The biggest news of last week – if we exclude the Icelandic volcano delaying flights all over Europe, the Chinese earthquake that killed or injured thousands of people, and Larry King’s seventh divorce – was the announcement that the Library of Congress was going to waste our tax money archiving Twitter.
According the the New York Times article covering this wasteful government spending, both Twitter and many historians think it’s a great thing.The dominant ideology in history these days derides old style history as "elitist," and decades of academic historians have tried to find out how unimportant people in the past lived and died.
This partly explains why nobody reads books by academic historians any more. Nobody really cares what unimportant people did. We’re interested in people who have distinguished themselves from the herd in some way. Nobody cares about unimportant people now, either. That’s why the unimportant people turn to Twitter hoping someone will pay attention to them.
But the trend of "history from below," if it survives, will no doubt be boosted by having trillions of tweets archived. Now historians of the future will be able to verify what everyone already knows to be the case anyway. Unimportant people are boring and stupid and don’t accomplish much. That’s why they’re unimportant.
At least I can understand why historians might think that future historians might be interested in this junk. It makes less sense why anyone would care now what people are tweeting, and yet I’m told there are numerous websites devoted to telling you what people are mentioning most on Twitter. What I can’t figure out is why anyone would care.
I guess if you’re a markety person and want to sell stuff to stupid people, you have to know what’s popular with the masses, but it cracks me up when librarians start talking about Twitter as if we’re going to learn anything from the service as a whole other than that people are dull and dim. The problem with trying to find out what most people think is that most people don’t really think.
Just to verify this for myself, I went to Twitter and checked the top "trending topic" at the time of writing. It was teen pop singer Justin Bieber, which tells us pretty much what we need to know about the average Twitter user, and presumably the average human being. They have the interests of children. They also seem to have the intellect of children. Here’s a few samples:
"hey justin bieber hows it going"
Just because we care. Of course anyone who wasn’t an idiot would already know the answer to this question, because the answer is always the same: "Fine."
"Justin Bieber is Justin Bieber. There will NEVER be another Michael Jackson. N.E.V.E.R."
This is either an example of very poor reasoning or the stupidest debate in the entire world. Probably both. Plus, as this Wikipedia disambiguation page shows, there are many Michel Jacksons. M.A.N.Y.
"RT if your PROUD of Justin Bieber AND hope he win’s at the Juno’s Tonight! :D <33"
RT if your illiterate. Only illiterates write "your" for "you’re." Textspeak-literates would write "u r" and save a character-space they might need later on. Not much I can say about "win’s" for "wins."
"#WelcomeToTwitter where Justin Bieber runs the timelines but not the streets, cities or villages"
Love him or hate him…it doesn’t matter. Just having an opinion and taking the time to express it makes you a fool. This person is just less of a fool than the previous people.
Another top trend is #ladiespleaserealize, in which we are reminded that numerous of our fellow citizens are ignorant, crude, thoughtless, and stupid, but anxious to spout their idiotic advice to the world. Without Twitter, that’s a truth I might have been able to forget, especially since I quit reading the comments sections on new sites.
And now, this idiocy will be archived in perpetuity at taxpayer expense so that in the future historians can prove that people in the past were just as stupid and dull as people in the present. Up to now, they’ve had to speculate based on the slimmest of evidence. Twitter is a great democratizer. It gives the stupid and semi-literate a public platform for their gibbering that they were denied in the past.
For everyone except academic historians desperate for another article to publish, history is the story of great achievements, of the bright moments in our past when a person, a group, sometimes a whole nation stood out from the swirling trends and did something great or worthwhile or even horrific.
We don’t care if the most important trending topic in colonial America was a tavern singer named Gladys. We care about the Founders. We don’t care that in the 1960s the tedious masses were discussing what Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was doing the night before. We care about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam War. Pity they can’t just archive the interesting tweets and weed out the garbage. We’ll save Iran and Presidential elections, and eliminate Justin Bieber, the same way they approach their web-archiving.
I won’t try to predict what future generations will find important or notable about our own era. The first black U.S. President elected? Islamist violence? The rise of China as a major world power? Whatever it is, I feel much more confident predicting that it won’t be Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers or any of the other hot topics.
The entire archive of Twitter will one day provide enough evidence to warrant a footnote: "In the early 21st century, the majority of Americans as usual were distracted by passing fads and trivial celebrities and were blithely unaware of the important events happening around them."
Thus, instead of wasting our money archiving something so trivial that even future historians will be bored to tears by it, the Library of Congress should be archiving web content that’s important now and likely to be important in the future. Maybe library blogs.