Twitter histories of events are vanishing

Much of the social media activity shared during the Arab Spring has already disappeared

Topics: Twitter, Social Media, History, Arab Spring, The Internet,

Twitter histories of events are vanishing Tahrir Square, February 2011 (Wikimedia/ Jonathan Rashad)

Nowadays, we’re very good at telling history in real time. Live-tweeting, livestreaming, Instagraming, link sharing, instant commenting — everyday lives and major events are recorded and narrated from every angle as they happen. A new study has found, however, that these minutes-old histories may not be built to last.

Two researchers at the Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., working on the mammoth task of curating the social media content that surrounded (and helped shape) the Arab Spring, were struck by their findings — or the gaps therein. Much of the shared online content has already disappeared.

As the Technology Review reported:

A significant proportion of the websites that this social media [around the Arab Spring] points to has disappeared. And the same pattern occurs for other culturally significant events, such as the the H1N1 virus outbreak, Michael Jackson’s death and the Syrian uprising. In other words, our history, as recorded by social media, is slowly leaking away.

The researchers found that 27 percent of content linked to two years ago via social media has since disappeared. A Twitter history of the Arab Spring now leads to a lot of long-gone Web pages.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Matthew Ingram notes on the study:

It’s not clear from the research why the missing information disappeared, but it’s likely that in many cases blogs have simply shut down or moved, or news stories have been archived by providers who charge for access (something that many newspapers and other media outlets do to generate revenue).



Ingram adds that other problems arise when tracing histories through social media. Tweets themselves (not just content linked to within a tweet) are “notoriously hard” to search for when more than a week old, and archived Twitter records are not publicly available. “Access to the complete archive of your tweets is provided only to those who can make a special case for needing it, such as Andy Carvin of National Public Radio (who is writing a book about the way he chronicled the Arab Spring revolutions),” writes Ingram.

So it seems that social media sites like Twitter do not remain as fecund a resource over time as they do in real time. But no historian has ever worked on the assumption that all, or even most, information about an event is preserved, let alone even recorded. Not even Twitter has changed that.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Api Étoile

    Like little stars.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Calville Blanc

    World's best pie apple. Essential for Tarte Tatin. Has five prominent ribs.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chenango Strawberry

    So pretty. So early. So ephemeral. Tastes like strawberry candy (slightly).

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Chestnut Crab

    My personal fave. Ultra-crisp. Graham cracker flavor. Should be famous. Isn't.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    D'Arcy Spice

    High flavored with notes of blood orange and allspice. Very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Esopus Spitzenberg

    Jefferson's favorite. The best all-purpose American apple.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Granite Beauty

    New Hampshire's native son has a grizzled appearance and a strangely addictive curry flavor. Very, very rare.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hewes Crab

    Makes the best hard cider in America. Soon to be famous.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Hidden Rose

    Freak seedling found in an Oregon field in the '60s has pink flesh and a fragrant strawberry snap. Makes a killer rose cider.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Knobbed Russet

    Freak city.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Newtown Pippin

    Ben Franklin's favorite. Queen Victoria's favorite. Only apple native to NYC.

    Clare Barboza/Bloomsbury

    Uncommon Apples

    Pitmaston Pineapple

    Really does taste like pineapple.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>