Tag Archives: twitter

Twenty centuries (but two) of writing on walls

wotw-us-coverthThe main point made in Writing on the Wall (Amazon), the latest book by Economist journalist Tom Standage, is that social media isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, Standage argues, media have always been social, with the exception of a relatively brief interlude starting in the early nineteenth century and now coming to an end less than two hundred years later.

That period was the exception: the steam-powered printing press and later the telegraph, the radio and the television meant that media were controlled by a relatively small group of people; hence the term ‘broadcast’. Standage points to a surprising many similarities between the way news spread during most of the Common Era and the way it does now, on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Sure, looking for analogies between wall-graffiti found among the ruins of Pompei and today’s Facebook walls might be taking things a little too far. But it is one of the few cases where I think the analogy doesn’t really work.

The protestant reformation in Germany did get a kick-start because people spread (or retweeted) Luther’s theses. Coffeehouses were the forums of the seventeenth century – and they were frowned on for distracting their visitors from their work. The ‘blogosphere’ of late eighteenth century France did help create the atmosphere in which the French Revolution could take place, like a contemporary equivalent of Facebook had done to the American Revolution a decade earlier.

It is tempting to see social media as an entirely new phenomenon. And while some aspects of it are indeed new, social media is really an old and more natural way for news to spread. We should embrace its return.

Tom Standage is also the author of The Victorian Internet (Amazon), a book on the history of the electric telegraph that draws parallels between the early decades of the telegraph and the early years of the Internet. It combines two interests of mine that tend to be mutually exclusive: the Internet and nineteenth century history. I was thus pleased to learn that the book, which was long sold out, is back in print again.

On Twitter and Censorship

I wrote this post back in 2012 on a wordpress.com blog that I set up for that purpose. I decided to copy it here, because I still think it’s relevant.

I like Twitter.

Not just because I like microblogging — which I think is great — but I like them as a company too. Yesterday’s announcement made me like them a little more. In fact, as it is has been misreported widely and unfairly as ‘Twitter introduces censorship’, it prompted me to finally start this blog.

At a first glance, it doesn’t sound too good: Twitter has given itself the ability to block tweets on a per-country basis. “Censorship!” people have been screaming and that’s what it sounded like to me as well.

But wait, Twitter can already delete tweets when it sees fit to do so. In fact, it has done so in a number of cases when it was required by law. Failing to comply to legal demands to block tweets would mean company could be shut down altogether and its employees could be arrested.

But most of such demands (the US, where Twitter is registered as a company, may be an exception, but I’m not a legal expert) only affect the visibility of the relevant tweets in certain countries. For instance, as Twitter points out, pro-Nazi content is illegal in Germany and France but not in most other countries. Rather than deleting the tweets altogether, Twitter will only withhold them from users in the relevant countries. The announcement thus means that, in fact, there will be less censorship.

But what about repressive regimes? Didn’t Twitter play an essential role in the Arab Spring? And will they now start to block all political tweets from Syria, as no doubt these are illegal under local laws?

I think you have to be very cynical to believe that to be the case. As far as I’m aware, they have never removed any political tweets. And the chances of Twitter opening an office in Damascus — in which case it would have to comply to Syrian laws — seem pretty low, at least under the Assad government. I think it’s much more likely that the Syrian government will block Twitter altogether.

In which case, as in the case of Twitter blocking certain tweets in certain countries, there are many ways around it. In its final days, the Mubarak government in Egypt tried to curtail protests by shutting down the Internet altogether. They failed.

Shouldn’t Twitter just ignore those demands to block content? Yes, they should. But they have to obey the laws, which means they can’t. Within those laws, it seems like they are doing everything they can. They even say they will make it clear when a tweet is withhold from the user and will post all take down notices on Chilling Effects.

Of course, we will have to wait and see how well Twitter lives up to these promises, including the promise to only remove tweets reactively, not pro-actively. I am positive they will though. And until I am proven wrong, I will continue to love and praise Twitter.