While I was not necessarily optimistic about the future of Twitter following its acquisition by Elon Musk in October of this year, the rapid onset of volatility and chaos across the platform has been surprising. As others have outlined in detail, current leadership of the company is trying to rapidly raise revenue from existing users with limited success, laying off much of the existing workforce, floating bankruptcy, and generally posting through it.
I’ve been reflecting on the lives (and deaths) so social media sites more than usual this week and. I joined back in the summer of 2009 while working a corporate job in New York City in what feels like a different lifetime. I was also reminded that I’ve written no less than four papers which are specifically about Twitter. It’s a profoundly strange feeling to consider that the subject of these research studies may soon look quite different than it did when I wrote about it, if it exists at all.
Back in 2014, I investigated how archives were using Twitter to promote their collections, engage with users, report on events, and what else they were up to. At that time, all Twitter accounts had RSS feeds which made data collection of public accounts quite easy and reflected the original conception of the service as a “microblogging” platform, in contrast to “macroblogs” like this here website built with WordPress.
Following the 2016 Presidential Election and beginning of the Trump administration, I began collaborating with my colleague Amelia Acker at the University of Texas at Austin on a series of studies on Presidential social media, specifically the preservation of Presidential tweets. We first looked at preservation of Obama administration social media accounts and the first Presidential Social Media Transition, highlighting the platform-specific issues around managing these digital objects as federal records. In our next co-authored paper, we examined how APIs shape the ability of cultural heritage professionals and memory workers to collect, preserve, and provide access to social media platform data. Most recently, we returned to Presidential social media and unpacked how the role of Twitter as a private platform hosting public records affects issues related to digital preservation for presidential records.
What do these papers, particularly the most recent trio, portend about Twitter? Amelia and I have been working to highlight the deep tension between the platform’s identity as a private company and it’s function as a digital public square. We’ve pointed out more than once that the risks of leaving government records on private social media platforms is quite risky and creates major potential challenges for archives and digital preservation professionals. I remain proud of this work and confident that the ideas discussed in these papers will be valuable even if the platform changes on a fundamental level. An article published just today in the MIT Technology Review points out some of these risks and reaffirms the value of Twitter as a living historical record with the potential to inform our understanding of this era into the future.
There’s so much more to say about all of this but it looks like this is the sixth paragraph of this post and, thanks to a tweet I read today, I know that if you write more than six paragraphs about any one topic, you f*cked up. The future of Twitter looks quite unsteady, that’s about all I’m willing to predict today. As for me, while I might try to post here on my own personal piece of internet real estate more frequently, you will still find me on Twitter until the bitter end, doomscrolling through niche memes, news stories, celebrity posts, sports updates, and whatever else pops up…