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. . . .

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Facebook and the Digital (R)evolution of a Protest Generation

Cover of 'I ragazzi del '77', by Enrico Scuro in collaboration with Marzia Bisognin and Paolo Ricci (Bologna: Baskerville, 2012).

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 . . .

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On Wisconsin

Results of the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial election, 2012. Source of results.  Red - Counties won by Scott Walker / Blue - Counties won by Tom Barrett © Gage | Wikimedia Commons

The people have spoken, and they have decided that “fat cat teachers,” and not greed gone wild on Wall Street and beyond, are the source of their problems. A deep disappointment. A defeat. This was my initial response to the results of the special recall election in Wisconsin.

I noticed a Facebook post blaming Obama and the Democratic Party. They betrayed the grassroots. He who engages in a crazy militaristic foreign policy killing innocents abroad was denounced. This is irrational, self-defeating and irresponsible. Politics is about alternatives, and the direction the country would go if it follows Wisconsin’s lead last night is profoundly problematic. There is a deep seeded problem in our political culture that must be addressed at the grassroots and in the Democratic Party.

Big money surely played a role, as John Nichols at the Nation quickly declared, reflecting on whether people’s power can overcome money power. But something more fundamental is at issue. How the broad public understands the problems of our times. Somehow in Wisconsin, at least last night, the Tea Party’s diagnosis of our problems made more sense than the view of those engaged in and inspired by Occupy Wall Street. This was my first reaction this morning.

This afternoon I feel a bit less alarmed, though still deeply concerned. There is considerable evidence that the campaign itself made a difference. With the 7 to 1 spending advantage of the Republicans, many Wisconsinites seemed to be critical of the idea of the recall absent major malfeasance in office. They, along with Walker’s most passionate supporters, prevailed. The Democrats were not as united as they needed to be. Their message was muddled. Yet, despite this, in fact, there was a progressive advance. The Democrats took control of the State Senate. Governor Walker won’t be able to count on the rubber-stamp approval of his proposals anymore.

And oddly polls indicate that if the election were held today, Obama would win in . . .

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Slacktivism Matters

Social media logos © Gautheron | Wikimedia Commons

I found a post on Cyborgology of particular interest a number of days ago, posted a reply, which led to an interesting email exchange with Jenny Davis. We agreed to start a dialogue about the new media and the politics of small things, specifically about the case of Occupy Wall Street. Her post today, my reply in a bit when I finish my work at the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk. -Jeff

Two recent posts on Deliberately Considered, one by Scott Beck and the other by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, examine the role of social media in social movements. They demonstrate the way in which social media allow us to harness the power of the people, contest the interpretations of mainstream media, organize, and mobilize. They show how, through communications on digital networks, physical bodies have come together in physical spaces, protesting both ideological and material conditions.

The points made by Beck and Goldfarb are important ones, yet I believe they should be extended. In particular, we need to address not only  the ways in which these new media technologies work to bring together and document the physical bodies who occupy physical spaces. We also must examin the role of those whose activism never goes beyond the digital realm. We must look at how this latter group, colloquially referred to as slacktivists, matter.

Slacktivism matters in two interrelated ways: 1) increasing visibility and 2) generating a particular zeitgeist surrounding social movements.

Not everyone reads and/or watches the news, and in the age of the 24 hour news media, those who do read and/or watch the news must necessarily be selective in what they consume. What we share on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, therefore, works to increase the visibility of particular news items. Moreover, by linking a news item to a familiar other, to someone inside an actor’s personal network, is to imbue the news item with relevance. Status updates and tweets about Occupy Wall Street, for example, not only spread information about the protests, but also locate the protests in the digitally . . .

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In Search of Anonymous: Down and Out in the Digital Age

Anonymous © Anonymous | Wikimedia Commons

These reflections on a trip to a hackers’ conference reveal an emerging new culture: where the public and private are confused, identity is hidden, appearance is suspected, and surveillance is assumed. -Jeff

My arrival in Vegas has put me somewhat off my equilibrium. It’s twelve in the morning here, and through some trick of non-euclidian geometry, my cell tells me that it’s only been three hours since my flight left New York City at nine. I know that the time-difference has created the illusion that less time has passed than I perceived, but the streets of Vegas are indifferent, and beat out their manic, midnight tempo regardless.

I’m here, in search of Anonymous, that nameless, faceless organization that scares the pants off of politicians and public figures everywhere, a bogeyman, haunting the nightmares of middle-class boomers, and mid-level bureaucrats. This past Summer has seen a great uptick in the number of high-profile cyber crimes, many committed in the name of WikiLeaks, and I know that this may be my best chance to get a word with someone who knows about the splinter-group Lulsec.

Even as Jim, Frank, Karen and I make tracks across the desert highway in the rental car, fifteen-thousand hackers are making similar pilgrimages, converging on our location from all over the world. The leaders from every tribe come to DEFCON, one of the largest hacker conferences on the planet, bring the latest news and gossip from all corners of the world back to their local communities. Nobody knows quite what will happen, but whatever does will set the tone for the entire year.

First impressions, Vegas: a hooker thumbs a ride under a sign advertising six dollar prime rib. The strip is a hallucinogenic wonderland of dancing light, and architectural insanity. Each architectural monstrosity bound to its neighbors only by divergence, and difference. Each is more garish and twisted than the last. This city is a schizoid’s sandbox in the middle of the desert. The land here . . .

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Iran: The Meaning of Free Politics

Post-Election Protest in Vali Asr Square, Tehran © 2009 Milad Avazbeigi | Wikimedia Commons

I recently read a student paper which I found to be quite inspiring. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, uses Hannah Arendt to make sense of the oscillations between hope and despair in Iran. The interpretation of Arendt and its application to an ongoing political struggle remind me of my response to the democratic movement in Poland in the 80s and 90s, also informed by a fresh reading of Arendt. The author sensitively explores the potential and limitations of free public action in an authoritarian political order, highlighting the resiliency of free politics. Here are some interesting excerpts from the study. -Jeff

The streets of Tehran had turned into free public spaces days before the 2009 Presidential Elections. The vibrant scene of groups of people with antagonistic political ideals arguing and debating with one another was truly amazing and unique. After the elections, in a spontaneous concerted act, three million people walked in silence, protesting the results of the election. Those who walked up from Enghelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi Square experienced a sacred time and space. They experienced for a few hours a power that has been engrained forever in their minds. The actors involved created a story and have “started a chain of events,” as Arendt put it in The Human Condition. While they did not walk the path of revolution to freedom, they did experience freedom when they were debating in public corners.

On the days prior to and after the elections, Iranians experienced the extraordinary, because they challenged the “commonly accepted.” They “acted in concert” and owned the streets of Tehran from which they had always felt alienated. The streets of Tehran, ever since, have gained a different meaning. They are a reminder of a moment of “greatness” that will never lose its new acquired significance. It is “greatness” because it breaks through the commonly accepted and reaches into the extraordinary. Whatever is true in common and everyday life no longer applies because everything that exists in the extraordinary . . .

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On Facebook: Real, Everyday Life

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Last week, DC contributor Robin Wagner-Pacifici commented on how Facebook and other social networking sites have changed the language of social interaction. (link)

I find that the change in descriptive language about social connections that she observes is more in the eyes of the beholder than in lived experience.  Life continues as before, full of human connection, with new tools to carry out the same processes.

When Facebook was founded in 2004, I was a senior in high school and accepted early to college with the prerequisite educational e-mail address to join Facebook’s earliest members.  As a member of the Millennial Generation (defined by the Pew Research Center as Americans born after 1980), I am a member of the first class of college students not to ever go to college without Facebook. In fact, I had Facebook before I even graduated high school, and I “met” my dorm-mates months before my first week of school.

That means I never made a college friend that I didn’t connect with online. I never dated someone without looking at their online profile. I also never had a boss or a professor who couldn’t look me up and see what I was about. When I graduated last year, mid-recession, I was warned to “take those personal details offline.” Take them offline? I never thought it was a private space. They were never there.

I’ve observed, in my life, my work in publishing and my research in sociology, that with each passing year, the social worlds of young people are increasingly entrenched in social media. Now, I’ve come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t use the word entrenched at all. The rest of my generation, particularly those who had Facebook as high school freshmen (or even earlier), learned who they were while using Facebook. Not because of Facebook.   Our lives are lived in and through social media, as they are lived in and through face-to-face interactions.

Imagine how the milestones of adolescence are changes (or exactly the same) when lived out in a world wrapped up in Web 2.0. Your high school chemistry club calls meetings on its Facebook page. . . .

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Facebook has Changed the Language of Friendship

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I’ve been brooding about on-line network sites, most particularly Facebook, attempting to get a handle on the nature of relations, commitments, and forces that operate in such virtual worlds.

And this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece titled, “The Crossroads Nation,” that illuminated something about the networked-world phenomenon that I hadn’t clearly seen before. The column’s ostensible topic is the capacity of America to be the most globally networked nation for the 21st century and thus Brooks advocates an economy built on continued digital integration.

Bland and unassailable as a premise (satisfying both more left-leaning infrastructure-building advocates and more right-leaning champions of individualistic success stories)the interesting thing about Brooks’ column is a subtle shift that occurs in the way it narrates human relationships.

“The Crossroads Nation” column is itself constructed by way of interesting shifts in the terminology it uses to label human groupings. Brooks imagines a young person finding her voice and her metier by migrating from a small town to a metropolis and connecting with other creative individuals and groups in the process. Describing this trajectory Brooks begins with traditional words like “country,””place,” “circle,” “group of people,” and switches decisively mid-column to “networks” and “hubs.”

He concludes with a paeon to America’s network capacity: “The crucial fact about the new epoch is that creativity needs hubs. Information networks need junction points. The nation that can make itself the crossroads to the world will have tremendous economic and political power.”

Brooks does not reflect on the significance of this shift, or of the consequences of abandoning these traditional ideas about social and political collectivities. But reading the column made me realize that my diffidence toward on-line social networks has something to do with this transformation in our understanding of groups.  I realized that I do not see myself as part of networks, that such a self-identification is actually anathema. Rather, I think about my life as one that is embedded in a world of families, communities, neighborhoods, workplaces, institutions and social classes.

This stubbornly off-line relational imaginary may have a generational foundation – born in the mid twentieth century I . . .

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