Twitter in amber

J. J. Audubon, Bluebirds

Why is it a shock that we don’t have good access to this stuff? Think of the Library of Congress’ harvest of Twitter as if it were paper: 24 billion pages of text. Probably 6 million cubic feet. Growing by 14,000 cubic feet a _day_. Created by 140 million authorities. With integrity, chain of custody, privacy and political problems, such as: How do you reveal that a post by a Thai blogger committing lèse majesté against Bhumibol has been suppressed in his homeland by Twitter Co.?

What’s revealing is that the writer’s angle here — Can deleted tweets now be made accessible? — is almost shamanic: “Now, through magic, we can hear the 18 1/2-minutes that Rose Mary Wood erased! Or failing that, we can see Rep. Anthony Weiner’s chest again.” The carrier — UTF-8 instead of paper — has seduced us into thinking that since storage isn’t a problem, intellectual control isn’t a problem. Digital stuff is magic; in the interwebs, access is innate.

But intellectual control and access are built into physical care and handling of paper in a way that we haven’t fully replicated with born-digital collections. And so the Big Twitter Capture totally flouts the cardinal rule of good collections of ephemera: Define Narrowly, and Weed Ruthlessly.

There’s a kind of shallow populism at work here, the kind that believes that appraisal is strictly disciplinary and recapitulates in collections power-dominance over people. This is why we acquire widely: to guarantee that neglected parties have a voice in the susurrus of the archives. Theoretically speaking, this rhetoric of empowerment is bogus; people or groups marginalized from our collections are not themselves without power or voice, it’s just that we haven’t trapped either one of them in amber, we haven’t institutionalized their infra-power. The assumption that we can bring everything in without a solid plan for access, and just leave IT gurus and researchers to make sense of the pile is precisely the opposite of populism.

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