Monday 7 March 2011

Making it real

I remain fascinated by digital things that are re-released into the world as physical objects.

Over the weekend on the New Yorker site, Ian Crouch blogged about Tweets from Tahrir, an edited collection of tweets from the popular revolution that overthrew Murabak in Egypt:

Alex Nunns, a British journalist, and Nadia Idle, an Egyptian who was on the ground in Cairo during the protests, began archiving tweets as they were posted, and have been combing through feeds ever since to build a portrait of, as Nunns tweeted in February, a “1st draft [of] history.”

Crouch's piece makes some interesting points about how collections like this function in the traditional publishing model, asking whether the publishers are paying the original tweeters (no - the relationship, says the publisher, is with the editors, although the tweeters have been contacted and have given their permission).

Brock Shinen, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer, has written that tweets could rarely, if ever, be protected, largely because they trade mostly in facts, which do not fall under copyright. So tweets from Cairo, such as “OMG, Mubarak’s thugs are storming the square on camels!,” might provide a thrilling glimpse into events as they were happening, but they are just short communications of observable fact. Even an incisive tweet: “Egypt’s revolution most important since 1989,” likely lacks the originality or creativity to be protected. Yet the content of tweets may not be entirely given over to the world; a ruling last year in the case of a Haitian photographer whose Twitpics had been printed by several news agencies, including Agence France-Presse, without permission or payment rejected AFP’s claim that printing a photograph was the same as retweeting someone’s post. Twitter users may retain certain rights, though it’s unclear as to how generally applicable this case will be.

I realised when reading this that one of my own tweets has already been collated into a print book. In February 2009 Carl Malamud ran for the position of Public Printer in the States on a platform of open data, and gathered tweets in support of his application into a PDF and printed book. I have a copy of the print book at home. My tweet is on the second page. Malamud didn't become Public Printer, but it was an early intimation for me of what being connected to something big could feel like on Twitter.

Another - rather exquisite - example of this physical/digital, activism-linked trend is James Bridle's print edition of every edit to the Wikipedia page about the Iraq War between December 2004 and September 2009.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

And for the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information. Everything should have a history button. We need to talk about historiography, to surface this process, to challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future.

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