Saturday, January 5, 2013

Archiving Tweets

Before the World Wide Web, Internet bulletin boards and discussion lists provided me with a new means for doing ethnographic work among fans. Today, online activity is more important than ever for those who study human social life and institutions, and it has fallen to archivists to find ways to usefully record our collective digital traces. As part of that effort, the Library of Congress just published an update about its new archive of tweets, a project that has been underway since 2010. They are currently trying to figure out how to index over 120 billion tweets and provide access to researchers, which, as the report explains, is an enormous and expensive task.

Whenever it works out, I'm most excited about the possibilities of this archive for audience studies. Some still dismiss Twitter as only record of the mundane (something, actually, that could be quite fascinating), but I think one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter culture has been the phenomenon of "live tweeting" various events, from concerts and television shows to elections and storms. As a kind of "event marginalia," such tweets might offer real insight into reception, social discourse, and diverse kinds of audience behavior.

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