CORNELL (US)—In reviewing volumes of diary entries—mostly written by women—from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a researcher at Cornell University has found many terse Twitter-style records about what was happening in daily life.
Entries ranged, for example, from what was for dinner to reports of deaths, births, marriages, and travel—such as “April 7. Mr. Fiske Buried. April 27. Made Mead. At the assembly,” from the 1770 diary of Mary Vial Holyoke of Salem, Mass.
“We tend to think of new media as entirely new and different,” says Lee Humphreys, Cornell University assistant professor of communication, who has studied social media for five years. “But often we see people using new media for old problems that people have always had to think about and engage with.”
Diarists wrote under the constraints of small notebooks that allotted only a few lines per date entry, and some historians argue that diary writers—who lived busy, stressful lives in a time when leisure existed only for the rich—found such constraints freeing.
Diaries of the era were intended to be semi-public documents to be shared with others, Humphreys says. The modern notion of confessional, reflective entries hadn’t come into play.
“Our whole notion of privacy is a relatively modern phenomenon,” she adds. “You really don’t get a sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century, so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”
During the weeklong Computer Human Interaction conference in Atlanta where Humphreys presented her findings in April, the Library of Congress announced—via Twitter—that it would archive all public tweets tweeted since March 2006.
This will include tweets from organizations and corporations that produce “a really interesting slice of cultural products ranging from the individual mom who’s tweeting about her kids not going down for a nap to Starbucks or GM, who are using Twitter to promote their products and services and engage their customers.”
“Tweets capture a moment in history in a really interesting way,” Humphreys says. “You have everything from reports from the Iranian election to what people had for breakfast to Haiti relief. The whole spectrum of events is being chronicled through this technology, and the fact that it’s public already represents a unique opportunity for the Library of Congress to include in its archive.”
In researching Twitter messages for 18 months, Humphreys has been coding tweets by content in such areas as work, health, home, and religion, and will analyze the results over the summer.
“I’m in the process of getting a grant to study the privacy implications of Twitter as well as people’s motivations, intentions and practices,” Humphreys says. “We know Twitter tends to be used by urban, younger populations, so it’s not representing everybody, and no culture can be reduced to the texts that it produces. So as great as it is to have these diaries and these tweets, we recognize them as incomplete representations of society. It’s easy to see that with the diaries but it’s just as important to see that with Twitter.”
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