In 2011, protests across the globe placed contentious politics at the heart of media attention. From the Arab Spring to the global Occupy movements, the world was caught in a rapid of rebellion. The role of new media in sparking, diffusing and connecting these protests did not go unnoticed.
But it’s not only the younger generations of protesters who increasingly have recourse to digital and mobile media in their activism. Old-timers are discovering new media technologies as well. This was exemplified in the recent publication of a series of photo albums on Facebook, containing hundreds of snapshots of Italian activists from a 1970s student movement, the so-called “Movement of ’77.” This was not the first attempt to reunite the 1977 generation, and yet, it has never been so successful. What makes Facebook different? Are we dealing with plain nostalgia here? I would rather argue that these digital photo albums, which open up a whole new perspective on the 1970s, as they turn attention away from dominant memories of terrorism and violence, have potentials in that they contribute to a more inclusive, alternative “history from below.”
In 2011, Time Magazine elected global activists “person of the year”. That same year, Italian student protests which had occurred 35 years ago revived on the web as photographer Enrico Scuro – class of ’77 – uploaded his photographic collection to Facebook. In doing so, he unchained enthusiastic reactions from former protesters, who tagged themselves into the photographs and left comments of all sorts. People also sent Scuro their own photographs, thus contributing to what has become something of an online family album, currently containing over 3,000 photographs. As they narrated personal anecdotes, complemented by other people’s recollections, the former protesters collectively reconstructed the (hi)story of a generation, a history not tainted by traumatic memories of terrorism and political violence – typical of the official and public version of the Italian 1970s. Furthermore, the Facebook rage led to a series of reunions outside the virtual world and, a few months ago, to the publication of a selection of the photographs in book form. So what made Facebook different from previous attempts to gather the 1977 generation?
Facebook helps individuals develop a sense of belonging to a wider community, for example by joining or “liking” groups. The online sharing of photographs reinforces this sense of belonging. It prompts acts of recollection in an interactive and public context, turning the photographs into an occasion for a collective and oral “show and tell,” like the real-life viewing of, say, holiday snapshots or family albums among family members and friends.
Indeed, Facebook reproduces orality in a very similar way as when you’re going through a photo album. The tags and comments, which read very much like spontaneous, real-life or telephone conversations, substitute the pointing out of people or places in an album. This effect is amplified by the use of a wide range of special characters, text symbols and emoticons.
Facebook also changes concepts of private and public, as personal stories and identities are shared in a collective setting. Some of the most intimate photographs in Scuro’s albums, for example, include snapshots of women during or shortly before/after child labour. But then private photographs are always also public and social, in that they depend on shared understandings and conventions.
Nostalgia inevitably plays an important role here. Unlike other European countries, the 1968 protests in Italy were not a one-off event, but extended well into the 1970s, culminating in 1977. In some locations, such as the popular university town of Bologna, the student movement of 1977 had a highly creative and fun-loving character. Things changed, though, after the violent death of a student during riots in March: terrorism and heroin rapidly disarmed the ’77 generation, leaving the former protesters with little more than beautiful memories and bitter critiques of Berlusconian politics.
But the albums don’t simply reply to the generation’s yearning for what is no longer attainable: nostalgia can also provide empowerment. The 1977 photo albums on Facebook then offer a positive and progressive sense of memory retrieval, as people or events that have been left out of official history are now re-inserted into a collective and alternative history from below, thus allowing for a more inclusive history of the 1970s.
It’s obvious, though, that these digital archives don’t fix memories in time, eventually. The options within Facebook to remove tags, comments and photographs, as well as to add tags without control, allow people to manipulate the past. This may explain why Scuro decided to publish a selection of the photographs in book form, thus bringing the digitized photographs back into the analogue sphere. This underscores the unstable character of social networks while demonstrating how people, in the end, prefer the material and tangible photograph to its digital counterpart.