For those of you who don’t know about the library of congress’ recent decision to archive twitter, please READ THISAs others have pointed out, the recent decision by the library of congress to ‘preserve’ all tweets is an epic decision. The LOC efforts in archiving all public tweets will have a large impact on the ways in which people tweet (Hello governmentality…). Obviously, along with this, there will be a great deal of talk about issues of privacy and the protection of identities, etc.
While these are all interesting things to think of, I’m going to leave it to others to propose future effects. Instead, I would like to ask a larger ‘meta-level’ question: 1) what are we preserving, and 2) and what in our culture informs our decision to preserve it? Instead of aribitrarily splitting these things, I’m going to attempt to answer them in a rolling narrative.
When I think about twitter, I think beyond a simple message system. 140 characters is seemingly a short message. Many have even posited that twitter, along with text messaging, will ‘destroy the english language’ (as if it is the same now as it was 500 years ago). But, I’m asking, is it truly a simple message, or is it a 140 character microcosm that contains hieroglyphic connection to ever vanishing referents?
Say what?! Am I crazy? No. Think of what is tweeted. In many cases, the context of the message is needed to truly understand what it means. In preserving tweets, we are assuming that what is important for twitter is the social conditions that are carried by the messages as opposed to the social conditions that gave rise to them. What is the distinction? Simple- what they meant at the time they were tweeted and what they mean in the now are not the same. You say, “simple problem, we’ll go back and look at what’s going on at the time of the tweet”. Yet again, another assumption, that large scale history is the same for all. I think it is easier to think of twitter, instead of as messages, then as a little world of sociality that transcends the cyber. If we do not preserve the context in which the tweets were made (which we can never do), are we really preserving the tweets or just the shells of their dead selves?
I think that this ‘dead self’ metaphor works on multiple levels that helps explain why we are preserving tweets. At first, I thought it was indicative of a pack-rat culture that is fearful that needs control over all information it will ever produce, or will forever lose it. But now, however, I think it is much more eschatological; I think it stems from our inability to cope with the fact that somethings must pass, ourselves included. To steal from psychoanalysis, perhaps we are projecting our fear of our own forgotten-ness on other things, like twitter. In a last ditch effort to leaves some type of presence on the planet, forever, we must archive some essence of ourselves. (NB, I would not like my twitter to be my lingering essence, thank you.)
This reminds me of a discussion of Christianity by Hegel. For Christians, it is with the passing of Christ that the problem of ‘presence’ gets brought up: How is God present after Christ? He states in a lecture from 1827 “But in the hearts and souls is the firm (belief) that the issue is not a moral teaching, nor in general the thinking and willing of the subject within itself and from itself; rather what is of interest is an infinite relationship to God, to the present God, the certainty of the kingdom of God- finding satisfaction not in morality, ethics, or conscience, but rather in that than which nothing is higher, the relationship to God himself. All other modes of satisfaction involve the fact that they are still qualities of a subordinate kind, and thus the relationship to God remains a relationship to something above and beyond, which in no sense lies present at hand.” It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians are connected to the divine, which only comes about through the death of Christ- the death of the vessel of its presence, for which no other vessel can take its place (especially according to protestantism!).
Thus, for Hegel, the evidence of presence is not a material (the sense-able presence of Christ) but the immaterial (the presence of God in the Spirit). This spirit is only possible with the execution of Christ, and thus Hegel’s philosphy is defined by the pathos of Christ’s absence (this pathos is why Christians must embrace other signs of presence- those of indirect interaction). For Hegel, then, the only way to preserve the sense-able presence of Christ is to let it pass away, because by its very nature it is singular and momentary and cannot be repeated but only remembered (the remembering being the Spirit). Means of prolonging the presence of Christ are readily available when needed- ie images, relics, fetishes, etc., but they engender an illusion of presence, not the presence itself.
Turning back to twitter and its preservation, we can ask- are we preserving the tweets (which are the compounded presence/message construct) or the sense-able presence of our selves that was intended to pass? To put it another way, are we preserving twitter or are we instead creating a new twitter by preserving it, one that is not ‘authentic’ in its representation but provides a simulacrum of sociality; by the act of preserving twitter, do we change its state from the thing itself to the thing as we see it now? Are we preserving anything, or creating something new from old materials? Is it a classic ‘form vs content’ argument?
Obviously, not a well fleshed out argument, but do people understand what I’m getting at? In preserving social media, just as preserving Christ’s presence, what is ephemeral is the real power and what we preserved is just a falsity of that presence of the spirt and the social. The preservation is not of the thing, but of something that is its shell. Thoughts?