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Who said tweets are trivial?

By Gina Trapani, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Library of Congress will archive all Twitter messages since site started in 2006
  • The move, Gina Trapani says, validates social media's role in recording history
  • Archive gives academics, historians, anthropologists a simple, deep dataset, she says
  • Trapani: Many more people will have entrée into a collection usually reserved for select few
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Editor's note: Gina Trapani http://twitter.com/ginatrapani) is the lead developer of ThinkTank, an open-source software application that helps inform policymakers by archiving and analyzing status updates on services such as Twitter and Facebook. She blogs at http://smarterware.org//.

San Francisco, California (CNN) -- Web sites come and go, but the short bursts of text you publish on one Web site in particular -- Twitter.com --may end up having a longer shelf life than the company itself. The Library of Congress announced this week that it will archive the billions of tweets published since Twitter launched in March 2006.

Yes, that Twitter, the social networking site mocked and trash-talked in the press, late-night talk shows and by retro-minded pundits as 21st-century navel gazing for fidgeting geeks (David Letterman: "You know what it reminds me of? Oh yeah, a waste of time.")

But that's not the way the library sees it: If you use Twitter and your status updates are public, they should be in the archive. Twitter haters can go on scoffing that tweets are only ephemeral bits of frivolous information, but the Library of Congress has just ratified the importance of social media in recording history.

What else does this mean? Only that future generations will have an unprecedented amount of firsthand data (in 140-character bites) about what people from every corner of the world were doing, thinking and feeling at every moment starting four years ago.

There will be a record, for example, of the torrent of tweets that brought news from street demonstrations during the Iranian elections last year, when Internet and mobile lines were cut off.

There will be a record of the devastation and the relief efforts out of Haiti and Chile after the earthquakes; and of a certain historic presidential inauguration. (http://twitter.com/barackobama/status/992176676 "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks")

More on the Library of Congress plan to archive tweets

Thoughts and ideas written by people who wouldn't necessarily be in a position to write them into books (some for good reason) will be immortalized just the same. Current and future academics, historians and anthropologists will have a simple but deep dataset to analyze in new ways they haven't thought of yet.

The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution. Its mission is to "sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations."

It doesn't sound like the right place to archive messages thumbed on a cell phone or dashed off in the Web page text box of a Web site. Or as one of my own twitter followers put it: "Since when does banality & frivolity warrant cultural preservation?" -@matty_g http://twitter.com/matty_g/status/12187504242

But amidst the "craving a chocolate bar" or "watching my cat throw up a hairball" tweets, there is a serious reflection of historical context -- a real-time timeline written by regular people.

Even a small sampling of archived tweets yields insights.

"BREAKING: Healthcare Reform Just Passed!!!! This is one small step for health care, one giant leap for America!"http://twitter.com/Jason_Pollock/status/10852088956

Another, when Shaun White won the Olympic gold:

"Oh my God! Shaun White was amazing in the half pipe! Landing the double mctwist/big mac/white snake/ giant tomato! Sweet!" http://twitter.com/Swiftsfan/status/9268595586

And this week the White House (@whitehouse on Twitter) solicited ideas from citizens about what the United States' next major technological or scientific achievement should be. The archive of tweeted replies is intended to help prioritize the president's to-do list.

Finally, three things about Twitter's dataset particularly suit it for the library's archive:

1. A tweet is small and has a simple structure.

2. Most tweets are public.

3. Billions of public tweets are already available, and millions of new tweets go into the system every day.

While Twitter itself and certain partners maintain copies of the data created with the service, the library will preserve that data regardless of what becomes of those businesses.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the tweet archive gives many more people entrée into a collection historically reserved for a select few. Getting your words and ideas included in such an important cultural archive is a privilege.

Twitter users may cringe at the thought that their tweet about the cat getting sick will outlive them like this, but they should celebrate, then make their next tweet really good. It will be around for awhile.

Or as a twitter follower put it: «LC archiving tweets should remind us all that once it is in the ether, it's forever.» -@itwalkabout http://twitter.com/itwalkabout/status/12187791303

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gina Trapani.