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June 1, 2012, 2:20 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Lessons in blogging (and tweeting) from Samuel Pepys

Phil Gyford talks about what he learned about writing, tweeting, and context from his just ended, nearly decade-long recreation of the famous diarist’s work.

Samuel Pepys was prolific, keeping a constant narrative of his life and the world around him from 1660 to 1669. That’s pretty damn impressive by most standards, especially considering the only reason the man stopped was because he feared he was going blind. Blind. The Pepys diary is historically important not just as a primary document of a rich period of English history, but as an advance of the medium itself. It’s one of the most famous diaries ever.

And thanks to Phil Gyford we have it in blog form. Also, tweet form. Turns out Pepys would have made for a pretty good blogger and a good follow on Twitter (though he does often report on his meals). In 2002, Gyford set out to recreate the Pepys experience by posting the diary daily on Pepysdiary.com, mirroring the writing pattern of Sam himself. And as of yesterday, when the diary had run its course, Pepys signed off for the last time, again.

Gyford’s project wasn’t parody (@Pepys_ebooks!) or an update (Pepys loves Pinterest!). It was a faithful, contextual example of how blogs and tools like Twitter can help us experience history in unthought of ways — a model that’s been repeated numerous times by others in the years since. As several news outlets have tried their hand at re-telling stories from our past through blogs and social media, Gyford provides a good example on how to relive history on the web. He’s also a portrait of endurance: Who among us not named Robert Caro can say we’ve worked on a single writing project for 10 straight years?

I had an online chat with Gyford (who news nerds may know better from his remarkable reformatting of The Guardian), lightly edited below, about Pepys the blogger, Pepys the tweeter, and what he learned over the years.

Justin Ellis: Well first off, congratulations on completing the diary. Is it a relief to be over?
Phil Gyford: Definitely.
Ellis: What was your daily routine like for posting the diary for a decade?
Gyford: No daily routine…I usually prepared a week’s worth of entries at a time. At first it was maybe a couple of hours a week. But more recently, it took between a half and one day a week, so I’d spend most of either Friday or Saturday on it.
Ellis: What do you mean by prepared? Was it just finding the right passage for the right day?
Gyford: No…well, there’s the diary on the website. For that I had to add all the links into the text, and create any new Encyclopedia pages for them to link to. That sometimes involved working out exactly who someone was, or where a place was on a map. And then for Twitter I picked out a few bits and lightly edited them for length so they’d fit.
Ellis: I liked all the context (the Encyclopedia of topics and places, Also On This Day, even weather records from the time) you provide on the website. This may be a stupid question, but why did you want to include that?
Gyford: Because so much of the text either makes no sense without more context, or just loses a lot. Knowing something about the people involved, aside from what Pepys says about them, helps bring it to life and give you another view on what kind of person they were — what they achieved, how they looked (from which we probably make many snap judgements about what kind of person they were…)
Ellis: You probably get asked this all the time, but why did you start the diary?
Gyford: I do :)
Ellis: Sorry!
Gyford: Because I was interested in reading it — because I live in London and was aware of him, but knew little about him. But I knew that I’d never actually read through all the volumes in book form. Too long and daunting. I was reading a lot of blogs at the time, 2002, and it seemed like his diary would be perfect in blog form. I assumed someone must have done it already. Unfortunately they hadn’t, so I felt I should, especially when I found there was a copyright-free version of the text on Project Gutenberg.
Ellis: And then you made the jump to Twitter. Does Pepys translate well into tweets?
Gyford: Yes, I think so. Actually, at first I was thinking I’d just use Twitter to post a link to that day’s diary entry, because a lot of people seem to use Twitter for sharing links. Then I thought I should add a little quote with the link and then I realised I should just make it completely “in character” and be nothing but quotes from the diary as if it was Pepys tweeting. I think it works very well. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have stuck through all of the diary-as-blog as a reader — I just wouldn’t be interested enough to cope with the length, when there’s so much else to read online. But I like the tweets a lot, how they slip into your daily routine, and give an impression of someone going about their daily business at the same time as everyone you know.

Ellis: So the tweets might fit better with a reader’s attention span?
Gyford: Some readers. I’m not 100 percent, sure but I doubt there’s much crossover between tweet and blog readers when it comes to Pepys. Other readers love the detail of the blog — it’s part of their daily routine of something to read over breakfast or whatever.
Ellis: Twitter does seem to fit the spirit of what he did. In the same way I might tweet about watching a basketball game, Pepys tweets about going out to dinner.
Gyford: Yes. While there’s a certain conceit to it — if Pepys was tweeting he wouldn’t have tweeted all those private events, just as he wouldn’t have posted them on a public blog…but I tried to keep the quotes I used for Twitter to be very in keeping with the medium, so that they weren’t too jarring when part of the flow of normal tweets.

Also, he never broke character as much as someone on Twitter can — he was entirely in the 17th century. He never replied to anyone, posted a link, or anything except post text from the diary.

Ellis: No Foursquare check-in from Pepys.
Gyford: Yes, I think that would have been a bit too odd. Too apart from the text.
Ellis: Was Twitter more difficult in a way? Picking out the right quotes that fit into 140 characters? Also, did you use something to schedule the tweets?
Gyford: The bulk of the work was preparing the diary entries for the website. Preparing the tweets wasn’t that difficult really, and just meant some careful editing to make them fit. I wrote a script that posts the tweets automatically. Also, my hosting provider limits me to only running scripts once per hour. That felt like a hassle at first, but I think it was mainly good for Pepys — it meant I wasn’t tempted to post too many at once, which could become annoying. He just drips in occasionally.
Ellis: Pepys spams your Twitter feed. How did the number of people following the blog and Twitter feed change over time?
Gyford: There was a lot of interest at first — interest bloomed in a few days and I did a few bits of press, so it was a lot more popular more quickly than I expected. But since then, aside from very occasional articles here and there, there’s been little coverage and I think interest has dropped off a bit. It’s been fairly steady for quite a while, but the start was its peak. The number of Twitter followers has been growing steadily since @samuelpepys launched.
Ellis: I’m wondering what your thoughts are about using the Internet to give a better understanding of history. We’ve seen other efforts like this, people doing live blogs or Twitter feeds for things like the U.S. civil war.

Gyford: One aspect is that as we’ve become increasingly used to having the net as a continuous part of our lives — it’s given us new ways to experience the past. Years ago, we might have used the Internet quite a bit, but it was either only at our desks or only on a laptop.

These days we (a) have the ability to be online all the time if we want, and we (b) have more online environments that we use more continuously — Twitter, Facebook, etc. are more ongoing experiences, unlike most websites that are a bit more sporadic. (I guess websites like forums are a bit of an exception to that.) So we’re now able to experience these historical events in a way that we couldn’t before, by using time. Experiencing World War II one tweet at a time might seem quite superficial at first, because there’s so little textual content there, and that’s true. But over time, we experience WWII at the same pace as people who lived it. Obviously, it’s nothing like the same, but it’s also different to just reading a history of the war in a book over the course of a couple of weeks.

The passing of time gives those little drips of events added weight.

Ellis: You spent a lot of time with Pepys’ work now. What do you think about him as a writer or just as a person?
Gyford: As a writer, I don’t know…hard to judge. It’s a diary, rather than something written for publication, and I know nothing about other contemporary writing so can’t judge it in comparison. As a person…very tricky. On the professional level he seems to have been good, competent…he reformed the navy and put in place things that lasted for a long time. As I understand it.

On a personal level…he gets a lot of flak for his philandering. The worst of his philandering justifies the disapproving words — going round kissing and touching up many other women isn’t good husbandly behaviour however you spin it! But I don’t know how much that can be (very partially) explained by changing times — it’s still not okay, but I really have no idea how his contemporaries would judge him. But still, not good, and he knew himself that he was wrong.

One thing I find interesting though is that because of this obviously wrong behaviour any other times he mentions in his diary an attractive woman, then people on Twitter are very disapproving…when even today the world is full of people much more openly “admiring” people of their favoured gender. It’s what we do. And so it’s a shame that him doing it, and then writing about it in his personal diary, is looked on by some as bad behaviour.

Ellis: That’s fascinating. People almost forgetting this is in a personal diary, and that the fact that it’s his diary is the only reason we get that insight. Fooling around with the help is timeless, I guess.
Gyford: Yes, if we see his diary as simply him writing down his thoughts — I wonder how many of his readers’ thoughts are entirely free of these kinds of musings! (Aside from the actual things he did, which are wrong, of course.)
Ellis: Now that you’ve spent all this time writing about Pepys, do you think it gives you a feel for what it was like for him writing back then? I mean, 10 years is a long, long time to be writing one thing.
Gyford: I don’t think so. They’ve been very different activities, physically and mentally. I write my own diary myself, although it’s much more sporadic. I think making yourself write a diary for every day would be the best way to get a feeling for what he felt. The self-analysis, working out what’s important to say, etc.
Ellis: So what do you do now? What’s next?
Gyford: No idea. It’s great!

Photo of Phil Gyford courtesy of Matt Locke. Image of Samuel Pepys from Wikimedia Commons.

POSTED     June 1, 2012, 2:20 p.m.
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