @ericrosenfield above, I say that yes, we don't need to keep that particular delightful tweet of yours. But the technological reality is that it's easier to keep your tweet in than to filter it out.

So, yeah, Eric, future generations will find out that you took a shit. That's the cost of literature. Because the Internet's hairy, crazy, infinitely dynamic body of content really is a form of literature -- it's a text, our text. I wish people would stop feeling embarrassed about this fact, and would let the Library of Congress do its job.

8 Responses to "Archiving the Cloud: Twitter Meets the Library of Congress"

Despite the snarky tone in the Twitter post of mine screenshotted above, just wanted to say I think it's fanTAStic that the Library of Congress is doing this. I actually totally agree with Levi. I was just making a coy aside about the fact that the LoC is filled with mountains of stuff no one will ever read. And the truth is that no one WILL ever read all those Tweets. But that doesn't mean I think they shouldn't be there! An archive of published works is an archive of published works.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for clarifying that, Scot. Now that I think about it, I should have realized you meant it that way. You were the first person to tell me to get a twitter account!

by cveds on

Right after 9/11, a local professor of political science (Steve Schneider) decided that archiving web pages from all over the world whether news or personal was urgently needed for future researchers. Several people here worked on the project for several months. It was fascinating as we went through thousands of webpages. The Library of Congress has that archive.
I don't tweet but I understand how those short bursts of conversation might be important in the future.

You thought I was being sarcastic. I was in fact being completely sincere. My shits are STUPENDOUS!

by Jota-mota on

That's just great: so now archeologists 500 years into the future will be able to tell exactly what I ate for lunch on Thursday April 15, 2010 at 12 pm PT.

by C. Godot on

"Give me the choice of saving for posterity either the entire Twitter archive or, say, the combined works of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carol Oates. Well ... sorry to William and David and Joyce, but it's an easy choice for me."

Wow. And this is on a "literary blog." Give me the choice of saving "tweets" and said authors, I'd ask you why in one place you claim it's cheap and easy to archive, yet now seem to be suggesting a choice be made. (Oh wait, it's snark. It's meaningless, right? "Just a joke," right? Sarah Palin would be proud! You put those three elitists in their place, and defended the common man and his tweets!)

Seriously: is anyone saying we can't archive Twitter along with Writers Levi Doesn't Like? Would anyone seriously choose spontaneous tweets over well-crafted art? Did more than five people on Twitter even know there was a Library of Congress? (See? I can do snark, too.) Why do so many Americans these days seem to think this way? Is imagination dying a natural death in America? Or is it being murdered, bit by bit? Every day I wake up and it seems ten or so people have stopped thinking, stopped caring, stopped doing. Is this the Hope and Change we were promised? Or has the steady decline of education in America resulted in an increase of anti-intellectualism that grows more aggressive every day?

No one of any true intelligence sees a problem here. Like most "literary" controversies these days, it's much ado about nothing. (I like saying that because, somewhere in the back of every mind, people go, "Much ado... That sounds familiar." Even so-called "literary" people are having to think a bit just to remember it. Maybe someone should set up a Twitter account that just does lines and titles from Shakespeare.) Media-generated hype about media-generated hype about media. In less than two weeks, Tweeters and twits will have forgotten all about it and moved on the the next controversy: "Should Kitty Kelley be Waterboarded for Daring to Write About OPRAH!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?"

It's good that LOC is archiving Twitter - now the future, if things improve, will know exactly how stupid we were here in the past, and if the future doesn't hold human intellectual progress, well, humans will be too stupid to read anyway.

I'd love to know what Guy Davenport would say about tweeting. I know what he thought about the telephone. He called it "God's gift to the bore."

by Levi Asher on

Well, Cal, first of all, those aren't really "Writers Levi doesn't like". I sort of like Joyce Carol Oates, and I occasionally like something by DFW or Vollmann too. They are just three writers who write a whole lot.

Okay, you are probably right that none of the people I'm quoting really feel very strongly about this controversy (the comments here are evidence of that). It's all tongue-in-cheek, but I still felt compelled to respond because the archiving of the Internet is a topic I've always been interested in.

But I do wonder why you and many others seem to uphold the assumption that twitter=stupid. Why is that? If a person on twitter does not strike me as smart, I will cease to follow that person. Why is it so hard for many people to accept that twitter might be a bastion of fast-moving intelligence? I do read my selected twitter feed with some seriousness everyday, and I see a *lot* of intelligent stuff going by.

Cal, to give some perspective here, I'm remembering when you and I first emailed each other during the 90s. If I remember correctly, you were pretty involved in the zine scene, Factsheet Five, etc. Something tells me that you aren't as passionate about the worth of the web or of twitter as you once were (and maybe still are) about zines. But I am. This is the literary territory I want to represent and defend, just as I think many people felt strongly about representing the zine community. Does that help explain why I write stuff like this?

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