In 2010, the Library of Congress (LOC) announced they would be archiving Twitter’s arsenal of tweets, dating back to 2006 and moving forward in perpetuity. However, the volume of tweets quickly overwhelmed the collecting process. In 2013, when the LOC finished cataloging tweets from 2006 to 2010, the collection included over 170 billion tweets. While tweets might seem small, billions of them add up. The tweets collected required over 300 terabytes of data storage.*
In December of 2017, the LOC changed its collection policy for Twitter. For all tweets posted after 2017, the archive would be far more selective about the historical importance of tweets entering the archive.
The decision to archive tweets was ambitious and the hurdles that have come up in the collecting process will establish lasting precedents for the archiving of other social and digital platforms. There are already a number of concerns I have had with the twitter archive in my own research.
The first is access.
The collected tweets are currently inaccessible to research due to a series of concerns with Twitter’s privacy policies and LOC’s resource priorities. According to a LOC press release, “There is no projected timetable for providing public access.”**
When the tweets do become accessible, there is still the issue of what tweets will meet the standards of the collecting policy. Tweets are significant sources for multiple disciplines, but in history they give us unprecedented access to understand history from the bottom up. Twitter is an open forum for social interaction, public opinion, and political debate between average Americans. If the archive is too selective about whose tweets are worth saving, we risk losing access to these conversations.
The inclusion in the archive isn’t just about access, it is also about the prestige of the archive in the historical profession.
When writing about a seemingly trivial subject like Sesame Street, I often face criticism over the legitimacy of my evidence as historical sources. Archives help to legitimize source material, elevating material as historically significant. On a practical level, when applying to research fellowships, you include a list of archives you wish to visit. You cannot receive a fellowship for trolling Twitter for tweets about felt puppets.
These are just a few of the challenges posed by the Twitter archive from a research perspective. I am wary, but excited, to continue to navigate these turns as I continue my project.