The Ordinary Plenty from the Romans to the Web

Jeremy Keith has written another robust and passionate defence of the Web. The whole thing is worth your time, but in it he references something he previously wrote, about the value of archiving public discourse, what he calls the ordinary plenty:

My words might not be as important as the great works of print that have survived thus far, but because they are digital, and because they are online, they can and should be preserved… along with all the millions of other words by millions of other historical nobodies like me out there on the web.

In that piece he references the marginalia of medieval scribes, but this reminded me more of Pompeii. One of the highlights of my visit to the excavated town was to see the perfectly-preserved graffitti on the walls of streets and public buildings. There are tales of rivalry:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

Sweet messages of love:

Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urbana.

And just downright filth:

Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!

It’s not artistic or even particulary literate, but it provides a much more vivid impression of the people who lived there than any contemporary account can ever match. And that’s why I agree with Jeremy on the value of preserving the “unimportant”.