Tweets have more historial value than you might think

If every communications platform got judged by the standard we imposed on Twitter, they’d all be rendered trivial.

Newsprint would just be a forum for gossip and sleazy scandal. Projectors would just be the vehicle for brain-dead dialogue and needless explosions. Telephones would just be a conduit for endless teenage chatter on the superficial.

All those mediums get used for such trivial purposes. A lot. It doesn’t make the medium itself trivial. Instead we recognize all the groundbreaking journalism, innovative films and meaningful conversations that are facilitated as a result.

Twitter too often doesn’t get that appreciation. Because it’s used so often to broadcast meaningless minutia, the general public renders it silly before they stop to see all the benefits of good tweets.

And there’s plenty of good. Twitter is it the most effective way to share links and information with colleagues. It is unrivaled in delivering instant reactions to breaking news. It establishes a direct connection between public figures and their fans that bypasses all the old filters. Even the worst cases of narcissism it inspires can have value as pure entertainment.

Given Twitter’s often under-appreciated status in the public sphere, it’s nice to see our government recognizing its potential. The National Archives announced last month that it will start saving each and every tweet sent from a public account (those with privacy settings won’t be gathered) and preserved for posterity. It’s the type of thing that has inspired instant snickering. Even my iMedia class, which has produced some outstanding research presentations on the value of social media marketing, reacted to the news with many a smirk.

But block out the mundane quality of boring tweets and take the macro view for a moment. When in history have we ever had a larger collection of public views, opinions, thoughts and feelings all recorded? Sociologists and historians no longer have to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence on how certain publics reacted to critical events. There’s a wealth of primary source data that is easily searchable. It doesn’t represent all of society, to be sure, but for certain demographics it provides the kind of in-depth look into our culture and collective pulse to a degree expensive surveys only hoped to reach. That group even includes prominent political figures. What scholar wouldn’t want to preserve their reactions to critical events in the country’s history?

Don’t discount Twitter’s potential for political change either. The protests in Iran last year organized through Twitter are the most prominent example, but you don’t have to go across the world to see an impact. Now that tweets show up in real-time  search engine results, they have the potential to instantly shape what information (or misinformation) is spread. A research paper on how this may have been a crucial factor in Scott Brown’s upset victory in this year’s Massachusetts Senate race was presented at last week’s WWW2010 Conference in Raleigh. Of all the papers from researchers across the globe featured at the that conference, it was the one Word Wide Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee immediately cited when asked what study most interested him.

Of course this post  comes to you from an unabashed Twitter fan since 2008 who now has two accounts, one for my professional interests and one for personal interests. Am I overselling the medium? Are there ways that Twitter falls far short of other mass communications platforms?

Advertisements
  1. Hi Brook,

    This is a great post and I like the positives that you point out about the large forum that Twitter has created for mass public opinion and free flow of thoughts and information.

    I am really hung up on the fact that each and every Tweet is going to be saved–not because of privacy, but more because I think that a lot of people Tweet endlessly about things that are so unimportant, that it seems like a waste of time for someone to archive it.

    I have really realized the value of Twitter through this iMedia program, but I guess I see so many tools out there like Digg, or even StumbleUpon that allow people to share resources. Although, Twitter is really the most direct way of sharing with a large number of self-selected followers.

    I don’t think you’re overselling the medium. If I had to pick one weakness of Twitter, it would also be what I consider to be Twitter’s biggest strength: Character limitations in posts. It forces users to be clear and concise, and makes the spread of information faster and easily accessible for more users.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: