From now on Elon Musk has closed his Twitter account, Internet users have taken steps to acknowledge it. People uploaded their posts on Twitter. Some have started threads with pictures of their favorite tweets of all time. And there’s the Google doc that continues to post Twitter trends and memes, a guide that might one day become a reference to the app’s documentation.
Whether Twitter collapses (as Musk himself has said is likely) or becomes a hive of hate speech and fake news, the future of the network is unknown. But there are fears that Twitter posts, important for history and politics (as well as humor), could be lost. Twitter’s original base — 140 characters (now 280) — doesn’t lend itself well to archiving. This is partly due to the technical challenges of capturing thousands of tweets per minute, and concerns that not all tweets are created equal. Some are fired by the leaders of the country who cause violence and others by people who would be unknown citizens, if not because of cooperation with the bird program. All types of tweets can go viral and have lasting effects.
“I think it’s really important to think about what you collect,” says Miles McCain of PolitiTweet, a service that keeps track of famous people and popular organizations. “When you try to save anything and everything, you end up with a lot of things that don’t matter.”
An attempt by the United States Library of Congress, which began recording every tweet in 2010, failed. Tweets evolved from short text to include images, videos, and live links. The library ended the Sisyphean task after seven years and said it would only keep selected accounts. In 2012, the library said it was storing half a billion tweets every day. A spokesperson for the library did not comment to WIRED before this story was published.
Elisabeth Fondren, a journalism professor at the University of St. John’s in New York City, said the failure of the museum represented a huge missed opportunity to preserve a wealth of data on political issues and communications. The current moment has shown the importance of maintaining social networks and exposed the dangers of having public sites on private company servers.
“If it were better, we would have it now,” Fondren said. “It hinders the efforts of researchers to assess the social impact of media.”
Smaller, third-party services have been looking for years to be more detailed. ProPublica maintains a list of politically deleted tweets on its Politwoops database. PolitiTweet has a database of over 1,500 accounts. This preserves the statements and stories of well-known people in government and politics, but these projects do not intend to cover the majority of Internet communication issues.
Twitter was designed to capture the moment, and in its early days finding or viewing old tweets was not easy and was not seen as important. But by 2014, Twitter had changed its search tool for public tweets. The move helped researchers, and breathed new life into long-forgotten tweets that had slipped down the timeline without much thought. The transition was difficult for some tweeters, such as those who started playing 140’s music as teenagers but became college students or young professionals. Their tweets don’t always get old anymore, especially since the social media era started.