I love Twitter. I use it daily for establishing and maintaining both personal and professional connections with people, promoting the work I do as a freelance designer, trying (and failing) to be funny, and both praising and ranting about people, places and things. Yet, in just over 17,000 tweets I feel like for how much I’ve said, I haven’t really said much at all.

I think of my Twitter feed as flow, defined by Robin Sloan as “the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.” While I try not to clutter it with mindless meandering, it’s also not my most thoughtful work either.

A couple of days ago Merlin Mann made a comment that, at the time, I disagreed with:

Here’s the thing: If you value what’s said on Twitter, archiving is essential. If you don’t value what’s said on Twitter…why are you here?

A very good question, which I answered by comparing Twitter to a passing face-to-face conversation: you don’t have a record of every conversation you’ve had, but that does not mean those conversations are invaluable. A single conversation can lift my spirits for an entire week; some have changed my entire life.

A Different Perspective

Earlier today I read Craig Mod’s recent piece on his experience with Twitter during the earthquakes in Japan, which gave me a new perspective on the topic. Mod, a designer who has lived in Japan and maintains a very intimate connection with the country, happened to land in there just hours after the earthquakes hit.

In the article and in his talk from two months ago at San Francisco’s Creative Mornings, Mod speaks of his experience of catching up with what was happening by using Twitter as a sort of time machine. As he was preparing for his talk to discuss his experience, however, he came across a great challenge posed by Twitter’s current design:

I found it nearly impossible to scrobble back in time and capture — with granularity — these first-person narratives that so uniquely and spectacularly defined the experience of being in Tokyo during the quake.

When I first considered Merlin’s comment about the value of archiving tweets, I had mostly considered the recent tweets found in my personal stream. I’ve shared some interesting things, promoted work I have done, and connected with some great people. However, I’ve also recently shared my feelings surrounding one of the worst experiences of my life—the realization that the cancer that was found in my mother cannot be removed. The thought of archiving this time of my life makes me want to scream; these moments I would much rather forget.

Contrasting this experience with Craig Mod’s experience, though, has made me see the value in the archival (and ability to access) the types of tweets Mod is referencing. The world has shared and responded to some incredible events through Twitter. In a lot of ways, Twitter has redefined what it means for the world to experience an event.

Looking forward to a time when historians will begin to sift through the data about our time now, an archive of the world’s immediate reactions to an event could prove to be incredibly valuable. What did we really think about the election of Barack Obama? How did our immediate response to the earthquake in Haiti compare to the eventual outcome months and years later? What political revolutions were sparked by the meeting of minds found on social networks of today?

So, Merlin, you are right. There is incredible value in the archival and retrieval of the things we share on Twitter. In fact, the idea of archiving these things could cause us to spend a little more time crafting the things we say in 140 characters. Though, in the meantime I am glad for the ephemeral nature of Twitter, as I have no problem letting the stupid things I’ve said in the past 17,000 tweets be forgotten.