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Twitter Decay and the 112th U.S. Congress

Dan Chudnov, Director of Scholarly Technology, GW Libraries

Don't kid yourself that social media lasts forever.

If you use Twitter, you may have seen an occasional deleted tweet or even one or two deleted accounts. If those deleted accounts seemed odd, consider our elected officials and how they use Twitter. Many politicians have campaign accounts, and when they win election to office, they often have "official" accounts. Typically these official accounts are separate from their campaign accounts, but not always.

We've been developing a software application called social feed manager that collects data from Twitter for later study and research, and we've been working with Professor Albert May of SMPA to identify congressional accounts we should follow. Professor May gave us a list of all the active official accounts from the 112th Congress -- close to 500 -- and we started collecting tweets from them. A funny thing happened just after the new year, though, as the 113th Congress prepared to be sworn in: departing members' official accounts started disappearing.

All of these official Twitter accounts that were once publicly available to the world are now deleted, or are otherwise unavailable to anyone:

  • petestark
  • SenBenNelson
  • RepTimHolden
  • RepRickBerg
  • RepNormDicks
  • RepMarkCritz
  • RepLynnWoolsey
  • RepJJJr
  • DennyRehberg
  • CongBobFilner
  • RepDanBurton
  • JerryCostello
  • SteveLaTourette
  • SueMyrick
  • donmanzullo
  • eltongallegly24
  • repjefflandry
  • RepCanseco
  • RepChipCravaack
  • RepDonnelly
  • RepHansenClarke
  • RepJasonAltmire
  • RepJohnOlver
  • RepLarryKissell
  • RepTimScott

We collected as much data as we could from these accounts before they disappeared. We missed out completely on several of them, but we were able to capture 14,479 tweets from 16 accounts. Those 16 accounts reached 105,993 Twitter users (a total reached by combining raw numbers of follower counts for each of the 16 at the time of the last tweet we collected).

We're not in a position to make definitive statements about what this all might mean for the obligations of elected officials to preserve records of their public communications. We can say for certain, though, that if you wish to keep records of social media interactions for yourself for personal or scholarly use, you should be pro-active about collecting that data while you can.

If you're interested in working with library staff to collect data from Twitter or other social media sources to support your research needs, please get in touch with us.

[Update] @aaronemyers responded on Twitter to point out Section A.3.c. of the U.S. Senate Internet Services Usage Rules and Policies which states "The Rules Committee shall require the removal of a website or channel maintained by the Member on such third-party website or channel at the end of a Member's term."

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