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Guest Thinkers

Twittering for Posterity

Since time immemorial people have considered two ways to be immortal: through one’s progeny or by displaying spectacular achievement in the sciences, arts or politics. Now there’s another way: Tweeting. Congress just announced that it has reached an agreement with Twitter’s founders to archive the millions of tweets that have been accumulated since its inception in 2006.  Yes, your meandering tweets will now live forever!

The announcement appropriately came in the form of a tweet by Matt Raymond, communications director at the Library of Congress.

“Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archive — ALL public tweets, ever, since March 2006! Details to follow.” 

Do we really want Congress spending our tax money on people’s breathless tweets raving about Lady Gaga? Yes, we do. It turns out that the potential for knowledge per dollar of storage is extremely high. The price of storing the archive is less than $2000 (according to Raymond, the archive is about 5 terabytes – 1 terabyte equals 1000 gigabytes – and it costs a few hundred dollars to store that amount, a cost of storage that is decreasing every year). Add to that about 55 million tweets per day (and rising), and one can still be assured it’s not going to break the federal budget. On the plus side, one can well imagine that a hundred years from now, robots will help us run extremely sophisticated analyses to understand what mattered to us today. The Iranian protests (#iranelection), the iPad (#ipad), even Lady Gaga (#ladygaga) each represents facets of our culture. Between those whimsical tweets wishing for a chance encounter with Justin Timberlake and lamenting the ruined pot roast, there are also tweets that celebrate President Obama’s healthcare bill and decry the Burmese regime’s continued incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi. Together the twitterverse pulsates with what matters to us as individuals, communities and nations. In other words, don’t worry about the money spent storing the tweets (it’s negligible) or why anyone would want this ‘crappy’ data (it’s not crappy if you look at the whole data set and imagine the rich picture it can draw of cultural and political trends).

Well, then should we just go on happily tweeting about anything and everything? If you were on the Hollywood Blacklist in the 1950s, you may not look at the government mining your personal data as casually as those who’ve never felt the cold stare of Big Brother’s scrutiny. The Hollywood Blacklist was created to terrorize and harass members of the entertainment industry (actors, screenwriters, producers, directors, musicians) who were suspected of having any association with the Communist Party, sometimes based on something as vague as attending a party where “Red Fascists” were present. This is just one well-known but oft-forgotten example of what happens when personal information lands in the hands of government and its secret intelligence arms.  

So the answer to the question whether your tweets can be manipulated against your interests is “yes”, but whether it will in fact be used in such a way is unclear. If you’re concerned, it’s better to change the privacy settings of your Twitter account: only public tweets will be used by Congress.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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