Date published: October 1, 2011
FUSE in conversation with Anna Feigenbaum
Young Iranian artists participating in the revolution would spend the day running around the streets of Tehran, recording images of mass demonstrations, strategic property destruction, strikes and government brutality. At night, they would gather and watch the footage together -commenting, cheering, arguing and mourning in turn. It was 1 979, the images were shot on Super 8 film cameras, and they were participating in the broad coalition organizing anti-Shah demonstrations that eventually toppled Iran's monarchy, replacing it with the Islamist republic that remains in place today. They would rush home at sunset, develop the film, and huddle around it urgently, itching to know what else had happened that day. Through a mediated sharing of events, they were able to get a robust sense of what was happening, and they used this information to help them strategize. In the summer of 2009, demonstrators in Iran were using media in a similar way to communicate, only this time the cameras were cell phones, and the videos were transmitted across the globe and shared not only with each other in Iran, but also with a global diaspora who edited, translated and retransmitted them in order to be involved and connected. 
Two years later, during what has been termed (mostly in Western media outlets) the Arab Spring, the use of media in these two Iranian examples took on renewed interest amidst further proclamations of Twitter and Facebook Revolutions. How can such historical examples of the role of media in social change help us to develop a more nuanced and critical understanding of how digital media is being used today, not only in the service of democratic movements but equally for the purposes of security and surveillance? To get our collective head around this question, FUSE approached Anna Feigenbaum, a scholar who studies histories of media and social movements. The following is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place in July 201 1.
Much of your recent work deals with social media. Can you define this term?
There's your standard industry definition, which associates social media with the development of web 2.0 technologies. Social media are platforms for the circulation and sharing of information using a "many-to-many" form of communication. This is in contrast to a broadcast or "one-to-many" form, which is more of a traditional model of media dispersion, and how something like television news works.
But people who are interested in new media history will be quick to point out that we've actually always had media that was social, and used media socially. What I study is how social movements and protesters have historically used media in these kinds of sharing, peer-to-peer ways in order to develop movements. So I look at things like when people were first able to take portable VHS cameras into protests, and the kind of protest documentaries they would make and the methods they'd use to circulate them.
Is there an Important distinction between new media and social media?
Well, there are debates about thisl New media generally refers to post-1 990s digital media technologies, Internet platforms, web-based technologies, mobile media, &c. Yet, a number of people in the field of media communications who have a critical perspective on this terminology think that digital media is a better term than new media because, by definition, all media is new at some point in its history. However, there are also objections to the term digital media as not all new technlogies are digital, and we see a number of productions and platforms that combine digital and non -digital technologies.
Social media is a different kind of term, which we could think of as a sub-category of new media, referring specifically to new media that make use of web 2.0 techno-logies and employ peerto-peer networking capabilities that enable users to share files and information.
While these terms can be useful, I would actually argue against all of them, or at least suggest that we approach them more critically.
When we slot practices and creative productions into these kinds of vague- often marketing /PR driven -categories, we tend to fail to stop and think about their social and economic complexities and the outcomes of deploying them. While favouring the digital over the "traditional" often obscures or ignores important (and political) histories of practice, resisting technological change limits our abilities to carry those histories into the future. For example, how can we hold onto positive arguments for digitizing art collections to make them more publicly available on the web, while still embracing and financially sustaining spaces for preserving and exhibiting art in ways that engage and create physical communities?
I think we need a better understanding of the ways "new" and "old" media interact as well as of the ways that media can be social without (only) being on the internet.
How can we complicate the relationship between social media and social change, beyond a simple - and misguided- assumption of social media's democratic character?
First of all, it's important to understand where that assumption comes from. There's both a genuine (if naive) reason that people believe that and then a marketing reason. The genuine reason is that mobile and digital technologies, with their ability for cheap reproduction and platforms that allow for sharing mean that we create virtual public spaces in which people can freely exchange and communicate. This works on a very classic, liberal Habermasian model of a public space.
Then, there's the marketing reason. I was just reading again about the guy-Wael Ghonim-who coined the phrase the "Facebook Revolution" and he's a Google executive. He's a social media entrepreneur, so of course he's going to tell you that it's a "Facebook Revolution." This happens all the time. If you watch advertisements for any kind of new mobile phone, you'll see depicted the perfect image of connectedness, of sharing in a benevolent, happy world. There's a big push from marketers to emotionalize the sharing, to represent democracy as joy and happiness among the masses because it's easier to sell things to people who are happy and have lots of friends. They have adopted a language of social change pretty quickly too, claiming that for themselves.
To complicate this, I would look critically at each one of these two arguments. With the marketing one, that's a bit easier. We can use a classic media analysis to attack that model. It's quite obvious when companies like (tax dodging) Vodafone take images of the Egyptian revolution and put them into their ads, talking about how phones empower people. We don't need to have too strong a critique of consumerism to say, "Hey, we know whafs going on here. Let's be critical about this."
But the other argument is a bit more complicated and deserves more time. A lot of people get hung up here, and what we've ended up with is a somewhat stagnant debate around technology. If you critique the idea that these social media tools are democratic and implicated meaningfully in social change, then you're seen as a Luddite or a technophobe. If you support the idea, then you are seen as a techno-zealot and equally stupid... Because we're operating in this binary, it becomes difficult to identify what is useful about these technologies while also thinking about them critically.
The first thing that we need to do is separate content from technology. I would say that this language of "tools," which we see used by both sides, is something that we need to be more careful and critical about What do we even mean when we say that? Are we talking about the platform as a tool? For example, is Facebook, removed of all its content some kind of empty, democratic space? If we want to claim that it is, then the next question to ask is, "What are we putting in it?" If I announce an Aryan Nation rally, is that an example of democracy in action? If what someone means is that Facebook provides a free marketplace of ideas, then they are using a definition of democracy that has no understanding of social justice, oppression, histories of colonialism... So, what we actually need to have is not a discussion about social media but a debate about the meaning of democracy.
One thing that I think is really interesting about public space for Egypt specifically comes from what was happening in the actual space of Tahrir Square. There were barricades all around the square, and people would spend hours waiting in long queues being checked by ad-hoc security groups. And you know what? That's not a free, openly accessible public space. In fact, what makes the physical square capable of being a space for democracy is that people are actually being checked to see if they at least adhere to a general common ground (mainly that they are not cops or working for the government).
You mentioned that one of the things you are working on is the role of media in social change pre-social media. Can you talk briefly about how that broad, historical perspective can help us to understand what social media is or is not doing compared to how media has functioned historically?
Two things immediately come to mind. One is that it allows us to be critical of this zeal, from marketing or elsewhere, that leads us to believe that the newest thing is what's going to revolutionize the world... During the collapse of the USSR, you had tech-zealots declaring a "fax machine revolution," and when the telegraph was first invented, people thought all sorts of apocalyptic things were going to happen because of how fast messages could travel. This happens every time a technology emerges. It helps to historicize this, and put into context the ways that people have always got exerted about or scared of the emergence of new technologies - particularly communications technologies - because they affect so many people's lives.
The other thing that a historical perspective helps us with is thinking about how these practices that we're calling "new" also have a history. An example from my research is the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. Women would get arrested for an action and end up in prison, and realize that other women in prison had been collecting news clippings about their protests and creating little archives of them, shoved into cereal boxes, or shoe boxes, or whatever they had. When the newer protesters would arrive in prison, the women would pull out all of these clippings. To me, that's a precursor to what we see on Facebook. Folks have always saved news sources about what they're doing, as long as there have been news sources.
That' s one of the amazing things about Facebook -it allows us, with speed and efficiency, to create our own patchwork or piece-meal newsreels. It gives us the communicative power to re-circulate, both enabling us to contest mainstream /corporate media images and to showcase alternative or "minor media" reports and representations. Of course, there are all kinds of baby animals and other clutter mixed in there. This is why I like to call Facebook a container technology, following Zoe Sophia, which is a term that can also be used to describe media such as the shoebox scrapbooks. There are a lot of similar stories that you can tell if you don't limit your thinking about social media to digital media or web 2.0. 1 think it's beneficial to identify and trace the social processes at work in all kinds of media.
Are claims of the central role of Facebook or Twitter in recent uprisings necessarily overblown?
Looking at the statistics of how many people actually have Twitter accounts, it seems clear that while there may be a few key people using Twitter to announce the meeting time of a protest, the way that most people are actually learning about that is just through word of mouth, the way that we always have.
The kinds of statistics that people have been coming up with are that only seven percent of Egyptians have Facebook accounts. There are also a lot of interesting accounts of the use of flyers in Egypt. The photocopier created a surge in activists' uses of print media, but flyers go all the way back to the printing press and even before that. It's interesting to me that print always remains part of a media ecology of social change, and a very important one. An example that I really like, is how the Black Panther Party would always use an image or two in their newsletters, partly in response to the fact that some of the people they wanted to reach were illiterate. Or, if we look at certain indigenous movements in Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere, where multiple languages are spoken and people live in rural areas, we'll see different kinds of communication technologies being used, such as community radio stations that can reach particular cultural and linguistic communities. We can't account for all of those things if we think that everything is happening through web-based social media.
If a big difference between digital media and, say, print media is the speed of transmission, one thing we need to keep in mind is that it works both ways, It takes organizers a bit longer to get the word around if they need to see each other to exchange a flyer or have a conversation, but from a surveillance perspective, those exchanges are harder to monitor. With online forums, we are dealing with a different beast Anecdotally, we all acknowledge that the state surveys and suppresses activists and organizers through social media, but it doesn't seem like we understand the mechanisms that are actually used to do so. For those of us in Toronto, an obvious local example would be the recent use of Montreal-based organizer Jaggi Singh's Twitter feed as evidence against him in the charges he faced after the G20. What do you think organizers should know about how security and the state are using digital media?
This goes back to the exchange we were having earlier about the "tool" model. So, if I'm Jaggi Singh, and I'm using my Twitter feed as a tool to let people know what's going on and where they should be, but that tool is open to view by the police, then is it also a tool for the police? Do we share that tool? If the things that are tools for us are also tools for the police, then it seems to me that we have a problem. For this reason, I find the idea of a container technology to be much more useful than the idea of media as a tool. So, if we think of Twitter as a container technology in which we are putting (or posting) things, but everyone can see what we're putting in there, then we can ask the question of how we want to use it.
On a more practical level, we need to understand that it's not a freak incident when the police use these technologies for surveillance. There are two major ways that they do this. The first is creating fake accounts, so just as infiltration happens in person, it will happen on friend lists. That's not about your security settings, you can set those as tight as you want but some of those people on your list are going to be infiltrators.
The other thing that we should be increasingly concerned about and monitoring is the ways in which police and the state are engaging new media and social media technologies for their own use. Some of the research that I've been doing looks at how digital and "social" technologies are being marketed to the police and to the government They're being sold in the exactly the same way that you are: "Streamline your info from the street cops to the cops in the office and the cops in the van! Take a picture of a protester and instantly send it through your Blackberry for instant identification..." One of the biggest things on the market right now, in the counterterrorism and counter-insurgency policing industry, are portable biometric scanners. They were first used in Iraq and now are being marketed for domestic use. Not only do these things have the capacity to take your fingerprints, but they also do facial recognition, so the idea is that I can instantly take this photo of you and run it through multiple databasesincluding sites like Facebook -and match it up.
I think it's important to raise questions of organizing, infrastructure and strategies for communication. For example, before we rush out to make a Facebook event or start yet another listserve, let's go back to some basic questions about how best to communicate the information and ideas we want to get out. Who are we trying to reach? What media do they engage with? Are these communication platforms or media secure? For instance, is this model of consensus that we've inherited actually serving us, particularly in the "digital age"? It is getting shit done in a way that we're satisfied with? Are there other organizational models that make use of all different kinds of technologies, that we could be using, that would push us further? These kinds of larger, logistical questions are what we need to be asking to account for the currency of new media. Tactics before Tweeting. Or something like that.
[Il FUSE thanks Nika Khanjani and Keyvan Mahjoor for sharing this story.