The Real Reason People Think The Library Of Congress Won’t Save Every Tweet Anymore

by Chris Tognotti
Leon Neal/Getty Images News/Getty Images

For years, it's been public knowledge that the Library of Congress has been stockpiling every single tweet that millions of Twitter users have sent, putting together a comprehensive record of the evolution of the social media platform. Now, however, that's apparently going to change ― the Library of Congress won't be archiving all tweets anymore, leaving some people wondering and speculating about what's behind the decision.

The Library of Congress, for its part, released a statement which essentially explained it like this: We already have more than a decade's worth of tweets, social media has changed a lot since then, and we don't think we need a complete record going forward. Noting that Twitter initially gifted it the first four years of tweets from 2006 to 2010, the Library of Congress also acknowledged "an explosion in use" of social media over the past 12 years.

In the years since, the social media landscape has changed significantly, with new platforms, an explosion in use, terms of service and functionality shifting frequently and lessons learned about privacy and other concerns.

The Library of Congress said it is announcing a change in its collections practice and added:

Effective Jan. 1, 2018, the Library will acquire tweets on a selective basis—similar to our collections of web sites.

The statement also noted that cost-effectiveness was a concern, which could help explain why they'll only be preserving tweets selectively going forward.

The news sparked a reaction on Twitter itself, with some people speculating that the quality or content of tweets over time played a role. The explanations given by the Library of Congress, however, are much more straightforward and general than that.

For instance, as laid out in the Library of Congress' white paper explaining the decision, collecting all the tweets has become a more demanding task, thanks to expanded tweet sizes, and has become less worthwhile, because only the text is being collected. Tweets that rely on photos or videos or gifs, in other words, aren't being similarly preserved, and that's a big and constantly evolving way people on the platform express themselves.

For a useful thought exercise, just consider what your timeline would look like with all the images and videos missing. Not so fun, right? A Twitter timeline consisting of nothing but text, in this day and age, is simply not the usual way of things. But more to the point, many tweets would seem downright nonsensical and pointless when separated from crucial audio or visual cues.

This does not mean that the Library of Congress will stop keeping track of some tweets, merely that it won't be trying to log and archive all of them. According to the white paper, the tweets that do get saved will be more "event-based" or "thematic."

Generally, the tweets collected and archived will be thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.

This won't really change anything as far as your ability to peruse a massive, comprehensive Twitter archive, to be clear, because that ability has never materialized. The Library of Congress has been trying to turn the staggering trove of tweets into something viewable and useful to the public for years, but considerable logistical challenges have consistently frustrated and stymied the process.

Fortunately, however, there's no shortage of people who save and keep records on the tweets of high-profile and historically important people ― like those of President Donald Trump, for a particularly prominent example.