The $10 Storify: ‘Distant Witness’ by Andy Carvin

Over the last two years, the Arab Spring has been an intense period of uprisings and violence in the Middle East. It’s impossible to ignore the striking images, videos and stories coming out of the region.

One such person packaging the stories is Andy Carvin (or @acarvin on Twitter), a senior strategist at National Public Radio. From what seemed like the beginning of the revolutionary movements, Andy Carvin has tweeted and retweeted (sometimes numbering in the thousands per day) first-hand accounts of demonstrations and fighting.

He recently released a book titled “Distant Witness” (available on Amazon), which acts as a retelling of key events in countries.

Organized in sections on boiling points in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Carvin pulls together a coherent and compelling narrative, all using first-person accounts.

Each chapter sources and quotes — in full, in quote blocks — hundreds of tweets, with Andy Carvin letting the sources he compiled do a lot of the talking. Where needed, Carvin peppers in background for a particular situation. It’s a very effective mode of storytelling — I quickly likened what I was reading to an extra long Storify, the service that lets you compile a bunch of tweets into a narrative story that is then embeddable across the Web. Carvin is a somewhat frequent user of the service and mentions it in the book. Psst, Storify, here’s your business model: turn published Storify into easily digestible ebooks and print books.

The narratives in each country are dramatic and oftentimes heart-wrenching. The story involving journalist Mo Nabbous, who was killed hours before NATO airstrikes in Libya, was difficult to read, because of the personal connection Carvin had felt. The retelling of the controversy surrounding the Gay Girl in Damascus blog was an insightful and scary look at deception online.

Finally, the epilogue, composed of two parts in which he retells his visits to Egypt and Libya — free Egypt and free Libya, that is — are fantastic pieces of storytelling on Carvin’s part.

Some of the more fascinating behind-the-scenes moments are when Carvin describes just how he was able to find (and vet) sources that he’d follow during an uprising. In some cases, he’d go through a trusted source’s list of people to follow, in other cases he’d see who was getting mentioned most frequently. In a passive way, Carvin was able to amass a strong list of first-person accounts more quickly — not to mention more safely from the comfort of Washington D.C. — than a journalist on the ground would.

Even as someone who followed Carvin on Twitter through these tumultuous periods, his book does something that Twitter can not: provide context. And it was admittedly easy to tune out the barrage of retweets in my timeline after a while, so getting a chance to read the story in a more structured way eliminated much of the confusion I had in real time.

In other words, “Distant Witness” is well worth a read, even if you followed it the first time around.

You can follow me on Twitter: @JeremyDStanley.