Users urged to archive tweets amid rumors of Twitter implosion | Twitter


Amid ongoing fallout from Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, speculation of the platform’s imminent collapse is swirling – leaving users wondering what parts of their online selves they’ll get to keep.

After Musk laid off thousands of workers, many users have reported signs the platform is falling apart in real time – from glitching home pages to log-in failures – and researchers are desperately urging users to download their tweets in case Twitter implodes completely.

“If there’s something you care about on Twitter, now’s the time to become like a temporary expert in digital archiving measures,” said Caroline Sinders, an artificial intelligence researcher and fellow with the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office.

Digital archiving – the process of preserving online content for future use – has expanded steadily since the launch of the internet, but still exists in a patchwork, decentralized framework.

There have been a number of efforts to salvage posts on Twitter throughout its 16 years of existence: the Library of Congress began archiving all tweets in 2007, but halted the process in 2017 due to the growing scale of the platform. It now saves Twitter content “on a selective basis”.

Tweets from influential accounts are more likely to be saved. The National Archives and Records Administration preserves the content of all federal government Twitter accounts, according to a spokesman from the Library of Congress. Activists and media outlets have built their own tracking systems, with “Politiwoops” – a service from ProPublica that tracks deleted tweets from public officials – and PolitiTweet, which aims to “keep the powerful accountable” by monitoring and archiving tweets from celebrities, politicians and public figures.

But what about the average Twitter user, whose posts have not been deemed of interest by anyone but those who know them? Many users have tweeted in recent days that they are seeking to archive tweets from loved ones who have passed away.

“Is it possible to download someone else’s archive? My sister’s tweets are still posted from six years ago and I reread them when I miss her” one user wrote. “One of my closest friends passed away last year, when I’m having a bad day I still go and find him on Twitter and laugh at his sarcastic tweets,” another said. “It would be heartbreaking for his account to just disappear.”

The Internet Archive, a non-profit founded in 1996, is the largest public web archive and offers publicly available tools to upload and save content online. It has archived more than 625bn web pages – including a number of tweets. But many platforms do not make saving content easy in the event of their collapse, and Twitter is no exception, said Jason Scott, a free range archivist at the Internet Archive who has worked to archive parts of Twitter over the last 15 years.

“This reveals a difficult problem on a cultural, engineering and cost level,” Scott said. “Most companies do not consider their own mortality in their code or engineering design.”

The archive of Twitter may look quite different from the online version – many tools for downloading tweets do not save media included with them, or replies. It is difficult to scrape accounts for content over time, particularly those that are private. The sheer volume of posts on Twitter make it particularly difficult to archive. Since Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet in 2006, billions of posts have been created on the microblogging site – with an average of 6,000 tweets sent per minute globally.

Although Twitter’s current downward spiral has been shockingly abrupt, the internet landscape has always been precarious – with the average lifespan of a webpage less than three years. The graveyard of platforms-past has grown steadily over the years, with the fall of Myspace, Friendster, AOL, Vine, and others.

“This is highlighting the ephemerality of social networks, and that even if we use them like public infrastructure at times, they are not,” Sinders said. “Musk could decide to pull the plug tomorrow, and companies can make executive decisions that affect all of us.”

The abrupt threat to Twitter’s existence has raised questions about who decides which cultural artifacts to keep. If 16 years of content from the platform disappear overnight, what should survive? Trump’s tweets – however inane or inflammatory – will exist forever in public records. But the average user’s complaint about a long line for coffee in the morning or a silly picture of their pet may be lost forever.

Twitter contains multitudes of reflections of humanity in every direction,” Scott said. “And waking up to see everything’s been wrecked has placed us at a true crossroads. Is this going to be a warning that we should move away from this model?”

Scott said the questions sparked by the chaos at Twitter could lead to a future in which social media is managed differently, deferred to non-profits, or regulated more closely. But in the meantime, if you want to save tweets – whether jokes from a favorite celebrity or the last thoughts of a loved one who has passed – he suggests a more analog solution.

“Print out their tweets, and put them in a box,” he said. “They will last longer in every way.”

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