In real-time, journalists’ tweets contribute to a ‘raw draft’ of history

When historians look through the Library of Congress’ Twitter archive years from now, Andy Carvin’s tweets will be among those that help tell the story of the Arab Spring.

Carvin recently acquired his own archive of tweets, which he plans to turn into a database with the help of his NPR colleagues. Carvin worked with Twitter for six months to get the archive, which includes his 96,000+ tweets dating back to February 2007.

Carvin’s archive made me think about the value of Twitter not just as a real-time tool, but as a record of history. Like Carvin, we probably don’t give much thought to making history in the moment.

“When I’m tweeting, I generally don’t think about whether I’m contributing to a historical record. There are definitely times when I feel the information I’m retweeting certainly is, but not really for my own tweets,” Carvin said via email. “Generally, when something big is going on, I’m in the zone and not thinking of much else except capturing what’s happening and figuring out what’s true. I definitely try to add context when it seems appropriate, but it’s really directed at real-time consumption.”

Real-time tweets hold long-term value

We may think of our tweets as real-time snippets of information. But collectively, tweets tell stories — about media scandals, natural disasters, political speeches and more. Over time, these stories become part of an important historical record — one that’s made up of a multitude of voices, opinions and ideas. If journalism is the “rough draft of history,” Twitter is the “raw draft of history” — imperfect and less polished, but important nonetheless.

While reported stories often explain what happened, tweets capture news without delays. Similar to the wire dispatches of the past, tweets relay real-time information as it unfolds.

Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who tweets multiple times a day, sees the long-term value of tweets. In a phone interview, he said tweets are “not decisive by themselves, but certainly if properly cataloged and researched, they will make a meaningful contribution when someone writes the history of what we’ve sewn together over the years.”

Crowley, who now teaches law at Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, Dickinson College, and the U.S. Army War College, said tweets “can have particular meaning in the moment, but obviously they evolve. And in order to make sense of tweets, you’ve got to be able to look at them in a broader context.”

Adding context to understand tweets from the past

Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it difficult to add context to tweets. Of course, there are some workarounds. Carvin sometimes uses several consecutive tweets to add context. And his NPR colleague David Folkenflik does the same, particularly during breaking news situations.

But while consecutive tweets can be helpful in the moment, the need for context becomes greater over time. Crowley said he hopes journalists, historians and researchers can eventually use the Library of Congress’ archive of tweets to vet tweets and add context so we can understand the stories they tell.

Jennifer Gavin, the Library’s active director of communications, said by phone that the Library is still working with Twitter to get the full archive and isn’t yet sure how they’ll use the information. Ideally, she said, the archive would be searchable so researchers could glean information from it.

“What we find many years after various media are generated is that they are very useful to people who look at history,” Gavin said by phone. “We can find historical records in newspapers and in books. We can find it in radio broadcasts. Even some music that was created has some historical overtones. We do feel that as a means of communication, tweets become a part of history.”

It would help, Crowley said, if there were a tool that made it easier for people to discern meaning from tweets and other information streams over time.

“Certainly in the context of Twitter there are memorable tweets that reflect the drama of a particular moment, but the dilemma for Twitter, which is to some extent the challenge for all of us in this information revolution, is how do you discern meaning from this overwhelming array of information that we are now exposed to?” Crowley said. “We are going to have to develop other tools to be able to help us make sense of these mechanisms of communication.”

Carvin says his Twitter archive is currently a spreadsheet, but NPR is working on putting his tweets into a database. Eventually, they hope to make it publicly available.

Storify is a great tool for pulling together tweets to tell a story, but it doesn’t let users see trends over time. Perhaps the Library of Congress could work with developers to create such a tool. One of Carvin’s colleagues has begun creating visualizations that will give his tweets about the uprisings a sense of time and place. The first visualization shows a map of the Middle East and the number of Carvin’s tweets about each country. A corresponding graph lets users see his tweets from those countries on any given day.

Tweets as public journal entries

Carvin, who tweets about the uprisings and his day-to-day life, said the archive has given him a better sense of how his writing has evolved. When he looks at it, he’s reminded that Twitter has become “both a professional and personal journal.”

In some ways, tweets are like modern-day journal entries that writers choose to share publicly. Research has shown that tweets are also similar to journal entries of the past, particularly entries from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Tweets of the “what I’m eating for breakfast” variety may be irrelevant years from now. But tweets that reveal insights into a person’s life and experiences could prove invaluable.

“If you look back at the books written on history, among the most valuable contributions are when historians are able to get their hands on a leaders’ diary or a leaders’ letters,” Crowley said. “It helps when you’re able to understand what a historical figure was thinking and seeing and doing at a particular time and then add context.”

Writing that conveys emotional response to news events can be powerful in the moment and years later. I’m reminded of Joanna Smith’s tweets from the earthquake in Haiti. Here are just a few of the Toronto Star reporter’s on-the-ground tweets:

  • “Was in b-room getting dressed when heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.”
  • “Fugitives from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.”
  • “Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Mama! Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.”

Smith’s tweets convey scenes, emotion and dialogue that tell a story about the earthquake. Similarly, Carvin’s tweets tell a powerful story about the turmoil in the Middle East.

Crowley uses Twitter as a quick way of telling an ongoing story about politics. He focuses mainly on foreign policy and tries to “give a perspective of what a development means at a particular moment.” He’s found that his tweets generate reaction from people around the world. He’ll sometimes respond to his followers and engage in mini political debates on Twitter. Crowley said that as a historical record, tweets can reveal a lot about political movements and debates.

“It’s a lot of fun to be able to engage in these kinds of debates, and I try to take some time to do it every day. Sometimes, I’ll get a tweet back saying, ‘You moron!’ ” Crowley said, laughing. “I hope that doesn’t make its way into history.”

We don’t always know when or if we’re going to make our way into history. We may never invent something revolutionary or find a cure for cancer, but we can contribute to history in our own small ways — 140 characters at a time.

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