Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 3 2018 3:11 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Your New Year’s Tech Resolutions

Happy New Year, Future Tensers!

If you’re tired of making (and struggling to uphold) the same old promises to eat well and exercise, we have some suggestions for six ways to detox and simplify your tech-fueled life. If getting in shape really is on your 2018 to-do list, Christina Bonnington has some good news for you: Technology has made at-home indoor cycling a lot more fun.

The new year also offered an opportunity to reflect on how technology changed in 2017. For instance, Google’s AlphaGo Zero reached superhuman play levels, earning a spot on the biggest A.I. advancements of this past year. Facebook started offering some transparency into how Russian agents influenced your feed during the election, Alexa lost its novelty, and Apple apologized for throttling our iPhone batteries.

Did you get a genetic testing kit for Christmas? Before you swab, read this article by Michael Schulson on how easy it is for the government to subpoena the data gene-testing companies are collecting. Meanwhile, Faine Greenwood chronicled all of the people on Twitter who got drones for Christmas—and promptly crashed them.

Here’s what else you missed while binging Black Mirror:

  • Dangerous games: “Swatting,” or the practice of calling a SWAT team on an innocent person as a form of trolling, led to a tragic death in Kansas. Now the FBI is investigating what led to the fatal shooting.
  • Late-night special: Inkoo Kang argues that in the age of Trump, 280 characters of political comedy is all you need.
  • Keep your eyes on the road: Distracted driving kills, and your smartphone is making the roads even more dangerous.
  • How did they know that? If you’ve ever wondered how an advertiser knew something about your demographic background that you didn’t share, Rena Coen has answers for you.
  • Golden ratioed: The Library of Congress is about to get more selective about which tweets it archives, but Jacob Brogan points out that there are other changes needed to make for a more useful collection.
  • Wasteland: Meg Charlton argues that instead of completely eliminating waste, sustainable design should be focusing on how to incorporate the mess we’ve already made.

Rebranding in 2018,
Tonya Blockchain Riley
For Future Tense

Jan. 2 2018 7:38 PM

What We Know About MailChimp’s Plan to End TinyLetter

TinyLetter, a tool used by many writers and artists to email newsletters to a group of followers, will soon cease to exist as an independent entity.

 

As first reported in Inc., TinyLetter’s features will be integrated into MailChimp, an email marketing platform that acquired the newsletter tool in 2011.

 

Jan. 2 2018 5:43 PM

Much-Hyped Smart Lock Startup Otto Abruptly Suspends Operations

Otto, a much-hyped smart lock startup, is suspending operations a mere month before it was supposed to ship its first lock.

CEO Sam Jadallah, a Microsoft alumnus, explained in a Medium post this past Wednesday that an unnamed company that was supposed to acquire the startup abruptly pulled out of the deal. Otto’s initial agreement with the larger company restricted its ability to court other investors and funding sources, so all of its eggs were in one basket, he wrote. Without the acquisition deal, Otto now has no capital. According to a discussion that Jadallah had with TechCrunch over the weekend, the already-manufactured locks are now just sitting in a warehouse.

When Otto first introduced the product in August, tech bloggers praised the smart lock’s small size—comparable to that of a manual lock—and its soft, smooth design that seemed to borrow from Apple’s signature minimalism. Early ads demonstrated how the device would unlock a door with a touch after sensing that its owner’s phone was in range. Users could also rotate the lock to enter a combination.

The prototype set itself apart from its competition in that it wasn’t, as the Verge put it, “a big, ugly hunk of metal.” Yet, the compactness and aesthetic elegance also came with a $699 price tag, almost three times higher than that of other smart locks. During its initial publicity wave, Otto was explicitly marketing its product to wealthy, tech-savvy homeowners.

Price notwithstanding, Otto seemed to have everything going for it. It managed to raise more than $37 million from big tech investors such as Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm that includes the likes of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and Fortune Brands. As Jadallah’s Medium post details, the startup had an attention-grabbing summer debut, rave beta reviews, generous offers from eager investors, and an industrious team that looks from pictures to have consisted of about three dozen people.

So what prompted this sudden fall? Jadallah shifts most, if not all, of the blame for the startup’s collapse on the mystery company pushing the breaks on the acquisition, a turn of events that he describes as “the bullet we couldn’t deflect.” But he offers little insight into why the company got cold feet, simply noting, “The reason is still not understood.”

The one major criticism that Otto’s lock roundly weathered was its high price, though Jadallah asserted to TechCrunch that this could not possibly have been the reason for the failed deal. He said, “[The would-be buyers] knew about the price before the first meeting, and they are very smart people.” He even claims that they were confident the product could go for an even higher price in some markets.

So was it a flaw in the product? A savvy competitor? Leadership failures? (That’s what Ben Havilland, who claims he was laid off from the startup with only 48 hours’ notice and no severance pay, posited in Twitter and Medium posts. He wrote, “It’s not the potential investor’s obligation to invest, it’s the CEOs (sic) obligation make the investors comfortable and confident while keeping your team and future as safe as possible.”)

The answers are elusive at the moment, though we may learn more as Jadallah plans to evaluate the startup’s remaining options going forward.

Dec. 31 2017 9:00 AM

Our Tech Resolutions for 2018

 

When we think about New Year’s resolutions, we typically focus on tangible life improvements like trying to lose weight, eat healthier, or travel more. But technology has become such an integral part of our existence that it, too, can require some work.

So we asked our tech contributors: What do you resolve to change in your digital life in 2018? Below are six ways we hope to improve way we use technology in the new year.

Explore The Outdoors

I’m constantly riding my bike outside to enjoy the spoils of Mother Nature, and while my caloric burn and mileage stats might speak otherwise, I’ve gotten lazy. I ride the same roads over and over, and I rarely stop to document the beauty I see. But in 2018, I vow to take a new approach. I’m going to use things like Strava’s Segment Explore and MTB Project to find roads and trails I’ve never ridden before, and the Magellan SmartGPS app to navigate pathways even when Google Maps gets stumped and moss seems to be growing on every side of the trees. I also resolve to figuratively stop and smell the roses more often—to document and share the adventures I go on, so friends, loved ones, and followers can understand why things like a 5 a.m. bike ride aren’t crazy; they’re glorious.—Christina Bonnington

Clean Up The Homescreen

Paging through my phone, I occasionally picture myself as an archaeologist, studying the ruins of some ancient empire. Its screens are riddled with unused programs, scattered like the decrepit columns of a crumbling fortress: Here I come across games I’ve long since given up on, loyalty apps for restaurants I never visit, utilities I don’t remember downloading. Surely there are treasures buried below the debris, but I’m hard-pressed to find them, cluttered as this desolate landscape has become. I have fallen, I fear, for the antiquarian’s fallacy: the premise that because something is old, it deserves to preserved.

In 2018, I resolve to reject this pernicious myth. I will delete the useless and the unused. I will clear the rubble, the better to visit old temples and build new palaces.—Jacob Brogan

Improve Email Management

The messages fly swiftly and viciously, landing in a virtual pile teetering on the verge of implosion. The notifications divert my attention from the task at hand, but left unread, only serve as kindling fueling a bubbling cauldron of stress. That is to say: My inbox is a mess. I’ve tried Boomerang. I've used folders and labels. I’ve tried ignoring it altogether for longer than is professionally responsible.

This year, I aim to tame the beast. I’m going to actually use the archive button to clear, but not delete, the clutter—on a regular basis. I’m going to better categorize and sort inbox notifications so that important emails don’t get lost between Google Alerts and Zillow updates. And I’m going to respond to more emails—to be more efficient, but to also stop the inevitable influx of “Did you get my email?” follow-ups that come from choosing silence over communication.—CB

Sort My Photos

When I take photos, in my mind I am a natural scientist collecting diverse specimens. Each one is destined for a separate case neatly suited to its purpose: art I like, paragraphs I must remember, things to buy, gift card numbers I need to use, strange shapes of buildings and signs to collect for some future slideshow, events for articles, family on vacation, cute pix of friends for some future reminiscence, funny stuff to share now or later on Twitter or Instagram, or sometimes things I just find beautiful. The truth is I am less a punctilious botanist and more like a kid leaving rocks and leaves all over the house. My photos all end up in one hopelessly jumbled digital pile where they are no use to me at all and sorting them is a hopelessly daunting task. Next year I will do it.—Henry Grabar

Download More Apps

Next year, I resolve to download the apps for the platforms I frequent on my phone—Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Reddit. I currently access these sites by typing their addresses into the Chrome app, a circuitous route that my partner informs me is likely wasting hours of accumulated time. By downloading these shortcuts, I’ll also get notifications on my phone when I receive an email and will have no excuse for failing to respond promptly. (I know there’s a possibility, though, that I’ll end up wasting more time futzing around with these platforms, since they’ll only be one click away, rather than three.)—Aaron Mak

Make Mobile Payments A Habit

Despite testing them on and off since their early days in 2012, using my phone to pay for items in the real world has never bridged the gap from novelty to habit. Apple Pay, Android Pay—I’ve got multiple phones and devices set up so their NFC radios can securely transmit the details of my financial transactions without the need of a wallet. And yet, I still reach in and pull out a credit card or cash, knowing it’s often more time consuming and perhaps even less secure.

In 2018, I want to make phone-based payments a habit. You can do almost anything with your phone. It’s almost always in-hand. I just need to start using it at the cash register, too.—CB

Dec. 29 2017 5:49 PM

Authorities Investigating Whether Call of Duty Dispute Led to Deadly "Swatting" Incident

Andrew Finch, a 28-year-old man who lived in Wichita, Kansas, was killed by an police officer on Thursday after someone called in a phony report of a hostage situation. Although authorities have not determined the events that led up to the fatal shooting, they are looking into accusations that a member of an online gaming community was attempting to play a prank known as “swatting,” which involves placing a fake emergency call in order to direct a SWAT team to an address.

According to Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston, an officer was responding to a report that someone had been shot in the head and that three people were being held hostage in the residence. Livingston said that Finch was shot when he went to the front door, though the police chief did not disclose whether the victim had a gun or what prompted the officer to discharge his firearm. The officer did not find any other wounded people when he entered the home. Finch’s mother told the Wichita Eagle that her son was unarmed.

More than a dozen Twitter users who claimed to be part of an online gaming community told the Eagle that the attempted swatting was the result of a feud between two Call of Duty players. The sequence of events, according to the Twitter users, began when one player threatened another with “swatting” during an argument. The intended target then provided the perpetrator with a fake address that happened to belong to Finch’s family. (Finch’s mother says that he did not play video games.) A person whom other Twitter users accused of making the call posted a message reading, “I DIDNT GET ANYONE KILLED BECAUSE I DIDNT DISCHARGE A WEAPON AND BEING A SWAT MEMBER ISNT MY PROFESSION,” according to the Eagle. The account was later suspended.

The FBI has confirmed that it is involved with the investigation. UMG Gaming, which facilitates online tournaments for games like Call of Duty, is also offering assistance. Some phony police calls are a felony under Kansas law and can carry a 13-month sentence for first-time offenders.

In 2013, the FBI estimated that there were 400 incidents of swatting each year. A July column in the New York Times opinion section suggested the numbers could be far higher. Other stories have discussed the challenges of stopping (and prosecuting) swatting and the ramifications of it happening to someone you know.

Dec. 29 2017 10:50 AM

Report: Prominent Russian Blockchain Expert "Safe" After Being Kidnapped

Update, Dec. 29, 3:05 p.m.: Exmo released a statement indicating that the company “managed to get a hold of Pavel” after his abduction. The statement further reads that Pavel is safe and suffered no physical harm, though he is “currently in a state of major stress.” Authorities are still investigating the incident.

Original story: Pavel Lerner, the senior manager of the Exmo bitcoin exchange, was kidnapped by unknown assailants on Tuesday, according to Russian and Ukrainian news outlets. Local reports say that a group of men covering their faces with balaclavas dragged him into a black Mercedes-Benz. Police in Kiev, Ukraine, where the incident allegedly took place, confirmed to the BBC that a man had indeed been kidnapped, though they would not release his identity.

The BBC also referred to Lerner as a “prominent” blockchain expert. Blockchain is the technology that underlies bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Exmo is an exchange with about 95,000 active users in more than 200 countries. It is registered with the U.K. Companies House, though its main operations are located in Ukraine. Two days after the kidnapping, the exchange disclosed on Twitter that it was the victim of a DDoS attack.

An Exmo spokesperson also sent a statement to Quartz:

We are doing everything possible to speed up the search of Pavel Lerner. Any information regarding his whereabouts is very much appreciated. We are kindly asking you to email to bd@exmo.com in case you are aware of any facts that might help the investigation. Despite the situation, the exchange is working as usual. We also want to stress that nature of Pavel’s job at EXMO doesn’t assume access either to storages or any personal data of users. All users funds are absolutely safe.

Dec. 28 2017 6:42 PM

Apple Apologizes for Not Telling Customers It Was Slowing Down Old iPhones

Apple just said something it rarely says: “We apologize.”

In a “message to our customers” on the Apple website, the world’s most valuable company acknowledged Thursday afternoon that it should have been more transparent about a feature that slows down older iPhones as their batteries age. That long-unacknowledged feature, which Apple said was actually intended to extend a device's useful life, had fueled conspiracy theories about planned obsolescence. Specifically, people had speculated that the company was degrading old phones’ performance via software update in order to prod them to buy new ones.

As a gesture to back up the apology, the company is cutting the price of a replacement battery from $79 to $29 for “anyone with an iPhone 6 or later whose battery needs to be replaced.” The offer will take effect in late January, the company said, and it will post further details soon on its website.

Apple added that it’s working on an iOS software update that will offer iPhone owners more insight into the health of their batteries. That update should be available “early in 2018,” the company said.

Here’s an excerpt from Apple’s note:

We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process. We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize. There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this issue, so we would like to clarify and let you know about some changes we’re making.
First and foremost, we have never—and would never—do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that.

The note goes on to explain the slowdown feature in depth, something Apple had not done before now. Apple first acknowledged it last week, but only after Geekbench and a Redditor had correctly guessed what was going on and published compelling evidence.

The explanation made sense and probably would have quieted the rumors—if only Apple had told people what it was doing from the get-go, or at least addressed the issue of its own accord. Instead, the company hewed to its ethic of secrecy until it was caught red-handed. In doing so, I argued last week, it both undermined its credibility and called additional attention to its flagship products’ limited life span.

The company’s full message is worth reading for those interested in the technical details, as is the original Geekbench post that provoked Apple’s response. Here's a little more from Apple's official explanation:

About a year ago in iOS 10.2.1, we delivered a software update that improves power management during peak workloads to avoid unexpected shutdowns on iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, and iPhone SE. With the update, iOS dynamically manages the maximum performance of some system components when needed to prevent a shutdown. While these changes may go unnoticed, in some cases users may experience longer launch times for apps and other reductions in performance.

Apple has also posted a new support page titled “iPhone battery and performance,” explaining how lithium-ion batteries age and the mechanisms the company has built into the iPhone and iOS to deal with that. Again, all of this is nice—and would have been nicer had Apple done it long ago.

Dec. 28 2017 4:21 PM

Snapchat Keeps Rolling Out Changes to Try to Revive Its User Growth

Snapchat hasn't had a strong 2017. A year that started with a stellar IPO is ending with slowed user acquisition and repeated attempts to stoke growth by reinventing itself. In its latest attempt to revive its that growth, the company is developing a “Stories Everywhere” feature to allow users to disseminate stories outside the app, according to a report Wednesday from the video news network Cheddar.

Development for “Stories Everywhere” is still in its incipient stage, though an anonymous source suggested to Cheddar that Snapchat may help users to more conveniently share content on websites and other platforms via a web player, which would encourage people to download the app. That's a big change for the company, which has relied on its more closed platform as a differentiating feature. The company has hired Rahul Chopra, who was formerly CEO of the social media news app Storyful, to oversee the new initiative. It’s also reportedly considering granting other apps access to its users’ content, such as videos of breaking news, a move that could allow the company to earn revenue from content licensing.

Snapchat was formerly a rising star in the tech industry, growing to become an $860 million company less than two years after its founding in 2011. CEO Evan Spiegal was reportedly turning down offers worth billions of dollars from the likes of Facebook and Google to purchase the company in 2013. Its debut on the stock market in March was also spectacular, with its stock jumping 44 percent on the first day of trading. Yet its shares have been tumbling in subsequent quarters, as much as 20 percent below their initial offering, signaling doubt from investors about the app’s ability to turn a profit and to compete with Instagram and Facebook, who both launched their own versions of Snapchat’s signature stories in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Snapchat has further been struggling with a user growth rate of only 2.9 percent in the third quarter, the lowest it’s been since the company began reporting the number.

Snapchat developers have been introducing a flurry of redesigns and new tools in an apparent attempt to jumpstart the company, occasionally swerving into territory already dominated by other tech companies. Over the summer, the company launched a number of shows featuring original programming, which, true to Snapchart form, disappear after 48 hours.

In November, Snapchat released an updated version of the app, which separated professional media content from that of family and friends, and employed a Netflix-inspired algorithm to sort posts based on previous user behavior. The redesign was aimed at making the app more personal and easier to use, perhaps in an attempt to attract older users.

Earlier this month the company opened its doors to outside developers with the Lens Studio AR tool, a slightly simplified version of the tool that the company’s own developers use to build AR. And on Wednesday it added the “A Look Back at 2017” feature, which aggregates users’ videos and pictures from the last year—similar to Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” feature.

Some of the company’s recent moves to expand have been flubs. Sales for its debut piece of hardware, a pair of glasses called “Spectacles,” appeared to be declining in just the first year after its launch. There were reportedly hundreds of thousands of unsold glasses. The Wall Street Journal also reported on Friday that CNN would cancel its daily news show tailored for Snapchat, called “The Update,” due to uncertainty over its ability to make a profit.

Even with these missteps, however, it appears the company will be thrusting further into new territory in 2018. According to an internal memo reviewed by Cheddar, Snapchat is also looking to put its newly-restructured and expanding content team to work, tasking it with increasing the output of news and other professional content in the redesigned Discovery feed.

Dec. 28 2017 9:15 AM

It Was a Big Year for A.I.

2017 has been a booming year for the field of artificial intelligence. While A.I. and data-focused machine learning have been around for decades, the algorithmic technologies have made their presence known in a variety of industries and contexts this year.

Microsoft UK’s chief envisioning officer Dave Coplin has called A.I. “the most important technology that anybody on the planet is working on today,” and Silicon Valley companies seem to have taken that to heart: They’ve been hiring A.I. experts right and left, and with those in short supply, they’ve started teaching employees the fundamentals of A.I. themselves.

Not every A.I. achievement has been met with admiration and applause, though. Some are worried about the human prejudices that are being introduced into A.I. systems. ProPublica found in 2016, for example, that the software algorithms used to predict future criminals were heavily biased against black defendants. And earlier this year, Facebook came under fire for the algorithmically generated categories advertisers could use to target users, which included hateful groups and topics such as “Jew hater.” Situations like these have prompted experts to urge companies and developers to be more transparent about how their A.I. systems work. However, in many other cases—especially of late—A.I. has been used to good end: To make discoveries, to better itself, and to help us expand beyond the limits of our human brains.

A.I. Spotted An Eight-Planet Solar System

Successful astronomical discoveries often center around studying data—lots and lots of data—and that is something A.I. and machine learning are exceedingly good at handling. In fact, astronomers used artificial intelligence to sift through years of data obtained by the Kepler telescope to identify a distant eight-planet solar system earlier this month. This solar system now ties our own for the most known planets circling its star, in this case Kepler-90, located more than 2,500 light years away.

From 2009 to 2013, the Kepler telescope’s photometer snapped 10 pixel images of 200,000 different stars every half hour in search of changes in star brightness. If a star dimmed and brightened in a regular, repeating pattern, that could be an indication that it has planets orbiting. (You can also use that information to estimate the size and length of orbit of a planet circling a particular star.) University of Texas at Austin astronomer Andrew Vanderburg and Google software engineer Christopher Shallue developed the neural network that made the discovery using 15,000 known exoplanet indicators. They zeroed in on 670 stars with known exoplanets, but focused specifically on weak signals—smaller exoplanets previous researchers may have missed. The planet the duo discovered, dubbed Kepler-90i, appears to be the third planet orbiting its star, much like our own Earth.

Beat The World Champion Go Player

Google’s DeepMind researchers developed an A.I. that plays the ancient, complex Chinese strategy game of Go. The initial version defeated the world’s best Go player in May, but that wasn’t enough. A few months later, Google developed a new version of this AlphaGo A.I.: AlphaGo Zero. This A.I. achieved a superhuman-level Go-playing performance—it beat the original AlphaGo A.I. 100 to 0.*

Bested Poker Pros at No-Limit Texas Hold’Em

An A.I. developed by Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department recently beat professionals at one of the most difficult styles of poker, no-limit Texas Hold’em. Unlike strategy games like chess and Go, poker is what’s considered an “imperfect-information game” because the player must make decisions even as some information is hidden. On top of that, it’s not just making moves—it’s knowing when to bluff, too. In a 20-day competition with a $200,000 prize pool and 120,000 total poker hands played, Carnegie Mellon’s A.I., Libratus, beat the world’s top poker professionals.

And Taught Itself To Program

Artificial intelligence not only made some notable discoveries and competitive successes this year. It also excelled in a different area—making its programmers obsolete. We exaggerate: Several different artificial intelligence programs (including ones developed by Google, Microsoft, and Facebook) learned how to write basic code at a level that could help non-programmers with complicated spreadsheet calculations or reduce some of the tedium that experienced developers have to deal with.

Microsoft’s A.I., DeepCoder, might be considered the most basic of the three, although it’s still an incredibly complicated feat. This A.I. can understand a mathematical problem you need to solve, look through existing examples of code for similar problems, and then develop a code-based solution. DeepCoder could eventually be useful for those who can’t or don’t want to learn to code but need to use a code-based solution for computations (for example, tricky spreadsheet calculations). The solutions are relatively simple and, in terms of solution and structure, are based on situations the A.I. has experienced before. They usually end up being between three and six lines of code total.

Google’s program, in contrast, taught itself to program machine learning software and, in one case, learned to recognize objects in photos—a much more challenging task. Named AutoML, the program ended up achieving a 43 percent success rate at its task—4 percentage points better than the code developed by its human peers. AutoML’s biggest benefit, though, is in automating the process of developing machine learning models, a process that’s normally time consuming for human machine learning experts.

And then there’s Facebook’s self-taught chatbots, which fall on a slightly different scale of self-taught abilities. The two A.I. agents, Bob and Alice, started out speaking in English but then...developed their own language to speak in. “Agents will drift off understandable language and invent codewords for themselves,” said Dhruv Batra, visiting research scientist from Georgia Tech at Facebook A.I. Research, in an interview with FastCo Design. While this got a lot of blowback in the press (“creepy” was a common headline descriptor), it’s actually a fairly common occurrence. A.I. systems evolve using a rewards-based system, and if there’s no benefit from a particular course of action, they’ll try something else instead. Still, the Facebook researchers eventually shut down the A.I. bots since their goal was to create entities that will eventually interact with people—there was no Her-style ending for these digital acquaintances.

*Correction, Dec. 28, 2017, at 4:40 p.m.: This post originally misstated AlphaGo Zero had beaten the original AlphaGo 100 to 1. It actually beat it 100 to 0.

Dec. 27 2017 2:37 PM

The Library of Congress Will Stop Archiving Every Tweet. Good.

Taken as a whole, Twitter is a sort of Borgesian fever dream. Its users—some humans, some bots—send out hundreds of millions of messages a day. Some of those missives contribute to ongoing conversations, while many more go unread altogether. In aggregate, the volume is deafening, noise drowning out signal.

As such, it always seemed vaguely quixotic that the Library of Congress was set on archiving the platform as a whole. It first announced the project in 2010, and the effort continued in the years that followed, swelling to encompass 170 billion tweets by 2013 alone. Soon, however, this improbable endeavor will finally end. And that’s almost certainly for the best.

As the institution explained in a blog post on Tuesday, it will cease to archive every new tweet starting in January 2018. Instead, it will then begin to “acquire tweets on a selective basis.” Elaborating on that shift in a separate white paper, the library explained that it would focus on gathering collections of “thematic and event-based [tweets], including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.”

Summing up the library’s rationale for its new policy, Gizmodo’s Matt Novak jokes, “Why is it stopping? Because tweets are trash now.” Unsurprisingly, the institution itself takes a more diplomatic tone. As it explains in its white paper, Twitter itself has changed, thanks to both the increasing number of tweets and the larger size of those messages. Further, the library now has what it initially set out to acquire: extensive documentation of the platform’s early years.

From an institutional perspective, this is arguably the important point. Like most archival institutions, the Library of Congress doesn’t collect for the sake of collecting. As I’ve written before, for example, its collection of internet folklore is highly selective, driven by the recommendations of scholars and researchers. Similar guidelines have driven its approach to other internet archiving projects. Its goal has never been to archive the web as a whole, only to preserve portions of it. With that in mind, continuing to archive all of Twitter as such seems largely unnecessary, and possibly even counterproductive if future scholars really do want to look into the platform’s rise. Hence its shift to more selective archiving, which will, as the white paper puts it, bring the library’s Twitter “collecting practice more in line with its [other] collection policies.”

In any case, the library still has several questions to resolve before its Twitter archive is even available for use. Among other things, the current all-encompassing collection isn’t set up to reflect the desires of Twitter users who delete past tweets or otherwise limit their tweets—say by retroactively making their account private. Until the library can determine how to respond to these and other issues, the collection will remain inaccessible to researchers—who could, in any case, presumably still find much of the relevant material on Twitter itself.

Ultimately, if the collection is ever going to be truly useful, the library will have to grapple with some other concerns as well. At present, its Twitter collection only takes the text of a tweet, meaning that images and other data get left out. It’s also not clear whether metadata associated with a tweet—including dynamically shifting information such as the number of retweets and likes it receives—is included in the archive. Without such material, the collection could only ever be fragmentary, recording the way we spoke, but not the tone we took; what we spoke about, but not the ways we spoke with one another. As such, it may present an actively distorted information of the ways we used the social media platform.

By embracing a more selective collection strategy, the Library of Congress has the opportunity to resolve some of these concerns. In the process, it might find better ways to help us make sense of what we’ve been doing online precisely because it will be gathering less information about it. Here there may be a lesson for all of us: Perhaps we too would do well to be a bit more deliberate in how we attend to Twitter in 2018.

READ MORE STORIES