Twitter is making and then destroying history

The elections in Iran have once again shown the power of social networks and Twitter in particular.  We can say that Twitter is making history.  The content on Twitter is changing the course of events.  However, most of that history lives within tags, such as #iranelection, and these tags will die or be lost in a few weeks time as our ability to retain them and search for them slips beyond the reach of Twitter Search or other search engines.  Twitter Search doesn’t give you access to a tag beyond two or three weeks.  This is a serious problem.

The whole issue of the digital record is one that is becoming incredibly important for the future of social media – and an area that, in my opinion, isn’t receiving enough attention.  If we can’t find a way to create and preserve a relevant digital record we will find ourselves destroying history as fast as we make it.  This record has to work according to the controlling dynamics of social media – availability and accessibility.

It may well be that the individual tweets that collectively are making history in Iran at the moment will still live somewhere in the digital record – in a place.  However, Twitter more so than any other social media tool is defined by space, not place.  The power of Twitter in the Iran issue and all others of historical influence, lies in tags and the creation of tag spaces.  These spaces live only in search or other forms of aggregation.  Lose the ability to search for it and aggregate it – and essentially we lose the information.

In the old days of traditional information, one printed copy of a document or a newpaper article held within a secure archive was enough.  There was a whole institutionalised system for ensuring that this information was held within the collective memory.  Social media doesn’t work like that.  It is defined by its ubiquity, by its ease of access, by its availability.  Restrict any of these things and you kill it.  Restriction of access has almost the same effect as actual removal or erradication of the information.

If ever there is one thing we should worry about – this is it.  Forget social media doing away with cultural gatekeepers, the media and other institutionalised sources of trust and all the other arguments that have been raised against it.  This issue losing or destroying history is what we should really be worried about.


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  2. Reprovague

    Why is it important to record Twitter logs? The collective assimilation of information on the social web fuels thinking, and helps to inform opinion, but does keeping a record effect thinking and opinion forming in the present? Records of events and thinking can be gleaned from the output on blogs, news feeds and, currently offline publications, but really, the important point to consider is that history is what we look back on, not something that is possible to protect in the present. Twitter, and digital communication per se, is developmental and works precisely because it is a stream of ever changing thoughts, responses and references. It is not an historical record of events, although it may yet turn out to be. The notion that Twitter is destoying history is, frankly, preposterous.

    • richardstacy

      History is indeed what we look back on – but what is history? Its foundation is the original source documentation. If we lose our access to the original source, we lose history and are left entirely at the mercy of selective interpreatation or revisionism. Given that Twitter’s role in making and recording history does not lie in the individual tweets, but in the spaces wherein this is brought together, if we lose these spaces, we lose the record, we lose history.

  3. Eric Lykins

    I was the first to send the #OFA hashtag @BarackObama. It could have been coincidence, but @barackobama used it later that day. I wish I had saved the page with the #OFA search that showed that timeline.

    • richardstacy

      And that is one little piece of history that has gone – unless and until we have the ability to preserve the intangible things such as spaces / tags as well as the institutionalised things / places such as individual tweets.

  4. Kevin Makice

    This is a very important issue, I agree, that presents a number of technical as well as social problems. However, it is important to be clear that Twitter search limitations are not the equivalent of Twitter archive limitations.

    To the best of my knowledge, Twitter hasn’t purged any of their 2 billion or so tweets. They exist in the database, waiting for some point in the future when their engineers can release historical search. The constraint of how far back you can search is arbitrary, to help with whatever technical stresses they have at the moment.

    In the meantime, this is a space where third-party development can help the Twitter ecosystem. There are some tools to allow individuals to download a local copy of all tweets (up to about 4-8K records, depending on how far back the API goes) in a variety of formats (text, Excel, XML, PDF). The search limitations prevent such tools from creating archives of hashtags in any meaningful way, but regular polling of Twitter could certainly create such records on an ongoing basis.

    It would be great if someone would (or has already) created such a tool to capture the data for the Iranian election corpus. The API is simple enough to use, you could program that tool if no one else has.

    • richardstacy

      It is true – we haven’t actually lost the tweets (hopefully) – but I guess the point I am making is that in the social media world simple availability of data in an archive isn’t sufficient. Ease of availability is what is necessary in order to generate the processes of collective analysis that drive soacial media.

      This perhaps also gives a clue on the commercial future of Twitter – being not charging for the infrastructure itself, either directly or through ads, but through provision of search and analysis tools.

  5. Inis Lovely

    Twitter doesn’t archive at all? That is a problem.

    Just as the writings and letters from our Founding Fathers supplement the Constitution, and the scraps of newspapers give us insight to the thinking of that era, communications in history are important.

    Following the #iranelection stream has just fascinated me. Could social media change international relations across the globe by letting citizens speak to one another instead of governments filtering information flow?

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  8. Rebecca Caroe


    This is a great post, thanks for highlighting. I am looking into some of the new develoments in real-time search and I now see that there’s a gaping void in non-real-time or historic search.

    Would it be great to be able to search ‘as if’ we were in 2004 …. it’d be a bit like a time machine. But I don’t know if historic index files are kept by the major search engines.

    HEre’s what I wrote about search


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