In May of 2003, the British newspaper The Guardian was searching for a man by the name of Salem Pax. They knew nothing about him other than the information he’d revealed in his blog posts: he was twenty-nine-years-old, and lived in Baghdad. The newspaper was looking for Pax because they wanted to confirm that he was, indeed, the author of “Where is Raed?,” a blog site that provided a first-hand account of the invasions of Iraq.
The Guardian wanted to write a story on Pax, but what ended up happening would change the history of reportage: Pax, together with The Guardian, published Pax’s blog posts in a book under the title The Baghdad Blog. The book contained ten months of blogs that mused on everything from his CD collection to Saddam’s regime.
When the book was published, two historical “firsts” happened: one, it was the first time in history that a blog was printed in book form, and two, it was one of the first times in history a citizen had used blogging as a tool for documenting history. Many started to grasp how social media was changing the nature of reportage and shifting the landscape of journalism.
As new forms of social media evolve, new brands of journalism and story-telling emerge. At the same time, new social conversations call for new modes of expression.
The recent uprisings in Egypt coincided with the Twitter boom. For the first time in history, citizens used social media as a forum for organizing political uprisings, and regular people tweeted eye-witness accounts of a regime being overthrown in the name of democracy.
Tweets from Tahir is a book of Egyptian posts that record the history of the revolution in the Middle East. The book was put together by Alex Nunns, a British journalist, and Nadia Idle, an Egyptian who was on the ground in Cairo during the protests. The two began archiving tweets as they were posted, calling them “the first draft of history.” The anthology is an edited collection of eye-witness accounts, each – of course – in 140 characters or less.
If form and content have a symbiotic relationship, then Twitter can be seen as the pollyvocal and democratic mode of expression that allowed for a plethora of voices to push back against the authoritarian regime; Egyptians turned to Twitter as a space where they could bear witness to their own history, and the book will landmark one of society’s first polyvocal narrative accounts. The New York Times named the book the first of its kind.
In an article for The New Yorker, Ian Crouch discusses the intellectual property rights surrounding tweets. Crouch raises, why don’t Egyptian tweeters gat paid for their participation, and who owns tweets? While the concern over ownership may be the proper question to ask for an econimist, I’m more interested in Tweets from Tahir from a literary or anthropological perspective. While it’s important to sort out who cashes in on the project, it’s more important to understand how social media has changed the way we’re remembering history.
The biggest problem with history thus far is that it’s always authored by one voice which is inherently biased. Even Pax’s blog spoke from one voice, with one authority and one reference point. Twitter ,on the other hand, contains many voices. Twitter is a social conversation that does not represent one person’s account of history, but instead puts forward a discourse with many speakers.
Tweets from Tahir chronicles not only the renaissance of the Middle East, but also the revolution of social media.
Image via the New Yorker