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The Textual

Pictures of text aren't just convenient, they're beautiful.
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(Photo: calliope/Flickr)

(Photo: calliope/Flickr)

At the end of last year, technology critic Mat Honan wrote a smart piece on “The Rise of the Screenshort,” his preferred term for the screenshots of text that are shared on Twitter. Ever since Twitter started embedding photographs, users have used these screenshorts to bypass the character limit on tweets. They’re a safe way of subtweeting too, since you can post a screenshort of someone else’s profile or tweet and they’ll never get a notice or be able to search for your offending mention. Honan also points out that tweets with images, even of text, get more engagement than those without, so users not only get to cheat by using more than 140 characters, they also find that their tweets are read and shared more than if they did not have the screenshort.

I’ve thought about these little pictures of text for about as long as I’ve had an iPhone. Honan even mentions an essay that I wrote for the New Yorker last year about how my camera roll had taken the place of my notebook: not only a place for pictures taken with my phone’s camera, but also a warehouse for all sorts of other images like screenshots of text from the Web, pictures of poems from subway advertisements, screenshots of text from emails, and pictures of text in books and newspapers. There was an increasingly large amount of text in the world that I had photographed rather than transcribe by hand or describe in my own words.

I might post some of these images to Twitter (looking over my account I see where I shared a short letter to the editor this way as well as the first few sentences of a piece in Pacific Standard about deceptive technology), but many of them live only in my camera roll for private use or might get sent to a close friend over email or to a colleague via text message. So while Honan is right that the screenshort is native to Twitter, images of text are popular on lots of other programs and platforms too. Forgive me if I make a noun out of an adjective, but I suggest calling these textuals.

Textuals are images based in text. They might have become popular on social media, but they are much older. They are not only easy to share; they’re easy to create. One of the reasons that they are so popular is that it is faster and often more reliable to photograph a block of text than it is to transcribe it with a keyboard or even cut and paste it as text.

The first textual I ever made was years ago in college when one of the rare books librarians told me that while I could not photocopy the pages of a poet’s drafts, I could photograph them with my digital camera. The library had limited hours, so rather than having to use those precious hours to copy all the manuscripts by hand, many visitors chose to photograph their research materials. And while photocopying the manuscripts might harm them, photography without flash was usually permitted, though always with the understanding that the photographs were for personal use and not to be published or posted publicly. I made lots of textuals there at that library, but also thousands of others over the years in archives and libraries around the world when I only had a few days with extensive materials or where I wasn’t entirely sure yet which texts would prove useful. Those textuals, of course, had nothing to do with Twitter.

Textuals thrive because they are effortless to create, but also often because they are aesthetically pleasing or precise. Take post-text Pinterest where inspirational quotations appear in ornate fonts, sassy catchphrases get plastered on photograph after photograph, and snippets of text are cut from all sorts of texts and pasted onto images familiar and foreign to their origin. Most memes include words, and often the most successful have more words than you realize. On Pinterest and all sorts of other social platforms, these textuals flourish not because of ease or character limit evasion, but because aesthetically they are more dynamic than their transcribed-text equivalents. Textuals are popular because they are beautiful and engaging, not merely because they include more words than could otherwise fit in the space.

On Twitter, a phrase or sentence that might fit in a tweet can become more popular as a textual because graphically the image is much more interesting. The textual is almost always distinct from the surrounding text. Even though it contains words, they are often rendered in different colors, fonts, or sizes. Preserving the spacing and all sorts of line breaks from the original source also allows you to represent space and simulate time, which is why, for instance, poetry is better rendered as a textual than as a tweet. Textuals also offer the guise of authenticity: capturing handwriting, maintaining native formatting, and surviving attempts at erasure. Say a corporate account deletes an offending tweet: A transcription of that tweet is less convincing than a textual that documents it.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the dynamism of photography, even of letters and words, would be so popular. Typography has always been as loyal to beauty as legibility. So while it might make it easier to read and archive if I render my best friend's handwritten message as text by transcribing it, making a textual of her handwriting and the spectacularly wonderful way she wrote my name on a postcard from the West Coast is more powerful than the words themselves. A lot is lost in transcription. Textuals aren’t post-text; they’re just rendering text in new ways.