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”.