The Library of Congress is single-handedly making a solid argument for advances in screenshot technology with their announcement Tuesday that, beginning in January, they will halt the collection of every single tweet sent by Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users.

The Library now has a secure collection of tweet text, documenting the first 12 years (2006-2017) of this dynamic communications channel—its emergence, its applications and its evolution.

Today, we announce a change in collections practice for Twitter. Effective Jan. 1, 2018, the Library will acquire tweets on a selective basis—similar to our collections of web sites.

The venerable archive had been collecting everything since 2010 (retroactively grabbing all tweets from the application’s 2006 inception) — from Bibi Netanyahu’s public suggestion that the U.S. should condemn the anti-Israel proclamation from the U.N. Security Council back in 2016 to what are probably untold numbers of random NSFW videos from high school kids in need of attention.

Now, however, they will selectively archive only those tweets that they deem, according to Gizmodo, “historically significant.”

One reason that the Library is stopping the comprehensive archive? The social media company’s controversial change to allow 280 character tweets.

The Library’s halt on collection of all tweets puts Twitter more in line with the way that other digital collections are archived, including websites. The Library of Congress only archives websites on a selective basis, unlike the nonprofit, non-governmental organization the Internet Archive, which has a much broader goal of archiving everything online with its Wayback Machine.

The Library of Congress also noted that many tweets include photos and video and that it has only been collecting text, making some of its collection worthless.

 “The Library generally does not collect comprehensively,” the Library of Congress said in a statement. “Given the unknown direction of social media when the [collection of tweets] was first planned, the Library made an exception for public tweets. With social media now established, the Library is bringing its collecting practice more in line with its collection policies.”
While it makes sense that the growth of the application would make it logistically more difficult to capture and archive everything there is to offer, there is some reason to suspect that the Library of Congress has come around to acknowledging — just as those of us who use the application daily have to acknowledge lest we allow ourselves to take it too seriously — that much of what people put on Twitter is hot, stinky, dull, dimwitted garbage.
There was a time, during 2010’s Arab Spring, when Twitter (and Facebook, and YouTube) were linked with monumental grassroots political revolution. “It wasn’t about the technology; it was about the people,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has said of his platform as a political organizing tool. “It just happens to be that Twitter was the right tool at the right place and right time.” But while Big Tech platforms have enjoyed several years of good P.R., upheld as pivotal democratizing forces that made life better overall, the era of good feelings appears to be behind them as everyone from lawmakers to Luddites to their own current and former employees turns against them in a paradigm shift that is rapidly accelerating.
It’s no secret that, to the extent Russia meddled in the 2016 election, their method of dissemination of misinformation was likely via social media. And FCC Chair Ajit Pai was vocal about twitter’s efforts to censor the speech of conservative voices during the lead up to the Commission overturning the Obama-era net neutrality rules. Essentially, social media — and twitter is one of the biggest — is a wasteland of stupid, silly, inane, hateful, misleading and potentially harmful information at the same time it is a bulwark of populism and free speech. And while some of what’s contained there is significant — like the tweets from Russian bot accounts or Pai’s pushback on the comapny itself — most of it is forgettable chatter.
It’s not a terrible idea to curate information that might be valued by later generations and separate it from stuff that could lead to real-life “Idiocracy”. The trick comes in being sharp enough to decide which tweets matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, Donald Trump’s tweets criticizing President Obama back in 2012 took on a much greater degree of gravity right around November 2016.
The Library of Congress says it will be working with Twitter to determine which content meets the archives’ standard of worth. Chances are it won’t be your Aunt Edna’s complaint about how her gout has been acting up lately. Which is probably a good thing.