In-Depth Analysis

Digital Events: Media Rituals in the Digital Age

The shaky video clip lasts for less than one minute. A young woman falls to the ground in a pool of her own blood, bleeding from her chest, as several men rush to her side. Two men press their palms against her chest attempting to stop the massive bleeding. As the camera operator approaches, her pupils roll to one side, she seems to be looking into the camera. Another woman’s screams are heard as the men frantically shout “Neda” and plead with her to stay with us and open her eyes (Omidsaeedi, YouTube, 2009). Blood streams out of her nose and mouth into one of her eyes; she dies with her eyes open.

The woman in the video was later identified by her fiancée as Neda Agha Soltan. Neda lay dying on Kargar Ave. in Tehran, Iran Saturday June 20, 2009 during a post-election protest, allegedly shot in the chest by a member of the Basij, a voluntary militia that takes its orders from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Using a cell phone, an anonymous bystander digitally captured the moments just after Neda was shot. According to news reports, the author of the video then contacted a virtual friend he had met through Facebook who lived in the Netherlands, and asked him to post the footage. The virtual friend, known only by his first name, Hamed, uploaded the footage to the Internet and sent copies to the BBC and The Guardian as well as other media outlets. Within hours, two distinct clips surfaced on Facebook and YouTube. Shortly thereafter, the video was broadcast by CNN, thus making “Neda” a household name (Langendonck, NRC Handelsblad, 2009).

Today, I am here to talk about how mobile and social media fit in to the ongoing discussions about media’s influence on public life. I am going to make this argument in three parts. First, by offering a brief overview of Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz’s concept of the “media event,” as outlined in their book of the same name, and more recent additions and amendments to this theory. I will then define what I call the “digital event” by looking at the capture, distribution and reaction to the Neda video. Finally, by examining the online and face-to-face response to the video, I hope to persuade you that the Internet and mobile media are able to bring about public awareness, elicit ritualized response online and in the streets, and therefore, recreate the sacred through bringing together publics in the same way that media events have.

Dayan and Katz defined a certain format of television programming, which they believed provide the public with a new way of attending a ceremony. The authors describe how a “media event” brings people together to participate in a historic, political or social occasion that takes the form of a televisual ceremony. Dayan and Katz identified three types of media events: the contest, the conquest and the coronation. Some examples of these include the Olympic games, Presidential elections, religious pilgrimages, space exploration and state weddings and funerals. Media events are unique in that, “they are, by definition, not routine. In fact, they are interruptions of routine; they intervene in the normal flow of broadcasting and our lives” (Dayan and Katz, 1992, p. 5). Most often, numerous stations broadcast the event simultaneously, nationally and/or internationally, without interruption, thus monopolizing the airwaves for the duration of the event. According to Dayan and Katz, the broadcast takeover facilitates the creation of a unifying experience and ultimately an arena of sacred space (Dayan and Katz, 1992, p. 89). Furthermore, the time-sensitive nature of the event functions to unite the public – those watching at home and those who are in attendance – and share the experience of witnessing a historic moment. Media events manipulate space and time, keeping the viewer far, but also near. The medium is able to bring outsiders in to an event of great social, historical or political importance. Even though the television viewer is not physically in attendance at the event, they participate almost as fully. In fact, the viewer at home is given the advantage of an unobstructed view and voice-over narration that is not offered for those in attendance.

The media event is a highly structured and delineated process. The ceremony or ritual is planned, scripted and often times rehearsed. It requires the cooperation and collaboration of many different people and agencies including broadcasters, event organizers, the event audience, the viewer at home and many times, the state. Additionally, the media event oftentimes relies on tradition to dictate how the event is presented, for example, in the case of a state wedding or funeral. Since agents outside the media and the television studio organize media events, the role of the medium is to provide the channel for transmission. Here, the format promotes public unification and community through ritual, tradition and celebration.

Media scholars have pointed out that the media event does not account for disruptions or conflict; for example, terrorist events, natural disaster coverage or the spectacle of war (Couldry, 2003; Cottle, 2006). “Media Events” was published before 9/11 and the global “War on Terror” and more recent theories have addressed this issue, updating and expanding upon the concept of the media event. Katz himself later argues that, “media events of the ceremonial kind seem to be receding in importance, maybe even in frequency, while the live broadcasting of disruptive events such as disaster, terror and war are taking center stage” (Couldry, 2010: 33). As I come to defining my notion of the “digital event,” I see it situated within the contextual framework of Simon Cottle’s concept of “mediatized rituals.” Cottle (2006) defines mediatized rituals as “those exceptional and performative media phenomena that serve to sustain and/or mobilize collective sentiments and solidarities on the basis of symbolization and a subjunctive orientation to what should or ought to be” (p. 415). He then sub-categorizes mediatized rituals into six theoretical arguments: moral panics; celebrated media events; contested media events; media disasters; mediated scandals and mediatized public crises. As we see it, Dayan and Katz’s concept is subsumed into the category of celebrated media events. On the other hand, digital events do not fit nicely into one of these categories. Since I am relating the notion of the “digital event” to the specific mode of communication, the theoretical approach can differ depending on the situation. The Neda video could be described as a “media disaster” and a “mediatized public crisis.”

Neda’s death itself, while certainly an event, is only a portion of the narrative of this “digital event.” In this situation, I see the digital event beginning when the witness started recording the situation. After he finishes recording, he pursues making the situation public by sending the footage to a friend who is able to upload it to the Internet and distribute it to news sources. Once public, there is an outpouring of reaction from online viewers, which takes the form of ritualized digital mourning and the reproduction, reposting, forwarding and linking of the video. Those that took to the streets after her death carried the image of her bloody face printed on posters and flyers.

The digital event is digital because many of its major components take place in or are facilitated by digital media, which includes mobile media like cell phones, or digital space, including the Internet and social networking websites. Time is the obsession of television whereas space is the obsession of digital media. Space in terms of location and geography and space in terms of capacity, capacity for memory: storing, archiving, uploading, sharing, remembering. Raymond Williams’ (1974) concept of “flow” is inevitably linked to discussions about the temporal nature of television. According to Williams, “This phenomenon of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristics of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form” (p. 86). Televisual flow consists of the totality of television’s contents: news programs, documentary shows, narrative programming, etc. It has been repeated many times over that people watch television, not shows or programs. When it comes to event programming, for instance, Dayan & Katz’s “media events,” flow is interrupted. Mary Ann Doane (1990) argues that we can identify media events as such when the referent becomes indistinguishable from the medium (p. 222). Alternatively, the digital event is timely, but does not interrupt flow. In the case of the Neda video, once the mainstream media picked up the footage, they packaged and delivered it to the audience in the format of a crisis (Doane, 1990). However, the ritualized public response came as a result of the video’s digital presence and the interactions protestors and supporters were having online and in the streets.

Many actors are responsible for the success of the media event, which is also true for the digital event. Both digital and media events situate the audience in a participatory role. Granting regard in the form of attendance or visual participation establishes the media event as legitimate. Examining the technology or medium used is one way of understanding the medium’s unique characteristics and social capacities. As we have seen, the media event demands a passive audience. Although McLuhan described television as a “cool, low-definition” medium that requires the viewer to extract the meaning from a program, this is clearly not the case with media events as meaning is predetermined and calls on cultural scripts familiar to the viewer. In the case of the Neda video, the cell phone was used as an instrument of witnessing. Protestors had been recording the extreme violence on the streets from the start of the protests. Pictures and videos uploaded to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook show protesters holding their phones in the air recording what was taking place with hopes that others would also see. The digital event requires a high level of participation at every level or phase of the event. Citizen journalism was responsible for the publicity of the Neda video as well as the millions of viewers on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook that eventually took to the streets in memory and protest. July 25, 2009 was declared A Global Day of Action in Paris and a hundred other cities around the world. National Geographic photographer Reza printed 500 masks of a portrait of Neda and had protestors sit in front of the Eifel Tower for a photograph.

One of the distinguishing features of a digital event is that it does not require event organizers, pre-planning or scripting. The video of Neda was recorded and distributed by two individuals and did not require the mainstream media in order for it to gain widespread attention. However, the Neda video did eventually become subsumed into the mainstream media and was played unedited on many networks. In Iran, the media is controlled by the state; however, the Internet is proving to be problematic for the government. Despite government restrictions, what is happening on in the streets of Iran is being made visible around the world by way of digital media as well as mobilizing publics in the name of ritual protest online and in the streets. Neda’s death represented some of the fundamental injustices that brought the protestors out to the streets in the first place.

The digital event takes place everywhere and nowhere. In this case, Neda’s death was only witnessed in person by a handful of people. The cell phone provided a portal to a time, place and situation that would not have otherwise been available. Spatial boundaries became fluid; those outside Iran and unconnected to the protests became witnesses with the capacity to react and respond. In fact, the video was more accessible to those outside of Iran where there are less government restrictions regarding the media and the Internet. In large part, those outside Iran came to learn about Neda through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The mass media referred to the post-election protests as the “Twitter Revolution” and the “Facebook Revolution” in that each of these social networking sites was instrumental in bringing attention to and mobilizing those participating in the opposition movement. Additionally, the U.S. State Department urged Twitter not to push out a scheduled update because it would interrupt service and the events in Iran were tied to Twitter as a source of information and communication in a nation notorious for censorship.

During the height of the protests, those in the U.S. and other countries outside of Iran were changing their location on Twitter to Tehran, Iran in order to confuse the Iranian government, who many believed were targeting and performing online surveillance on election protestors. When someone creates a profile on Twitter, they can specify their location by choosing a time zone, which then appears on their Twitter profile page. Those who believed the Iranian government was targeting protestors through Twitter thought that it would be harder to track down the real protestors if everyone was declaring Tehran as their location. One individual using the name FORIRAN2009 tweeted, “Change timezone to Tehran – Disrupt Basiji (secret police) from tracking iranians.” Those not initially connected with the election or even every having any previous interest in Iran showed solidarity for the protestors after viewing the Neda video. In the days and weeks after her death, digital mourners continued to post links to the Neda video and also created slideshow and montage Neda tributes, wrote poems and songs in her honor, posted messages and changed their profile images to read “Where is THEIR Vote,” a reworking of the phrase “Where is MY Vote” that was being used by Iranian protestors. A user going by the name “Green4Iran” tweeted, “People in Iran: Shoot as many videos as you can and upload it. World is watching. Make sure the date well noted!”

AngelaChenShui tweeted, “VERY Graphic RT See 4 yourself the creation of a martyr http://bit.ly/9PVfO #iranelection #gr88 #Mousavi #mousavi1388 #Pray #Prayer #Freedom.”

Jonap tweeted, “Will Neda’s death be the rallying cry that Mousavi could not possibly be? #iranelection #neda.”

Rootvetwife tweeted, “RT They murdered #neda, but not her voice: http://bit.ly/14cX6p #iranelection.”

Inspiredkk tweeted, “#Neda in the hearts of the world. The most beautiful martyr in history. Shame on the mulahs, shame on the government. Neda lives…”

These and many similar messages were posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube over the days and weeks following Neda’s death. In response to her death, groups on Facebook were calling for her nomination as Time Magazine’s “Woman of the Year.” In 2010, a documentary called “For Neda” was released and is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube. To this day people continue to mourn, ritualize and honor her as a martyr.

Neda’s death and the image of her dying gaze were instrumental in creating a thread of solidarity and collective mourning for protestors online and in the streets. The decision to look, to witness, to grant regard, to capture and archive and then make visible to a wider public no longer requires the massive collaboration of broadcasters, event organizers or the state. Dayan and Katz demonstrated that the sorts of ritual practices Durkheim studied are observable in the televisual age. I have tried to demonstrate that such practices are alive and well in the ritual dimension of the digital.