Sometimes we tell people that things live forever on the internet and that anyone can find them (so don’t post that picture of yourself drinking alcohol, young man), but I want to highlight how some important things from just a couple of months ago are becoming impossible to find. If we’re not careful, the haystack is going to disappear, never mind the needle.
For example, take the discussion that happened on Twitter during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting just under two months ago. The Meeting had a hashtag for tracking content (#alamw09), and almost everyone used it most of the time. There was a lot going on in that tag, so much so that I thought it was a tipping point for the Association in terms of communication tools. I even debriefed what happened on Twitter for ALA staff afterwards so that they’d be able to see the patterns.
But try to find that discussion now, and it’s almost impossible. Most people (including me) rely on Twitter’s search engine (which was formerly called “Summize” and run by a different company until Twitter bought it). If you search Twitter now for the #alamw09 hashtag, you get exactly one page of results (yesterday there were two), and only a couple of those tweets were actually posted during the event itself. If you look up #alamw09 at hashtags.org, you’ll get more results from the Meeting itself, but there’s still only one page, and you had to have manually followed the hashtags.org Twitter account for them to have tracked your tweets, so even if you could see older results than what shows, it would be an incomplete archive at best. Search Technorati for #alamw09 and you get eight blog posts. Ironically, you can get most of the public tweets from Midwinter by searching FriendFeedlooking for anything from #ala2008 on Twitter, although there again FriendFeed saves the day, but for how long?
So for all of our aggregation attempts of that Twitter content, they may only work in the moment for the moment. It turns out they’re miscellaneous *and* searchable in only one place (for now), a pretty bad combination in hindsight. Thank heavens I favorited in Twitter so many of the alamw09 tweets, although that’s still not ideal. I have to manually page through them to find the ones I want, and I already have 35 pages of favorites.
After Midwinter, I tried to start moving my #alamw09 favorites into Evernote so that I’d be able to search and group them, but I haven’t had time to complete that process, and I just can’t seem to train myself to add new tweets there as I favorite them. The ratio of effort between clicking on a star and filling out a few words of metadata is just too much in the middle of my day, so this looms as a project in my future if I really want to save this stuff. Even then, there’s no guarantee Evernote will stick around, but at least I can export from it.
So if you were using a hashtag to aggregate content, thinking it would be easier to find it all again in the future, think again. You’re going to have to do something more proactive and manual than relying on Twitter’s search engine or Google. You’ll have to decide what level of ephemeraliness you’re comfortable with for that conversation, because you may not be able to get back to it if you let someone else manage access to the archive. In this context, it’s a shame so much of the conversation has moved away from blog comments (where individuals can openly archive it) to Twitter and FriendFeed. And if you’re a government or archive organization looking to preserve this kind of digital content, the stakes are getting raised on you.
Am I missing any other options for finding past hashtag conversations? Please tell me yes in the comments.
Addendum: Potential ideas for archiving – you could subscribe to the RSS feed of a hashtag in an RSS reader and export them, right? Or subscribe to the RSS feed via email? Other ideas?