Choose Your Medium Carefully

So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that's exactly what the product was.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, LA Times

Something I've been thinking about as someone who has a too-large portion of his life tied up in bits and bytes spread across servers around the world is what would happen if the various services I use and publish to were to somehow lose all the data I've put into them.

If my emails were to disappear, I'd be distraught. That's my historical record. If I was an adult in any previous generation, this would be my desk drawer filled with correspondence with friends, job offers, birthday cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements, simple I-love-yous from my wife, with every single thing properly dated, sorted, and filed away. My email archive is exactly that, just in a virtual form in this virtual world. Other people's email, I imagine, would be just as important to them. Vast slices of modern life is stored away in these accounts.

Flickr is another service that I would be devastated if the archives were to disappear. Not only does it hold my photographs, but it holds a fantastic amount of important historical information, and because of the hard work and foresight of the people before me, the archival features and sense of history of the service is on par with museums and libraries, the same which use the service for their own online presences which I think says a lot. It also holds common people's historical records, every user getting their own section where everything is sorted and dated, showing that “yes, the history of your images is dreadfully important”. Losing Flickr would be equivalent to the loss of a major museum or library. (Aside: I work at Flickr because I love Flickr, not the other way around, or I wouldn't be there.)

My Delicious-now-Pinboard bookmarks are my personal filing cabinet, full of links to things that I have read, want to read, and should read. It's also the culmination of my smarter-than-me friends and acquaintances' thoughts and online trailblazing. Not only that, but with the genius of tagging, things are grouped together by categories and types and an organic ordering has emerged from the messiness of the web and the coldness of Google's algorithms that can only come from giving the data the utmost respect, by preserving it and connecting it. It's my personal memory and narrative about what I come across and as such is closer to an explorer's daily log, like Lewis and Clark's journals, filled with many small discoveries, the whole being worth more than its pieces. If these bookmarks were to vanish, it would be a hard-felt loss.

With Twitter though, if every account, including my own, were wiped clean, I think I'd miss very little about what was gone. I see Twitter as a day-to-day community pinboard, where people plaster new thoughts on top of old ones and it seems that most people approach the service likewise.

Pinboard: Mission Accomplished.

Twitter has never made an effort to be a service that shows that it cares about the history or permanence of its data. There's no archive page and even trying to get to the end of a timeline is a painful, slow experience. And due to these traits, I've never been tempted to treat it more than an interesting thing that hums and buzzes alongside my daily life that I poke into occasionally.

Maybe due to Twitter's own lackadaisical attitude towards its history or maybe due to its 140 character limitation, people don't seem to care about their histories either, creating very little content that stands out. I have trouble recalling any messages that I would actually want to pull from an archive. Even if someone keeps Twitter as their daily log, with the whole showing a life in progress, how is one user's moving day or new job different from another's if they are both limited to stating the main fact and little else? To me, that seems such like a bland, sparkless enterprise.

Regardless of the content created on Twitter or how people view the function of the service, it's hard to deny that Twitter has shown little effort in presenting itself as anything more than an ephemeral dumping ground of short sentences.

Of the @towerbridge events of the past few days, I'm more bewildered than sympathetic. I'm not surprised about Twitter's handling of the account transfer as businesses do what businesses do, but instead to the community's reaction to it. The emotion I feel is identical to watching someone build a sand castle at the beach that gets swept away: it was a nice sand castle, a majestic effort, but it was built on a beach and tides which come every day took it away. The only difference is that the castle-builder understood his lot in life and knew that the his creation wasn't meant to last. Why would you build something that you want preserved if you know now you won't be able to get to it later?

Sand Castle

I think it's incredibly optimistic for people to think that any online service will value your data as much as you do. To think that Twitter, where you can't even access more than 3200 messages into the past on a timeline, values that data so much that it will never a break a link, never transfer control of a handle for legal or monetary reasons, never limit access to your data, seems to be people projecting what they want the service to be instead of what it actually is.

I still enjoy Twitter and am active user and have a few friends whom I greatly respect that work there. Often, Twitter can be a beautiful thing but it's beauty is captured in knowing exactly what the Internet is thinking at that moment. I just think that people are asking too much of a service that describes itself as “a new and easy way to discover the latest news” to be a permanent historical record and who's earliest definition included the words “inconsequential information”.

To me, it seems that Twitter hands you a pile of same-sized paper scraps to scribble your multi-sized thoughts and occasionally the wind scatters them, down a drainpipe or into the ocean. If you want something to outlast you, or at least until the end of the month, you have to choose your medium carefully: Twitter is newsprint, not vellum.

Attributions: Sand Castle by Joe Dsilva, on Flickr, Pinboard: Mission Accomplished. by Filipe ’shello’ Rodrigues, on Flickr