Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Conclusion)

Conclusion

As Egypt struggles to define a new world order through these elections and beyond, it is important to embrace the historicity and narrative of the people’s struggle for rights over the last century, in particular for women. Women have recently taken to new forms of expression and mobilization – namely, social media tools – and have solidified their presence on the streets of Cairo and in the international media circuits.  Their narrative is now being told in a more personal, reflective and raw way than ever before. Asmaa Mahfouz’s 2011 video rallying cry is analogous to Hoda Shawaari’s brazen public act in 1923: figuratively and literally, these women unmasked themselves to the world in a moment of rebellion and fortitude.  These personal stories are what make a revolution: the deaths of Mohamed Bouzazi and Khaled Said, the abuses and struggles of countless women in the streets, the broken arm of blogger Mona Eltahawy, all depict a tragic –  and yet amazingly powerful – new movement for youth. New media systems capture and depose of terabytes of data every second, and yet in this overwhelming mountain of bits and bytes, we can see a clear story of what it is like to be a 21st century woman and man struggle to gain a better future. Their collective stories shape a movement, and will continue to as long as we have memories to contain them and servers to share them. What becomes of a movement, and women’s struggles to define a new path within, it is still unclear. I am hopeful that these stories, and the indefatigable spirit supporting them, can create a new paradigm for women in Egypt and all those who are watching.   

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 3)

Discussion

What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt?

As detailed in the description portion of this paper, women in modern Egypt come from a long lineage of feminist, equal rights and reform advocates, despite continual opposition from autocratic or Islamist parties in a culturally patriarchal society.  In 2011, it became apparent just how important women were in pushing the revolution. Despite harassment and arrest risks, women joined the ranks of men to create the largest uprising in over 30 years (Krajeski, 2011). They blogged and were entrenched in a tech-savvy, sometimes underground, culture (Rubin, 2011). They fought arrest, wrote slogans and chants, confronted police and stood strong among the masses for the 18-day period of protest in Tahrir (Carroll, 2011).  Over 20% of the protesters in Tahrir were women – mostly young – and Facebook pages abound with photographs of women participating in the struggle (Mortada, 2011).

The movement itself was portrayed by the media as being single-minded: get Mubarak out, and usher democracy in, where new paradigms can be created (for youth, the working class, and for women). The single-mindedness – in action or in perception – does not mean women weren’t invested in bringing their rights to the cause, however. It just means the protests in Tahrir weren’t geared towards one “specific group”, according to an interview with Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation (Carroll, 2011).  Women were recognized as participants in a larger cause, and their voices were swallowed into the undulating collective cry of the masses.

According to an interactive interview with renown feminist thinker, activist, and former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, Nawal el-Saadawi, “there is no democracy without women” (Al Jazeera English, 2011), and it was absolutely a “women’s revolution”, despite it not being named as such by the media (Rubin, 2011). She claimed the 2011 revolution “washed away” the discriminations that were imposed by the “patriarchal, capitalist, racist” regime of Mubarak (Al Jazeera English, 2011). It is without question that women were instrumental in igniting and sustaining the revolution that began on January 25, and that women and men alike marched in a common cause for freedom, dignity, and human rights. Whether these men and women can implement women’s rights in a post-revolution society is still a question of concern for many.

What role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution?

As was detailed in the previous description section of this paper, women utilized new media outlets to engage in discourse around the revolution and to call others to action. Asmaa Mahfouz, called by some the “Leader of a Revolution”, uploaded a video to her Facebook page that did not mince words; through her viral video she provoked women and men to join her on January 25 for a “Day of Anger” (Morgan, 2011).  She pleaded a “simple message” that everyone “demand [their] fundamental human rights”; moreover, she provoked “whoever [said] women shouldn’t go to protest” to join her and “have some honor” (Jardin, 2011). This 4-minute video was the catalyst for the January 25 uprising, and is one of many examples of how new media facilitated the movement, both on and off the ground.

The other large example is the Facebook page, “We are All Khaled Said”, a fan page dedicated to the young man brutalized by police before the January 25 protests began (Facebook, 2011). Initially credited to an anonymous online activist, it was revealed weeks afterward that it was the creation of a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, who was coincidentally arrested and tortured by the state police over the course of ten days during the revolution (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). Wael was heralded as a “new hero” and has been profiled in the Western media as the champion for the Revolution 2.0 in the Middle East (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). His story fits nicely with the internet-activist-turned-hero narrative, but what about the women involved? Asmaa’s video is primarily mentioned on blogs and articles written (or co-written) by women, yet Wael’s story is profiled and amplified both at home and abroad by the media. Perhaps because the revolution was largely leaderless, having this particular person represent the people could be what Western media was after all along.  Wael’s hero portrayal doesn’t necessarily negate women’s role in furthering the movement (nor does it downplay their internet activism), but it certainly doesn’t help in augmenting women’s equal representation in what has become the aftermath of a people’s movement. He is hailed as a hero, but there is no heroine, so it seems; it’s not proportional. Even media coverage of women activists has been small, according to Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation, and so attempting a gender-filtered framework for analyzing the revolution seems quarantined to those already working within it (Carroll, 2011). The coverage recently has been limited to the harm or injustices inflicted on women in the media; the most recent report details the violent assault of a female blogger in the “second round” of protests this month (Parvaz, 2011).

Nonetheless, the role of social media is impressive, and has facilitated a people’s movement in a hyper-accelerated timeframe with very savvy activists.  Men and women utilized social media to engage in dialogue, plan protests on the ground and expose human rights violations to the international community; without the prevalent use of cell phone video, texting and real-time updates through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, this movement may not have caught fire so quickly. In an age where information is power and spreads awareness – one can now easily see how “the other” lives – it is impossible to negate the role that media plays in shaping the new narrative of its people.  According to one study of new media in the revolution, almost 90% of Egyptians possessed a cell phone, and upwards of 33% of online activists in Egypt using Twitter were women (Islam, 2011, p. 6). No longer did the state or media elite control all information; it came from activists and civilians alike, and in waves. Raw video content showcased multi-faceted points of view, including: mobilization footage, citizen commentary, political punditry, and (very popular) “soundtracks” to the revolution (Islam, 2011, p. 22). This newly dubbed process, called “cyber-pragmatism”, helped spur nonviolent civil disobedience and ushered in a new way of galvanizing the people’s movements; furthermore, the unmasking of anonymous bloggers, starting with the video tactic of Asmaa Mahfouz, instigated the revolution even further: it helped build capacity and encouraged people to join in solidarity, since they knew they would not be alone in the fight (Graham-Felsen, 2011).

In another light, Mubarak’s attempt to stop all action by blocking the internet only pushed activists further to keep moving. The blackout (visualized below in Graphic 1A) is another way of showing how terrorizing a nation by censorship is no way of stopping people from mobilizing. In fact, it proved the opposite, as Graphic IB shows Western media joining the effort to help reconnect with Egypt during via satellite, SMS and other means of technology: proving that there are always loopholes to internet censorship (Olson, 2011).

(Graphic IA)

GraphicIA-ArabSpring

Visualizing Egypt’s Internet blackout. (2011). Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/01/28/egypt-internet-graphic

(Graphic 1B)

GraphicIB-ArabSpring

Social Media and Unrest in Egypt. (2011). HootSuite. Retrieved from http://images.hootsuite.com/newsletter/unrest_egypt/HootSuite_Egypt_Infographic.pdf

Where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a democratic society?

Problematizing the first two points of discussion is what brings me to the third and (for now) final question, as the possibility of augmenting and reshaping women’s roles in a new society is largely contingent upon how women are viewed through the lens of Egyptian culture. The fact that there are women protesters and activists is not new; women have been fighting for equality and gender rights for almost a century.  Moreover; new media and new faces of youth activism continue the same discourse. According to Amal Abdel, women of the post-revolution are “being ignored” (Carroll, 2011).  The question is not, “are women participating in, and important parts of, a new media-facilitated revolution?”  This question has been answered in the previous pages and is a resounding, “yes”. The issue is now tied to how they can change the system, given that they have been largely acting within it as long as women have been mobilizing.

There are setbacks to the advancements women foresaw while protesting in the street: the interim government’s Constitution referendum in March 2011 omitted women from being cabinet members. Potential political campaigners like Nawal el-Saadawi (who, while attempting to run for President of Egypt against Mubarak in 2005 out of “principle”, was harassed by the state police and ordered to stop campaigning), are subjected to the patriarchal suppression by the state with no recourse (Al Jazeera English, 2011).  Despite gains in workplace and education rights over the past century, women only constitute 20% of the labor force in Egypt, and less so in the political sector (The Economist, 2011).  The 1981 ratification of CEDAW still holds little ground, as women continue to be harassed and subjected to domestic and culturally-sanctioned acts of violence like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to this date (Amnesty International, 2011).  Thus, like many of the countries who have ratified CEDAW and proclaim that the rights of women are synonymous with human rights, the Egyptian stance is thinly veiled. Even the quota system in parliament has been deemed ineffective, as the newly created 64 seats went to members of the ruling party in 2011; it has since been removed to accommodate an amendment to an existing law that mandates each party to have at least one woman on its list of candidates, which has yet to prove fruitful (Amnesty International, 2011).

The recent furor and protests in late November 2011 in Tahrir invoke the frustration and rage from only ten months earlier; however, the current climate pairs the faltering military power with embryonic promises of a democratic order, as Egyptians await a fresh round of parliamentary elections.  Some women go so far to say that even if they do win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, it “won’t break Egypt’s formidable gender barriers” (Nelson, 2011). Yet, a woman, Buthayna Kamel, has emerged as the first woman in history to run for president and stands for what the activists are seeking: “freedom, diginity and social justice” (Zohney, 2011). The results of her campaign could turn around a country that has been subjected to the same patriarchal and hegemonic power structures since colonialism. The act of putting a woman in power does not necessarily equate to longstanding and systemic change, but it does represent the possibility.

The causes women need to fight now and in the transition period are multitude; they are not just political, but also aim for women’s rights to be incorporated and implemented into Egyptian culture on all levels: across class, race or religious lines. Without proper representation, however, the results of all of the organizing, mobilizing and protesting that has been a part of women’s movements over the past century will be deposited into the same narrative, as history repeats itself. Women will continue to fight in the same roundabout way without breaking the power structures that have kept them in place for centuries. According to one source, it’s more than just elections, it’s about a new paradigm (which I agree with): “nurturing high caliber female politicians” and “changing the stereotypical images of women”, both of which are not overnight successes achieved by one video blog (Zohney, 2011).  The long term, systemic changes require a new way of thinking.

A compounding problem in the reshaping of society for women’s rights in Egypt is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a premier opposition party. The Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize key gender issues in society, such as FGM; its 2008 ban happened to be a result of Suzanne Mubarak’s platform during her husband’s rule (Sharma, 2011). Moreover, some women representatives of the Brotherhood go so far as to claim that the ban of FGM was a Western agenda put forth by NGOs in Egypt, and is no different than the concept of plastic surgery (Sharma, 2011). The combination of a potential Muslim Brotherhood rule and the desire to abandon all residual memory of Mubarak’s legacy (the good and the bad) could prove fatal for important women’s rights issues, in particular FGM. The impending results of the parliamentary elections will shine a light whether a path for women’s rights in Egypt will be created for the long term.

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 2)

Women and Leadership

Brief history of women’s movements in modern Egypt

The crystallization of the January events and the flow of action during the Egypt revolution create a neatly bookended movement when viewed through the lens of 21st century media; it happened quickly, forcefully and with adept use of propaganda and activist tactics that solicited international attention and support throughout. But people’s movements are not new in Egypt, however, in particular those of which women were at the forefront. In the 1919 revolution against colonial British rule, Egyptian women and men – across class, party and religious lines -joined together in a common cause that was the dawn of Arab nationalism.  Women even held their own demonstrations for the first time in modern history during that time (Egypt State Information Service, 2011). Through acts of civil disobedience and protesting, rural and urban workers opposed to colonial hegemony achieved independence and sovereignty from Britain three years after the first protests began (El-Shakry, 2011). The 1919 revolution was not quick like that of 2011 (it took over three years, compared to three weeks) but was galvanized by a strong women-backed labor force, with little use of technology other than the telegraph (El-Shakry, 2011).

As a result of the 1919 revolution, Egyptians saw the creation of a new government, replete with parliament and constitution, and yet few gains for women in regards to rights outside of polygamy and education (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 124). The grounds were laid for fomenting women’s rights, however, as women pushed forth to create positions in government and leadership as a result of their role in the 1919 movement.  In a defining moment of the times, a leading feminist and founder of the first women’s organization, Hoda Shaawari, threw off her veil in public as an act of rebellion against patriarchal constitutional laws (Rubin, 2011). She went on to spearhead and lead women’s organizations until her death in 1947. Officially in 1942, the Egypt Women’s Party was founded and focused on bringing equal voting rights to women and a greater presence in politics (Egypt State Information Service, 2011).

Post World War II, CEDAW and 2011

Post World War II in Egypt brought larger gains for women in political and private spheres, including the rise of women professionals in law, medicine and education, and the increased awareness of women’s issues in the region (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).  However, after the 1952 military revolution that deposed King Farouq, the new regime called for the dissolution of women’s organizations; they converted the previous organizations to charitable associations which were subservient to the ruling party’s agenda (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 126).

The new constitution of 1956 granted women the right to vote, and what followed were similar laws that allowed equal positions for men and women in the public sector as well as greater guarantees to working women (Arab Human Development Report, 2006, p. 138).  Continued military rule, the rise of nationalism, as well as a strong Islamic culture, kept women’s organizations from really flourishing in the following two decades; however, The United Nations Decade of Women that began in 1975 presumably injected a new energy into women’s movements (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 29).

In 1981, Egypt officially ratified, with reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the reservations covered family and children issues pertinent to Sharia and nationality laws existing in Egypt.  On paper, Egyptian women’s rights portray a secular society with advancements for women that are unlike those in other Middle Eastern countries; however, this is not the case in actuality.  Despite CEDAW, laws for women’s protection for cases around domestic violence, harassment and divorce have not been instituted at a state-wide level, primarily due to conflicts with culturally-accepted Islamic Sharia laws (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 37).

After the dawn of a new century, women continued to exercise civil disobedience in response to abuses of power, and it appeared the government was helping shape new laws to enforce equity. In 2006 and 2008 respectively, women held labor strikes against structural adjustment programs and neoliberal policies sanctioned by the World Bank (Cornish, 2011). In 2008, the government officially criminalized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a longstanding “tradition” within Egyptain culture that is practiced on upwards of 91% of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 (Clifton & Feldman-Jacobs, 2010).  And in 2010, the People’s Assembly (Parliament) created a new quota that mandates 64 new house seats to be filled by women, a jump in 1,500% in representation from previous years (Hill, 2010).

With the rise and fall of Mubarak, there is an even greater demand for women’s rights to be equated with human rights. With educated, tech-savvy young women and men as the groundswell of the Tahrir Square movement, there is an opportunity for a new paradigm to be created outside of the long-held, state-controlled system. And yet, despite multiple revolutions and incremental gains for women’s rights over the last century, the institutionalized and culturally-sanctioned Islamic perceptions of women’s roles in society still reign strong over women’s progress in Egypt (Geunena & Wassef, 2003, p. 41).

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 1)

Timeline of the Revolution

Mohamed Bouazizi and the Tunisian domino effect

On December 19, 2010, it could be said it was a day like any other, except for one man in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. On that date, a young fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi performed an act of self-immolation after his fruit cart was seized by government officials for lack of a permit (Reuters, 2010).  Fueled by anger at a suppressive government and frustration with high unemployment, one man’s act of protest triggered hundreds of protesters in the streets.  After violence erupted and protesters were killed, the government vowed to “punish” protesters and crack down on the revolt (Borger, 2010).  The unrest spread quickly: less than one month after Bouazizi’s act, Tunisian president  Zine Ben-Ali fled the country, effectively ending the authoritarian government he controlled for over 20 years (Chrisafis & Black, 2011).  The large, unemployed, and educated youth population, with access to 21st century communications (email, texting, internet) helped push the movement forward at a high-speed rate – and the whole world could watch, share and spread the movement across transnational channels in real time (Islam, 2011).

The Tunisian revolution was a catalyst for regime upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), and holds a strong place in history as it is a symbol of civil disobedience and people power in the 21st century. Tunisian women were heavily involved in the revolutions and its aftermath (Cole & Cole, 2011). To deny the shared narrative of the MENA Arab Spring revolutions and the domino effect of the Tunisian revolt would be unfair, but the focus on Egypt is a prominent one, as it represents the largest Muslim country and, moreover, has the potential to be an exemplary model for women’s rights worldwide.

Unrest and a call to action in Cairo

Within four days after the ouster of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei warned of a “Tunisia-style” uprising in Egypt (Shenker, 2011). Protesters in Cairo began mirroring Mohamed Bouazizi with acts of self-immolation.  Meanwhile, a young man, Khaled Said, was beaten to death by police in nearby Alexandria.  Immediately following his death, anonymous activists – later found to be the work of a Google executive – created a Facebook page entitled “We Are All Khaled Said” (Facebook, 2011), which galvanized collective action online.  Similarly, another online act – which brought together online and offline protests – came from a young woman named Asmaa Mahfouz, who recorded and uploaded a YouTube video on to Facebook calling on protesters to gather on January 25 in Tahrir Square (Jardin, 2011).

This video, which went viral – it has over 130,000 views on YouTube and has been shared across the channel, as well as translated to English from Arabic – calls for people to “take a stance” and not “be afraid” to protest the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and demands that human rights be upheld (Jardin, 2011). A departure from the anonymity of social media (a tactic that was used in the Iranian revolutions of 2009 by using alias Twitter profiles), Asmaa unveiled herself as the poster child for the Egyptian revolution.

She used new media tools – video, Facebook, YouTube – to incite others to protest en masse, show solidarity and enact change. Her transparency and rallying cry was accessible to those in Cairo and the world beyond: an unpredictable snowball effect. The term “viral” is often associated with the unexpected or surprise information or idea that passes quickly from one person to the next; within hours it can cross borders, languages, and media channels: it catches fire and can have a shocking or inspirational fallout as a result.

Asmaa’s video led to the January 25 day of action in Tahrir Square, whereby tens of thousands of protesters – at least one-quarter of them women- gathered to chant, yell, and cry for their crippling economic and status to come to an end (Otterman, 2011). The largest people’s movement in 30 years, the Tahrir Square protest is now written in history as a tectonic shift in how democracy in demand can happen at rapid speed.

Government response and the internet blackout

With the tens of thousands protesting and cell phones serving as video recorders, the new media push to spread information was undeniable. Live streaming from blogs, Arab channels such as Al Jazeera, and Western media outlets allowed viewers worldwide a glimpse at the demonstrations, as well as the opposition’s attempts at securing power by any means necessary. The Egyptian government, in retaliation, issued crackdowns by the state police and many were killed (Beaumont, Shenker, & Khalili, 2011).  In a series of efforts to suppress online organizing, Mubarak blocked all access to the internet on January 27, an “unprecedented” event in internet history (Smith, 2011). The internet was halted, but the protesters continued (Lavrusik, 2011).  This event caused even further scrutiny of Mubarak and his abusive power tactics, across the MENA region and the world, culminating to the final breaking point of the old regime (Banks, 2011)

Mubarak’s fall and its aftermath

On February 11, after a series of failed attempts to suppress or appease the protesters and establish control, Mubarak officially resigned (Banks, 2011). The preceding 18 days of action, full of death, anger and strife, came to an end; Egypt, along with the rest of the world, erupted. The fall of a dictator was only the “first phase” (Otterman, 2011), however; the hard work of the men and women had led to this monumental force, but the aftermath would materialize in perhaps even more unpredictable ways. Since the revolution was largely leaderless, the issues surrounding power and control post-Mubarak – be it by the military, the Muslim Brotherhood or an opposition-party leader – were not calculated into the revolution’s strategy. What remained was unclear, and uncertainty grew amongst Egyptians (not to mention the US, Israel, and the rest of the Arab world) on where the next step would take them (Shadid, 2011).

As I write this, a new wave of protests has erupted in Cairo, as the disgust and frustration with the military-controlled interim state has reached a tipping point; the military’s attempt in appeasing the protesters by appointing a Mubarak “protégé”, Kamel el-Ganzouri, has been met with equal fervor and anger to the protests in January. The youth are especially disillusioned  with the 78-year-old’s post, as they feel it is just another wheel in the cog of the same machine that has controlled the government since 1952 ( (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011). The democratic elections of parliament have just started on November 28 and will, for the first time in almost sixty years, present the option of creating a civilian-backed government that generations of Egyptians have never seen (Kirkpatrick, From U.S. and Tahrir Square, pressures converge on Egypt’s military, 2011).

Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution

I wrote a paper in December 2011 around the role of social media and women’s involvement in the Arab Spring as part of my graduate class at USF: “Gender and Globalization”. Following are portions of my paper in a series.

Introduction

This paper will analyze Egyptian women and their role in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. Through problematizing historical systems and current structures, I will attempt to examine the way new media is shaping women’s movements and facilitating women’s rights in a predominantly patriarchal, Muslim society.

I am fascinated by the role of new media in people’s movements, specifically, the new narrative that it helps us create as global citizens. As stories are told in real-time, truly understanding who is writing our own history is a challenge, as tweets, updates and posts fade into the folds of blogs and are lost behind the scroll of endless pages. The use of new media in people’s movements began in 2009 in Iran, and has continued at an even stronger rate since, in particular in Tunisia and Egypt. The role women had in the Arab Spring uprisings – both on the ground and online – was particularly powerful in Egypt, and is backed by a history that has supported women mobilizers in previous periods of unrest. Examining the unfolding of a 21st century people’s movement while attempting to understand a new media narrative is why I chose to do research in this area.

Within the context of this paper I will also be providing visuals – charts and graphs – to illustrate the way these collective points of action – tweets, posts, searches – tell a greater story.

Statement of Purpose

In this paper I would like to address the Arab Spring protests in Egypt through the lens of women’s movements and the rise of social media as a conduit for action and solidarity throughout the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). I will be answering the following questions: What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt; what role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution; where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a newly democratic society?

With these questions in mind, I will be touching on the history and context of the Arab Spring revolutions, starting with the Tunisian revolt in early January and ending with the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in late January. I will examine the role history played in women’s movements and progression of women’s rights leading to the Arab Spring, and address the actions of women and their real-time organizing via social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. My conclusion, largely topical, will focus on the recent events in Tahrir surrounding the current transition government and women’s roles in post-revolution Egypt.

Our Web 2.0 Legacy

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas. Photo courtesy of my iPhone

Last year I took a trip to Peru, a visit sponsored by the volunteer organization I was working for. In addition to seeing our sites in Cusco and Urubamba, I had a full day to explore Machu Picchu. It was like everything I’ve read or seen, and more: the wonder and beauty of the lost city of the Incas – ineffable, pure, silent – was breathtaking.  It had a ‘Disney attraction’ feel as well, unsurprisingly: I arrived at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday to an entrance chock full of tourists and hikers. Student-led archaeological excavations were peppered throughout the site, alongside whispered rumors of its imminent closing due to erosion from constant foot traffic. Machu Picchu was transcendental and cliched all at once; I had seen the famed entrance so frequently in pictures that viewing it in real-life was somewhat anticlimactic. But seeing its entirety made for a wonderful, memorable experience.

I left thinking, how did 500 years go by without any knowledge of its existence?

Which brings me to this post about our legacy in the digital world. If stunning feats of stone and carvings can be hidden and preserved for half a millennium, what does that say about our digital artefacts?  What is our legacy, if it’s housed entirely within servers, algorithms, code and hard drives? Will HTML in the Web 2.0 world be what hieroglyphs were to ancient Egypt?

If millions of years of life, death and evolution can create what we know as Earth’s greatest natural resources, the blood of the earth – carbon-based gas, coal, oil – what will the data server swamps hold for life beyond the 21st century? We cannot grow or harvest life’s organisms from data housed in black sheaths of metal and plastic. How will the terabytes full of digital content compare to the physical wonders of the world – Machu Picchu, Atlantis, the Acropolis? Whose legacy are we creating, and does it matter?

Imagine if there existed a Roomba-like bottomfeeder for the Internet’s lower depths – its main task was finding and consuming the dead and rotting Web 2.0 artefacts: abandoned blogs, disposed Twitter handles, soured April fool’s jokes and decayed user profiles laying on the server’s dank floor, accumulating into hardened plaque-like layers of data sediment, adding to the polluted ecosystem every minute. At present, we view discarded data as harmless, inconsequential or irrelevant: a bi-product of what marketers taut as “our right” to produce and consume as much as we please. This ideology – that we as humans have the right to gluttonously gobble up all the data we want, blind to the consequences – is as insidious as the claim that we have ownership rights over the Earth, its natural resources and its inhabitants.

I wonder what our legacy holds if it is no longer physical, preserved or intact as in eras past: the diaries of authors, the film reels of cineastes, and the stone carvings of felled empires. When we are told that life has never been more accessible, transparent or discoverable, what lies beneath the search engine’s trough? What about that which will never be discovered?

In praise of niches (and cults)?

Oftentimes when I hear the word niche in a sentence and feel it’s an excuse for not thinking deeply about the trend or product it’s attempting to describe. Like, anything that is new, different, or fanciful is a niche. (Lace! Wooden Sunglasses! Zoey Deschanel!) If it can’t fit clearly into an existing movement or market, it’s niche. Or, it’s synonymous with “hipster” – you know, Etsy. Mustaches. DIY. Portlandia. That kind of niche. The hole in the plank you fill with an approximate wedge of wood found on the forest floor – it doesn’t look right, but who really cares? To me, the niche is a community – small, insular, self-contained, inclusive yet deterministic. Not really fit for everyone, it’s own etymology suggests an everlasting fear of growth and deep need for sanctuary.

Compare that to cult. According to my Netflix queue suggestions, cult films include stoner classics (Half Baked), short-lived comedies (Arrested Development), and campy or kitschy one-hit wonders (Ed Wood, anything John Waters). What’s the difference between cult and niche? Well, like the marginal differences between off-brand and generic products from brand names at the drugstore, cults don’t vie for greatness, per se, but are also not derivative from the source – it’s not all pastiche and sass. Yet, people describe cults in the same way they do niches: they’re a way to classify a wholly underrepresented, misunderstood and underrated legion of people who harbor tastes that don’t equate with mass consumption. Folks in these groups may shop at Target, but they wouldn’t be caught dead at Walmart, or Sizzler, nor do they own dozens of flannel shirts. They are somewhere in between.

I would also like to suggest that we separate fandoms and nerd uprisings from niche and cult movements. While it may be that BSG, Stars (both Wars and Trek), Harry Potter, ComiCon, even Glee, have huge followings in “cult”-like ways (an unshakeable fealty, for one), their ubiquity and place in popular culture are signs that well, the nerds are the jocks now, and they are everywhere.

So who really represents cults and niches in the post-postmodern world? It’s not Miller Lite, and it ain’t PBR, either. Marketers will continue their quest to bottle and sell the ever-elusive viral video formula, hoping that a niche bud will soon blossom into a go-to market strategy worth millions. But niches will resist that, otherwise, they won’t continue to thrive in their own worlds of wonder, beyond the caverns of YouTube, beneath the jungle floor of Facebook. To create an aquifer system that pumps the beauty out of these rich ecosystems into the “truly unlimited” meta-world reminds me of FernGully, and I’d rather leave that memory untainted, hopeful that it can outlast even the fiercest green monsters.

I can’t quit you, internet

The internet and its device, my computer, are the nerve center of my life.

It’s my telephone, my typewriter, my television.
My news source, my megaphone, my playground, my water cooler, my entertainment.
My memory box, social calendar, diary, scratch pad.
The amassed accoutrements of previous decades, worth their weight in paper, yet invisible outside the small 11-inch screen of glass, pixels and light.

Shutting it off means forgetting all that lies behind it, within it, and beyond its small frame. It’s my window to the world. My portal, my telescope and camera. My travel book. I collect and store things for safekeeping. I browse, I shop, I purchase, I decide. It empowers me. Text, images and videos educate, disturb, scare and delight me. How is it possible that this all can funnel so swiftly to my eyes and ears, with ease?

How is it that by facing this device, I face the world?

Does it watch me? It feels my fingers pressing and prodding its keys one at a time. Furiously and softly all at once. Click, tap, tap tap, click. Inanimate object, or dutiful accomplice?

As we mirror computers after humans, whom do they seek? Are they merely just extensions of physical beings, of the human experience?

If we quit them, they wither and die. Life shuts down for both of us.

#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 2)

DML Conference

This post is the second and last in a small series about the DML 2013 conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

As I mentioned in my last post, the DML Conference proved that it was not your ordinary education conference – it was casual, not only in atmosphere but in spirit; it lacked the corporate smothering or pretense of academic confabs that I’ve been to in the past. Its genuineness and warmth allowed organic conversations and discourse to flow freely. During the three days of plenaries, panelists and PowerPoints, I noticed common themes throughout – relating to agency, power, engagement and worldview. Underscoring these themes are the elements of storytelling and the invitation (to connect).

Agency – it looks simple, but when you peel the layers of the onion it reveals itself as a complicated concept. Technology enables this oversimplification in the media, especially. When you click “like” on Facebook, is that revealing your agency? Is it wholly your choice? Does that “like” represent you, or only part of you? Or what about the “like” itself – does it  endorse, accept and vote for that object, organization or movement?  In traditionalist terms, agency means to “stand up and be counted”. Using your voice, your body – a physical presence. Now, the 21st century vision of agency is warped and transmogrified by the technological coatings around it. Agency, and all its layers, matters greatly, and was a major theme of the conference. In Panel I “Envisioning 21st Century Civic Engagement“, I saw the embodiment of agency first-hand. Youth groups from the Bay Area and LA’s Watts Youth Collective shared how they tackle agency in tough communities: circumventing the digital divide by blogging from a broken cell phone; using Twitter to engage in counter-storytelling; confronting hegemony through analyzing (and consequently ruining) Disney movies. Citing Gramsci, Freire and Dewey, these kids were challenging norms and systems that subvert agency in ways that society fails to recognize. This panel crystallized the ideas of empowerment theory and critical consciousness in the 21st century. It’s no simple formula, and the individual does matter. Their stories matter.

Power is represented through many forms; in education, it’s authority: society, parents, teachers, tests, police; however, in social justice movements it’s also tied to individual power structures. In Panel II, “Engineering Change“, youth from the Bay Area were transforming their own experiences through voice, storytelling and connecting. Examples like Youth SpeakYouth Radio and the Hidden Genius Project, young men and women actively challenge their own power issues at home through participation. Be it performing spoken word, presenting a business plan, or developing a mobile app, these skills represent changing structures of power in young people’s lives. They are able to transform from one area to the next using 21st century technology and media production, and create their own content worlds in the process. They are able to connect and define democracy as they see it – by inviting others. Yet power structures remain – they are not equalized despite the movements that  attempt to subvert them.

Worldview was implied in a lot of the stories and examples of youth engagement and activism. Whether in developing skills to confront society’s biggest issues or making mistakes along the way, frames are created and destroyed in the process of becoming engaged and active, both on and offline. In Panel IV “What can a concerned kid trust“, Chicago area organizations like the News Literacy Project, Columbia Links, Free Spirit Media and Radio Arte shared how youth were developing their journalistic and media skills through storytelling and activism campaigns. They learned how to use broadcast media to not only perfect their craft but also to share their stories. The panel also touched on media literacy skills and how these organizations helped guide youth in becoming more media literate.

I was disappointed that this particular topic of media literacy was centered around the “protectionist” approach, which argues for guiding youth and protecting them from misinformation or separating “fact from fiction” through a variety of toolkits and strategies. I’m not disagreeing with this approach entirely, since such guidance is needed and is important, however I wish that they had applied a more critical media lens to this framework, focusing on the systemic structures that shape how and why we receive the information we do online (especially news and media campaigns), rather than the treatment of it postfact. I was excited that the title of Panel IV was “KONY 2012, FEMA camps: What can a concerned kid trust?“, however the Kony phenomenon was only mentioned while the panel was describing its theme: “news literacy”. No further attempt (during this or other panels) was made to understand how media literacy should also include a critical lens – by focusing on hegemony, power, control, or postcolonialism, in the KONY example.

What I am trying to get at here…

We cannot separate media literacy from engagement. In order to understand how movements can change and shape worldviews, subvert authority or garner 100 million views on YouTube, we need to deconstruct who is behind these campaigns, why they are present, and what their goals are. It’s more than just being able to tell if a website is a hoax, or if a video is inaccurate, or finding truth in fiction (because really, what is truth?). It’s also about confronting privilege.

I noticed that this theme was lost even in the “global movement” panels – Getting Global with It, From Click to Clictivism. and Citizen Action in the Global South. The panelists extrapolated on the ideas of cosmopolitanism, global citizenship and social media activism with a lot of great examples, but without acknowledging the issue of privilege in global social movements (ie. Kony). While they recognized the multiplicities of many movements: the half-truths of what constitutes a “true” movement from a global perspective, or the assumption that all movements are good, they didn’t address the way that privilege and power connect what gets heard and what doesn’t. If the Watts Youth Collective can use Gramsci to counter the dominant narrative that oppresses their communities, why can’t we also examine how KONY 2012, for example, exploited the spectacle of war-torn Africa for donations? What about Charity Water or others that use celebrity to drive their cause? What image does “humanitarianism” project to people of color, if they aren’t the “objects” of it? How can we confront these issues more clearly in digital media and education conferences? I wished that the White Savior Complex had been addressed further in this conference. We got a twinge of it during the last plenary, when the Harry Potter Alliance spoke of dropping food aid on Haiti, but then it quickly died off.

I’d like to see more of these conversations happen.

Let’s put two and two together when talking about media literacy and engagement. Engagement can facilitate literacy, and literacy is more than understanding “truth” from “fiction”. Let’s move beyond the empowerment/protectionist binary and bring in critical theory to the mix. Let’s take the privilege and CRT discourse out of the current paradigm and into the world of social media. Let’s empower youth to become global citizens without assuming the gaze of postcolonial privilege, where “changing the world” starts and ends with a click of a button. That’s just not how you learn about the plight of others.

Twitter

#DML2013 Debrief: Reflections on Digital Media and Learning Conference (part 1)

DML Conference

I have to say the first thing that struck me after arriving at the Digital Media and Learning 2013 Conference last week in Chicago was its lack of pretension. It was a very well organized setup, and no-frills –  the $75 entry fee meant no swag, except for some free publications in book and pamphlet form (which are by the way really great), and no corporate sponsors with their flimsy handouts and gimmicky promotions – a sign that it was going to be a really authentic experience. It turned out to be much more than that: intimate, inspirational, and validating, I came away from it feeling full of new ideas and questions.

This post is the first in a small series about the conference –  what I learned and what questions remain.

Overall Theme – Democratic Futures: Technology as Catalyst for Social Change
Called “Democratic Futures”, the conference brought together a diverse cabal of folks in many different spheres of education to discuss how young people can be agents of change in their communities and beyond. It was definitely an activist-centered conference, and technology was just the layer on top of it, the catalyst. I quickly realized that there were 3 distinct camps present in both the audience and speaker groups: 1) the research and technology folks who were pushing innovation both in and outside the classroom (still, very little product placement involved); 2) the educators, higher ed or below, who may have been more traditionalist in their approach to technology uses (citing often the “protectionist” approach to safeguarding youth online; and 3) the social justice organizers and students themselves who were clear agents of change in their communities. At times I could sense the tension between the three camps, since they each had their own vested interest in how technology could or could not work for them. The bottom line: technology is not a savior, and should not be an excuse for involvement, not scapegoated for when things fail. It should help you get from point A to B, to express yourself, to empower your community, to get your message across. The dominating hype is not going to die down anytime soon, so we need to be the ones to recognize and counteract it with our own stories.

Keynote by Ethan Zuckerman MIT Center for Civic Media: “Beyond the Crisis in Civics”
Ethan Zuckerman’s talk was the most anticipated of the conference, not just because he was the keynote but also because he is widely known for his activist work in the US and abroad. What I took from his talk is summarized below:

In our heavily mediated world, we should be focusing on agency rather than “traditional” civics participation. Gone are the days when being a civically-minded person meant you would have to write your congressman or newspaper – the internet allows for a sliding scale of engagement as well as new forms of participation: from signing an online petition to remixing a political ad to creating a story about your own community’s struggles, there are more ways to “practice civics” than ever before. We should also reinterpret how we view “authentic” participation; while we are accustomed to movements like the Arab Spring, where a critical mass indicates “true” mobilization, we should also think about how that can be met via different means, with different outcomes. A spectrum of involvement has been created as a result (see picture below). Yet, because of new media’s rapid “spreadability”, we often have to evaluate after the fact: the slow swell does not play out well on YouTube. But questioning that impact is becoming more important: Was Occupy successful? Or the Arab Spring? Other examples are more clear: KONY2012 was a success in terms of its campaign goals, but the bottom fell out quickly afterwards.

Matrix of Civic Involvement

Follow up questions:
What constitutes success if ultimately we are just recirculating old ideas of activism in new forms? New media complicates this frame: because online campaigns are trackable and “achievable” (they can scale at a much faster rate than offline), they change our understanding of success. When does a click represent more than a symbolic action?

For the full Keynote presentation and writeup far more in-depth than mine, please visit the Center for Civic Media’s blog.