21st Century Tweets Have Roots in 18th Century Diaries

Posted on June 14, 2010. Filed under: lifestyles | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Twitter may not be dumbing us down after all.

In reviewing volumes of 18th and 19th century diaries, Cornell University Communication professor Lee Humphreys found many terse records about daily life – and many in a style similar to Twitter. Diary entries ranged from dinner menus to reports of deaths, births, marriages and travel. One example:

“April 7. Mr. Fiske Buried. April 27. Made Mead. At the assembly,”
– From the 1770 diary of Mary Vial Holyoke of Salem, Mass.

Diarists of that era wrote under the constraints of small notebooks that allotted only a few lines per date entry. Their work was intended to be semi-public and shared with others.

“We tend to think of new media as entirely new and different,” says Humphreys, who has studied social media for five years. “But often we see people using new media for old problems.”

In researching Twitter messages for 18 months, Humphreys has been coding tweets, with the help of undergraduate research assistants, by content in such areas as work, health, home and religion. She plans to continue work on the project and will analyze the results over the summer.

Humphreys said she supports the plan of the Library of Congress to archive all public tweets tweeted since March 2006. “Tweets capture a moment in history in a really interesting way.”

Humphreys cautions that, as with centuries-old diaries, there is a limit to what we can learn from 21st century tweets.

“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,” she says. “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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