Why does the U.S. Library of Congress want your tweets?
What does the Gettysburg Address and our 140-character tweets have in common? Both are housed by the U.S. Library of Congress.
Twitter recently donated its entire archive of messages, every public tweet since the first one on March 21, 2006, by founder Jack Dorsey, "just setting up my twttr." Some 60 million new tweets are posted every day and all of the public ones will become available to the library.
"Twitter is part of the historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends — all of which complement the Library's existing cultural heritage collections. It is a direct record of important events such as the 2008 U.S. presidential election or the 'Green Revolution' in Iran," according to the Library of Congress' official site. "It is a platform for citizen journalism with many significant events being first reported by eyewitnesses."
It's unclear how historians will dissect the sheer volume of tweets and filter what they consider the meaningful ones from the rest. But Library spokesman Matt Raymond says it will not duplicate what Twitter already does. "We are interested in offering collections of tweets that are complementary to some of the Library's digital collections: for example, the National Elections Web Archive," he wrote.
Critics say most of the information on Twitter is utterly useless. After all, why would anyone care that dustyboots0348 is drinking a new Vitaminwater flavor?
It's hard to say what type of information will be useful for people in the future. Maybe scientists will notice a health trend related to the "vitamin" age or anthropologists studying American pop culture will want to know how many references were made to "health" drinks.
What's clear is that there are already several examples of historic Tweets. The Palm Beach Post traced back what could be the tweet that started the Tea Party movement to Mary Rakovich of Cape Coral. She posted, "Making calls to take America back in the RIGHT direction " on Feb. 2, 2009.
And Twitter is in its infancy. Imagine reading the high school tweets of the next Bernie Madoff or Mother Teresa, or even an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. The diary of Samuel Pepys has been pored over by historians interested in life in London in the 1660's during the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great London Fire of 1666.
What I like is that the Library of Congress is giving everyday people a place in history. The late Howard Zinn wrote a book published in 1980 called A People's History of the United States, which opened my eyes to an alternative history than the one I grew up learning in school. It presented America's history through the eyes of people other than the official record-keepers, who are often part of the political or economic elite.
Twitter, and social media more broadly, offers us a people's history in the spirit of Howard Zinn and the late Chicago oral historian Stud Terkel by documenting the personal thoughts of anyone with a Twitter account and an Internet connection, down to the most mundane and seemingly meaningless tweet.
It's hard to compare to the Abraham Lincoln address considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, but don't sell short those nuggets of information found on Twitter. The Library of Congress certainly hasn't.
Seth Liss is deputy online editor for SunSentinel.com. You may reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sliss33.