Can graffiti and public scribbling go digital?

In the Christmas edition of The Economist , there’s an interesting article on graffiti which concludes that the heyday of graffiti is over (partly replaced in the city by the pervasive anti-language of tagging) since the Internet offers a global outlet for ex-wall writers with a yen for anonymous antisocial messaging.

This is true in the sense that there are websites that offer megaphones to ranters of all stripes. But genuine e-graffiti would actually consist of messages surreptitiously splashed on someone else’s valuable real estate, not as message files to a chat room lodged on a receptive website. In other words, graffiti would have to be messages literally scribbled onto much-visited home pages (like popups?), not simply virus-carrying messages, email scams or hacker raids on databases. As far as I know, discursive popup graffiti have not been much experimented with. Presumably the security apparatus gradually being bolted into place on the Internet will soon make such irreverent e-scribbling technically impossible. You might argue that some blogs play a graffiti-esque role in the web’s community, but most blogs are still far too wordily hypertextual to rank as taut mural haikus.

The real digital problem with graffiti, though, is that part of their demotic charm comes from the iconicity of their interface – their mix of phrase and symbol (think Kilroy in Anglo-American culture) crudely inscribed by hand on public surfaces. Take away this physical “I was here” interface, and graffiti lose their punch. Until we get proper scribbleware (beyond the tyranny of the file, as Ted Nelson once put it) which allows us to write and draw at will on any sort of e-surface and have our scribbles saved and searched without having to name them, graffiti will have to stay on the world’s bricks and mortar.

What I’ve called here iconicity brings us to a further handicap for people who want to communicate by drawing. Without laboriously photographing your cartoons or sketches first and then saving them as files and then inserting the file in a blog or a website, it is very hard to share a ‘draw-pic’ (as opposed to a ‘photo-pic’) with others. Think how few bloggers or chat room messages, for example, make use of drawings to convey feelings or experiences. It’s just too complicated. For all the graphic ingenuity of web design, and the plethora of finicky graphics technologies devoted to geewizz image-making, we still don’t have powerful yet intuitive web tools for drawing a quick pic and scribbling a few words around it to make a point. So much for new media.

What about smilicons, you might say, as a replacement for personal drawing tools? I find them too standardized to express anything beyond a sort of metalingual smirk. So dear Santa, what I want for Christmas is a digital pencil box, not that digital camera.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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