Tweets from Tahrir: selected Tweets from the Egyptian revolution

By Cory Doctorow

Tweets from Tahrir , a small paperback containing -- mostly -- English-language tweets sent by people on the ground in Cairo during this winter's Egyptian uprising is unexpectedly poignant and moving, and even exciting and suspenseful in places.

Obviously only a small minority of those in Tahrir Square were tweeting in English (and a larger minority were tweeting at all), but through this book, a picture of Twitter as a means of quickly bridging together different constituencies emerges -- not everyone was tweeting, but everyone knew people who were tweeting, whether they were in the Square, discovering what was going on elsewhere among the hundreds of thousands of people; or elsewhere in Cairo and wondering if they should take to the streets; or watching from around the world. Twitter, text messages, Facebook and phone calls became a way of shaping the narrative, rebutting the official state media, arguing about the purpose and character of the uprising, and deciding when to hold fast and when to retreat. You get a real sense of Twitter as a thin, somewhat unreliable nervous system that nevertheless turns a crowd into a group capable of explicitly negotiating its actions rather than simply surging to and fro.

Threaded through the tweets are commentary and introductions for context. Through these we learn that the activists who found utility in Twitter really, really got into it (one tweeter published 60,000 words in 140-character bursts during the uprising). We also see the way that Twitter starts off as an "alternative press" but quickly expands its role, and how the global reach of Twitter allows activists on the ground to communicate directly with foreign sympathizers (including other revolutionaries in the Middle East), the foreign press, and Egyptian expatriates around the world.

We also follow the arc of an Internet blackout, as the Mubarak regime shuts down the Internet, a desperate bid to shut down the revolution at any cost, even the millions of dollars that Egypt's economy lost every day that nation was offline. The blackout's effect is visceral, the few tweets squeezed out through dialups and other workarounds, followed by a dam-bursting when the network comes back up.

Tweets from Tahrir is an extraordinary record of an extraordinary moment in history, a collection of first-person observations and reflections that took place in realtime that constitute a new kind of record of social upheaval.

Tweets from Tahrir

Published 4:39 am Thu, May 26, 2011

About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

9 Responses to “Tweets from Tahrir: selected Tweets from the Egyptian revolution”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Love the book! Also enjoyed Ahdaf Soeif’s intro. Just the fact that we have a book documenting tweets as events unfolded in Tahrir is enough to get a copy!

  2. Seefood says:

    On the one hand it’s an interesting piece of history, on the other it may be a cynical way of making a buck. Something inside tells me that this is the easy edition, the English tweets were probably the ones broadcast to the world media, the tweets in Arabic may have contained the more interesting stuff. if the book’s editors chose to ignore them, it makes me wonder if that book is indeed holding any complete historical view or just a way to make a quick buck.

    • agger says:

      A young activist and AFAIK member of International Socialists were on Jon Stewart to promote this book. She did very well, lambasting the American government’s hypocrisy in maintaining their support for Mubarak and asking “both sides” to refrain from violence until the very last minute, and explaining what had been going on in the square.

      Ahdaf Soueif is a famous Egyptian novelist and was present in the square during the uprising. I think this book is pretty legit, not about “easy bucks”.

      • davejenk1ns says:

        I saw that young activist on Jon Stewart, and I agree she did a good job. I also know that Ahdaf Soueif is a famous novelist– but neither of those conditions excludes or disqualifies them from “making a buck”. I don’t want to sound cynical, I am sure these people are sincere in wanting to get a record out and shaping the narrative of the revolution. They’re the victors, so now they get to start writing the history, but if they make a little coinage along the way…

        I have a tangential question: who, exactly, owns the copyright of the text of all those tweets? The author? Twitter corporation? Did the authors of this book get everyone’s permission? Or is permission rescinded when you hit [send]? If so, then where doe the rights then go?

        In light of those questions, this does look like “an easy buck”. There was an almost identical publication “Quakebook” that gathered up all the tweets around the Tohoku earthquake in Japan. (The proceeds of that go to relief funds, so I guess it’s okay?)

        Are we seeing a new trend in quick publishing?
        1. Spot an overarching theme or crisis
        2. Gather up all the tweets
        3. Format accordingly and send to a printer
        4. Profit!

        See? I finally filled in the middle parts….

        • AlexN says:

          Hey, just to get this straight, I co-edited the book and yes everyone featured in the book gave their permission. As for copyright, we worked on the basis that tweeters own their copyright. Whether that’s legally true I don’t know but for us it didn’t matter because we did the book to promote the revolution. To do it without the tweeters’ permission would have been absurd.

          In terms of making a quick buck, the publisher, OR Books, is a small independent progressive publisher who basically print on demand. And it wasn’t quick either – I wish it had been as easy as your 4 points suggest!

          But Seefood is right, it’s not a complete historical view by any means. But you’d be surprised at the percentage of Egyptian tweeters who use English (because English is common among the kinds of Egyptians who can afford smart phones, and much safer to use in a police state).

          • davejenk1ns says:

            Okay, then. My concerns are resolved. (cool– sometimes the intarwebs actually work!)

          • AlexN says:

            I guess so! You’re right to raise the concerns though and to be on the look-out for people exploiting the revolution, so I’m glad to be able to say that this book isn’t an example of that.

          • AlexN says:

            …in fact the publisher has also committed to donating a portion of the profits (if it does make a buck!) to Egyptian grassroots revolutionary movements, as it says here (where you can also read a preview chapter): http://www.orbooks.com/our-books/tweets-from-tahrir/

            Right I’ll shut up now.

  3. Antinous / Moderator says:

    Having looked for resources documenting some of the political activities in which I was involved thirty years ago, I’m in favor of anything that preserves records. I’ve read some ungodly wrong descriptions on Wikipedia of things that I experienced first hand, because the records of events are so sparse.

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