Twitter is a machine of the present. Not simply because a Twitter stream never stops moving, the new constantly forcing the old out of the way, but as Matt Haughey put it, “the fact that I can’t even search my own feed for past things I’ve said makes it exist almost entirely in the present tense.”
Until today, Twitter had a built-in forgetting mechanism, a technical limit that only let you — or third-party applications — access your most recent 3,200 tweets. Even Twitter’s “year in you” was something of a joke because it couldn’t go back more than a few months for prolific users of the service. But now users can download an archive of every tweet they’ve ever created. Right now the feature is only available to a limited number of users, but it’ll gradually roll out to everybody.
This is a critical feature, and one that Facebook and Google have provided for some time. It allows you to reclaim all the content you’ve poured into Twitter, a feat that was technically impossible until now — and one that seems all the more relevant as users sit constantly perched on the edge of a freakout about the use and ownership of their data and content, as the recent Instagram terms of service crisis clearly showed.
It also allows for the sort of social media self-examination that Facebook has long allowed — and that has, at each new level, made us uncomfortable.
4. Bin Laden’s death, 2011:
But personal archives are obviously a limited feature in the grander scheme of things: Twitter is the most important generator and archive of real-time history that we have, and the ability to properly mine that still does not exist. This is sort of tragic. And while I think calls to nationalize social networks, or regulate them like public utilities are largely foolish, Twitter performs a deeply public function on a level that Facebook and Tumblr do not.
The totality of tweets on the day Obama was elected in 2008, or the day Osama bin Laden was assassinated, are incredibly important historical documents — we’ve never had direct, precise, and expansive collections of how a significant chunk of the population has processed and reacted to world-changing events, not like this. And that, right now, is effectively lost to us.
Personal archives are a good first step, but it’s wrong to call them archives, at least in the historical sense. They’re diaries, by us, and after a certain age, exclusively for us. Twitter owes us — the world — so much more.