If journalism is the first draft of history, what is Twitter? Nothing as substantial as a draft, that's for sure. The first doodle, maybe. The first cough? It is tempting to dismiss the 21st century obsession with expressing every single thought as nothing more than a collection of observations which doesn't amount to much.
It is, of course, more than that: a temperature gauge on the mood of a nation, a way of making and breaking reputations and a fully-fledged news service (you could follow the reports of the summer's riots just as well on Twitter as on the news channels and there was a case to say that the Twitter correspondents were often closer to the action). But where does all that on-the-ground reporting go? What role will it play in future generations' understanding of our lives? Is Twitter the first powerful means of mass communication that will play no role in history?
This was a subject touched upon in yesterday's Start The Week on Radio 4, in which the guests unashamedly plug their latest book, rather than try to slip it into conversation at every opportunity. The show included some eminent historians – and Boris Johnson.
The London Mayor, pictured right, was promoting his new book, which discusses the pre-eminence of our capital city through the lives of some its most notable inhabitants, you know, the likes of Dick Whittington, Geoffrey Chaucer, Boris Johnson (only joking) – during which the role of Twitter in chronicling modern history was half-heartedly discussed. (By the way, Boris also, in the midst of his typically articulate contribution, used the word "lexeme", which I have to admit was a new one on me. I have since discovered a lexeme is "abstract unit of morphological analysis in linguistics". Now that's what I pay my licence fee for!)
Anyway, even though you're unlikely to encounter a lexeme on Twitter (a prize for the first person to use up six of their characters this way), I do believe that the issue of how we will record the tumultuous events of the past year or so (wars, the Arab spring, financial meltdown in the global markets, Nancy Dell'Olio's expulsion from Strictly) is a relevant one. Clearly, there will be learned tomes about most of these issues, but they won't have the immediacy, the currency, or indeed the raw power of tweets or Facebook postings.
What is needed, I think, is a form of global social networking monitor, which preserves for posterity some of the most relevant comments made as history unfolds. I am not embracing the sombre idea that, in the future, we will have Piers Morgan or Stephen Fry instead of AJP Taylor, but neither should all of these billions of words and millions of thoughts, simply vanish into the ether.