There is a lot to be learned from our tweets. Laugh if you will. Go ahead. But Twitter has become an important historical and cultural record. It's a site for real-time news and information, to be sure. The stuff of history with a capital H. Politics. Natural disasters. Revolution. It's a site that records our cultural history as well (is that history with a lower case H?). Ashton Kutcher. Charlie Sheen. The Oscars. Lower case or capital H - these 140 character exchanges have created an invaluable record for researchers looking at history, politics, literature, sociology.
Such was the argument that Twitter made when the startup donated its archives to the Library of Congress. Tweets are important. They should be preserved, archived and accessible to scholars.
But Twitter's recent announcement that it was no longer granting whitelisting requests and that it would no longer allow redistribution of content will have huge consequences on scholars' ability to conduct their research, as they will no longer have the ability to collect or export datasets for analysis.
No Exceptions, Even for Scholars
That's the news that 140kit just had to break to its users. 140kit is an extension of the Web Ecology Project, a project that grew out of work at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and one of the very first research efforts into the cultural and political influence as expressed via Twitter. The group's research into Twitter's role in the 2009 elections in Iran was, in fact, one of the very first looks into how Twitter may both shape and reflect social and political upheaval.
140kit offered its Twitter datasets to other scholars for their own research. By no means a full or complete scraping of Twitter data, this information that the project had collected was still made available for download (for free) to researchers. But no longer.
As part of the new Twitter terms of service, 140kit like other organizations can no longer offer exports of Twitter data for any purposes - whether that's for profit or non-profit, whether that's for developers or scholars. You could be writing the next killer app. Or you could be working on the final chapter of your PhD dissertation. (And let me interject right here and say that having your access to research data shut down as a PhD student is beyond devastating.) It doesn't matter. Exporting Tweets now violates the TOS.
Shutting Off Researchers' Access to Data
These changes to Twitter's TOS mean that 140kit, as a service, can no longer provide its datasets wholesale, even for academic purposes. "For many of our users," the group says, "this effectively shuts them out of the ability to research the platform."
140kit has come to an agreement with Twitter, which according to Managing Director of the Web Ecology Project Devin Gaffney, means that some data will still be accessible to scholars. But not all the data. Rather than giving scholars the ability to download a particular dataset, 140kit will be able to offer researchers access to 140kit's analytics. That's not the same as having complete access, but as an academic group, it does sound as though 140kit will be as amenable as possible to scholars' needs and be willing to consider what sorts of analyses people need in order to complete their projects.
Nonetheless, Twitter's changing Terms of Service, without exception to scholars, creates an obstacle to research. "This decision is almost certainly going to shut some researchers out," says Gaffney. "Its a shame because Twitter's clearly thinking about money and operational stability, which are necessary, but they aren't considering the myriad number of PhD students that basically just lost their work, or the researchers that were close to saying something meaningful and now have no way to do it."
Gaffney says he sees a "rocky future" ahead for scholarship based on Twitter and says he hopes that the agreement he's made with Twitter "will last enough time for people to actually continue doing work until whatever comes next."