Tome Tweet Tome?

Posted in opinion pages, site information, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on May 11, 2010

From the Editor

An admission: I’ve never tweeted, nor regularly followed anyone who does. I’m hardly opposed to Twitter on principle, and as someone who stresses to my students the importance of tightly-edited writing, I think there could be immense value in forcing individuals to communicate with just 140 characters at a time. Still, I’ve yet to be persuaded it’s for me. Nonetheless, the following pieces at least have me thinking about it (given that the text up to this point weighs in at 428 characters, I clearly have a long way to go).

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Jon Lackman, the editor of The Art History Newsletter, kindly sent me a link to this story, “Twitter Updates, the 18th-Century Edition,” posted at The Wall Street Journal by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries:

There aren’t too many things more 21st century than Twitter. But it turns out that the way people share information on Twitter bears some similarities to the way they shared it more than 200 years before the service was created in 2006, according to Cornell professor Lee Humphreys, who has been comparing messages from Twitter and those from diaries in the 18th and 19th centuries. A quick look at a few of the entries from several diaries shows that Twitter’s famous 140-character limit wouldn’t have been a problem for these writers:

April 27, 1770: Made Mead. At the assembly.
May 14, 1770: Mrs. Mascarene here and Mrs. Cownsheild. Taken very ill. The Doctor bled me. Took an anodyne.
Sept. 7, 1792: Fidelia Mirick here a visiting to-day.
Jan. 26, 1873: Cold disagreeable day. Felt very badly all day long and lay on the sofa all day. Nothing took place worth noting.

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Writing for The New York Times (30 April 2010), Randall Stross notes that today’s millions of tweets may in fact be the stuff of primary source material for future historians.

. . . Not a few are pure drivel. But, taken together, they are likely to be of considerable value to future historians. They contain more observations, recorded at the same times by more people, than ever preserved in any medium before.

“Twitter is tens of millions of active users. There is no archive with tens of millions of diaries,” said Daniel J. Cohen, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and co-author of a 2006 book, “Digital History.” What’s more, he said, “Twitter is of the moment; it’s where people are the most honest.”

Last month, Twitter announced that it would donate its archive of public messages to the Library of Congress, and supply it with continuous updates. . . .

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And if anyone’s looking for examples of art historical tweets, the following list of “100 Excellent Twitter Feeds for Art Scholars,” might be useful.

All the same, at this point, I’ve no immediate plans to tweet for Enfilade. Yet, if any HECAA members feel strongly that we’re missing out on something, I certainly am open to offers from interested volunteers. . . Or just your own sense of Twitter’s scholarly or institutional value. -C.H.

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