Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Blog cowritten by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festval, Ithaca College
PART THREE: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles of Social Media and Human Rights
Overarching all these questions of ethical responsibility – to the person, to the story, to action - is the change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, on an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).
Some provisional principles might include:
We are now in a world of purposeful witnesses, of casual producers, documentary producers and advocacy producers, of governmental, corporate and non-governmental promoters of technology as panacea, of curators and aggregators, of citizen participants in projects of collective voice, and of re-mixers, re-purposeful witnesses and casual sharers of the spreadable and viral.
The question of ethical engagements between all of these sectors for human rights is the challenge we must all enter into, proposing both solutions and questions.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Blog written by Sam Gregory, program director, WITNESS, and Patrica Zimmerman, professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Fetival
Part Two: Topographic Highlights and Conundrums of Viral Witnessing
Human rights ethics, documentary tradition and new emerging communities of affinity intersect and challenge each other during the sometimes fractured, sometimes convergent participation that is at the core of the creation, sharing and use of social media in general and for and against human rights.
This is a moment of epistemological challenge for both human rights advocates and documentary makers and scholars. What does it mean when documentation is no longer the purview of human rights documentors, and where documentary is no longer the purview of documentary-makers? What is the meaning of ‘documentation’ (‘x did y to z’) and/or ‘documentary in an age of a thousand, a million, a billion documentors/ documentarians, where monopolies of power and categorization are being erased, lost, zig-zagged across, confused and obscured? Just as human rights workers and journalists are wrestling with their roles, so too what is the role of the documentary concept and framework in this changing environment?
Let us outline some of the ethical issues arising in the context of social media and consider how these are implicated, complicated and challenged by a range of the potential subject positions of engagement/non-engagement from curators, to (re)purposeful witnesses, to corporate promoters and governmental aggregators. Broadly these areas of ethical concern might be termed – responsibility to the person filmed, responsibility to the story, and responsibility to act.
First, responsibility to the person filmed
Human rights is rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. Human rights practice is often built around a victim/survivor-centered model focused on avoiding re-victimization, and grounded in lived experience that individuals who speak out or are filmed who are not victims or survivors, but bystanders or witnesses, are also at risk (vis. the people who were in the shot when Neda was murdered).
Yet when the witness-creators and re-creators of human rights media include those who are callous, caring and casual, perpetrators, committed and caught-up how do we protect a person from psychological re-victimization, and physical relation and re-victimization, as their image and words are shared in the circulatory networks of social medias, and in an environment of ubiquitous documentation and sharing where the absence of consent or the failure to secure fully informed consent will be increasingly commonplace?
Consider the footage from Egypt shot over the past few years – we have the iconic cases of police torture captured on cell-phone cameras by the policemen themselves such as the el-Kebir case (slide) where police documented their own torture of detainees, we have the serendipitous citizen footage collated on a blog like ‘Torture in Egypt’ (slide) in an act of virtual, empathetic witness and we have the purposeful documentation of human rights groups and documentarians from Human Rights Watch to Al-Jazeera to individual filmmakers. And in some cases the same images will appear in all three contexts.
Secondly, Responsibility to the Story
Within human rights field, there has recently been some discussion around what might be termed ‘responsibility to the story.’ Just as much as avoiding re-victimization how do we hold onto the integrity of the story of the person speaking from a position of challenge or oppression?
Narrative integrity springs both from the experiences themselves and how the person chose to represent them via words and images, but also from the surrounding discursive context and data that often shows what makes an emblematic or paradigmatic story representative of a bigger picture, or the internalized context of embedded metadata that places a testimony or evidentiary image in a particular time and place, and tracks its travels.
When we watch this video “Police Brutality – Police Get What They Deserve’ ( clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XExpnE-xPd8&feature=related ) which has been seen close to two and a half million times on YouTube, images of specific incidents of police and military abuse (including half-way through, and in this keyframe, an iconic incident of Egyptian police torture of recent years), stripped free of any internal or external context, are subsumed into a continuous narrative that loses the logic and individual circumstances of specific moments of violation. Surferknut23 – one of almost 14,000 people who have commented on the video - notes from one perspective and frame he places over the images: ‘all i saw when i watched this video was people who don't know how to listen getting their asses beaten’ while SplittingSkulls from a different perspective comments: ‘Gota love fucking stupid people. A bunch of random photos with no way of knowing what happened and videos from around the world where the laws are completely different then here adds up to police brutality? What a fucking stupid video.’
‘Responsibility to the story’ intersects with the role of the ethical witness as outlined in contemporary scholarship on testimony and witnessing. As Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas put it in the introduction to their book The Image and the Witness (2007) such an ethical witness carry the ‘memory of suffering… in a manner that empathizes with, rather than violates, the silent victim’.
Integrity of the story is also relational – how does an individual story relate to an aggregated collection of stories? This question becomes particularly relevant when we consider the aggregative nature of social media and of the structuring of multiple stories in an interface. Jane Gaines has written – in the context of the Iraq war - about the prejudice of our culture against documentary images; how we are seen to be ‘bombarded with images’ rather than ever ‘bombarded with the written word’, and how moving beyond this position is critical for us to engage meaningfully. This comment seems particularly relevant in the context of the aggregative impulse. Here we enter the realm of digital and database documentary and software design. A range of sense-making mechanisms have been deployed recently by human rights and social justice curators and aggregators – beyond the generic interfaces of such sites as YouTube, the Hub, Facebook Walls and other video, social-networking and information-sharing platforms, they include tools like Ushahidi, used to aggregate text, video and photo from situations as diverse as Kenya’s elections and slums to Haiti post-earthquake, and present them on a mapping interface; as well as other forms of mapping mash-up and video-walls that collect and aggregate multiple voices into a collective statement and a whole range of other locative and interactive media formats. Here, we face ethical questions about how these frameworks and tools preserve the integrity of individual voice.
And this curational voice is not always creating from a position of activist challenge. In London last year during the G20 protests when a bystander was assaulted by police during the protests, citizen curators painstakingly aggregated what had happened from citizen and news media camera, cellphone and photographic images
But in the same year, following on from the legacy of British police’s use of Forward Intelligence Units to constantly film peaceful protestors, police acknowledged that they the tracked the activity of organizers for events such as the G20 protests and Climatecamp on Facebook. And in Iran last year, the Iranian security services, curated pictures gathered from YouTube videos and Facebook on their Gerdab website
And crowd-sourced identification of those involved, as well as asking people to share emails, videos and photos who have ‘broken the stability of Iran after the elections’.
Both of these principles mentioned above – that of the integrity of the victim/survivor’s experience, and that of the role of the ethical witness with responsibility to the story – are made problematic by the possibilities for remixing, re-appropriation, aggregation, curation and recirculation. These possibilities pull the material farther and farther from its source testifier and/or witness and from its original context – even as that process of translation may increase the chances that the footage will find an audience (even an unexpected one) that may be willing and able to respond.
WITNESS has been involved in promoting acts of (re)purposeful remixing and witnessing, supporting student activists within the US-based student anti-genocide coalition, STAND to re-edit a template video making the call for effective legislation to prevent genocide. Student chapters took the template video, as well as other footage made available to them from inside genocidal situations worldwide, and additional footage they shot within their state with local opinion-formers, as well as material they found online and re-purposed. With these materials they crafted individualized videos that spoke to the particular interests of their Senator.
To share some examples, students from Florida introduced their videos in their own voice and made personal appeals to their Senator’s Christian faith, but also identified Lost Boys from Sudan living in Jacksonville, Florida to join them in making a direct request to their Senator. Videos from California and Wisconsin expressed personal thanks to their respective Senators for their actions to date through montages of high school and college student voices; highlighted prominent community figures who the Senators would know and respect (for example, a respected academic and an award-winning humanitarian); and urged them on to do more. Other videos ranged from fully remixed videos to direct-to-camera video introductions and calls to action from student and influential community leaders in the Senators’ States.
Although in this case the video material was largely re-purposed within a tight framework the underlying question that occupies us as we contemplate this project and other acts of documentary remixing of human rights media and social media is how to balance responsibility to the victim, and responsibility to the story with the potential of remix approaches to speak to the personalization and creativity that will generate activism in a younger digitally-literate generation, and to craft highly personalized narratives for advocacy audiences. How does this remix ethos relate to a human rights culture concerned for the dignity and integrity of victims and survivors and about the role of ethical witnessing – a culture that also has a strong sense of control over its material.
Responsibility to action
Finally – and there will not be time to consider this in depth in this paper - we need to consider what we might term an ethical ‘responsibility to action’ - the ways in which different forms of social media create effect on their audiences or participants, moving them to action (since ultimately, at least from a social change perspective, this is the goal). To what extent do they create political mimesis, to what extent do they engage the interstices between emotion and rationality, to what extent do they coherently outline spaces for action and solutions for change to respond to emotional and rational reactions by their viewers? To what extent are they coupled to political action?
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog posting written by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
For the last two years, we (Sam Gregory and Patricia R. Zimmermann) have been collaborating on theoretical and analytical research, protocols, and best practices in the burgeoning world of international human rights social media. We've published some essays, we've organized panels at the Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary, we've written several papers, and we've participated as featured guests on the <Empyre> new media art listserv, moderated by digital theorist Tim Murray and digital artist Renate Ferro.
In our current project (recently presented at Visible Evidence in Istanbul, Turkey), we are interested in upacking the ethical engagements of human rights social media in international networks. We ask, are these forms spreadable, contagious, viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, dangerous? Or all of the above?
Our work here is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media. In the hopes of generating a more international conversation, we've decided to post our recent work on the Open Spaces blog, to crowdsource ideas, debates, and best practices in the international human rights and documentary communities about social media formations and practices.
Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts. Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’. Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.
Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions
Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe are increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons.
The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:
This topography constitutes a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous.
At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user-generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.
These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian Winston, Tom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing
As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?
Stay tuned for Part II and Part III. Until then, we hope you'll join the conversation here on Open Spaces.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Social, Viral, Buzz
Social media, viral marketing, buzz marketing, social networks: these four archetypes of a new world jack in to the neural WiFi system of postindustrial capitalism in recession and collapse. The new digital snake oil, Web 2.0 and its social media offspring promise visibility, relationship seeding with proactive consumers, fast cash, reconfigured jobs, and a new world of engagement and fun with products.
It's digital vaudeville where all that is messy, conflictual, problematic, unresolved, liminal, and non-consumerist, is yanked off the stage with a free new app rather than a cane. It's a place where mobile no longer implies mobilization, but now means having something in your hand so you can consume 24/7 and never be away from work.
Let’s face it. We’re all scared about the future here in the empire in decline that is the United States post Madoff, post Lehman Brothers, post AIG, post bailout. Everything is precarious. The economy and our jobs--if we still have one-- feel ambiguous, despite New York Times reports that recovery is sprouting up here and there. It’s hard to fight back and organize when everything is diffuse and vague and ephemeral, like a cloud that spreads across an upstate New York valley but disappears once the sun rises.
Better than Xanax, the hype and hucksterism of social media smoothe over the edges of panic and anxiety to pave the way for excessive consumption and easy PayPal to snap up slap happy credit cards for infinite upgrades and premium services after free software and free everything is exhausted. Search engine optimization replaces the messiness of meet ups where argument, discomfort,conflict, a perpetual state of open space relationships, and unconferencing are for all intents and purposes normative—but currently disparaged and maligned.
Networks, Newness, Niceness and Naughtiness
In the last year alone, a plethora of books and webinars from the left, the right and the wired have surfaced like submarines in the Arctic, breaking through the unknown, frozen depths of Facebook and Twitter and cracking through the ice-locked lands of Digg and D.e.lic.ious. For those not anointed digital natives, these mighty tomes promise a world of networks, newness, niceness and some naughtiness, like playing World of Warcraft with Chinese goldfarmers to recover from the work speed ups and job panic at your corporate job or cruising Second Life for extra marital affairs with avatars while on furlough from your university or government gig.
It’s a world where instead of using the internet to find a date or hook up with some other like-minded souls when you move overseas (the goal being, in a quite old fashioned way, embodied messy interaction in the sensorium which is the world around us), social media ask you to have a personal relationship with a PRODUCT. In this brave new world, we’re all dating clean machines and launching romances with iPhone apps, Blackberrys, and PowerPoint. Talk about cylons…(this part is for Battlestar Galatica fans)
As Dutch digital theorist Geert Lovink argued at the recent Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities Symposium at Cornell University (mounted by Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities ), Web 2.0 necessitates an urgent need for a critical intervention as we move from MP3s to Napster, from personal websites to blogging, from publishing to participation, from taxonomies to tagging. He sees the contradictions in the current moment: we all need these social networking tools even more when the job market collapses and it’s necessary to be in touch with our professional networks, and when we no longer live where we grew up and want to remain in touch with our communities.
Yes, I admit it: I’ve devoured many of these books like Free by Chris Anderson, Viral Loop by Adam L. Penenberg, Viral Spiral by David Bollier, Fans, Friends and Followers by David Kirsner. And I’ve red- penciled and covered with neon orange Post Its books sporting lots of academic footnotes advancing more criticality: Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff, The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second lLfe and Beyond: From Production to Produsage by Axel Bruns .
Access and the Rest of the Globe
But...the definition of access changes when you move your vectors from the United States to the rest of the globe. Access in many parts of the world means access to clean water so you don’t die from diarrhea, which kills more people than AIDS. Denial of service in other parts of the world means living in perpetual fear of violence, kidnapping, floods, rape, droughts and shootings. A slow connection in many areas of the global south means a roadblock with guns and delays where you can’t ask how long it will take until service is restored because, well, you don’t speak the language or the machine guns just are too big.
Emergent social media fascinates me as a historical continuation of the promise of amateurism to extend production and self-expression and to generate new publics beyond corporations, governments and institutions. I like the idea of constantly evolving technologies that shed their proprietary matrices. I like gadgets, devices, gears,software, and machines, even though they drive me crazy.
I like and use social media. I like thinking about its possibilities for human rights work, for new forms of connection and collaboration, for new ways to invite people into big messy concepts and debates that transcend borders and nations. But this same social media perplexes me. And worries me.
For example: in early October, the FBI raided a Queen’s New York house for 16 hours, arresting a man for using Twitter at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. His crime? Tweeting to spread information on police movements he tracked through a computer and police scanner in his hotel room. Since 2004, mass texting and twittering have become valued tools of mobilization among protesters. Funny, the state department hailed Twitter as a missionary technology bringing democracy to Iran in June. But stateside three months later, well, that’s another civil liberties story all together.
Left, Right, Wired
Unlike a brilliant-younger-than-me-humanities scholar at a recent digital symposium I attended who proudly came out as a technophobe, I’m more of a techno-interrogator living in endless techno-bafflement. I like this riparian zone (to quote Helen de Michiel) between asking about and not quite understanding Twitter democracies, UGC fantasies, Iranian digitopias, and the gnarly webs of contradictions imbedded in virtually all new technologies.
Whether on the left, the right or the wired side, all of these books I've mentioned argue for a new utopia on the other end of the broadband rainbow, defined either by consumption (the business side) or by democratic engagement (the side for the rest of us in that hazy subterranean world of the insurgent and the questioning).
Obama is crowned the Web 2.0 president of the universe, the digital messiah who marshaled the power of many through YouTube viral videos, user generated websites and the promise of a rebuilt digital infrastructure. He’s the new school cool dude who beat those crotchety old school Republicans by hiring some viral marketing gurus from Facebook to translate and update hard core, Saul Alinsky, Chicago-style neighborhood community organizing into a national viral-buzz-social media marketing strategy.
Most of these books I've been devouring are penned by BWMGNs (Big White Men of the Global North). Even the corporate books need to flaunt their love of equality now that the Bush regime is reduced to a digital file on a USB stick, so they worry about broadband access, net neutrality, digital divides, data mining. For many, remedying the digital divide (which is changing at an astonishing rate as cell phones and cheap netbooks penetrate the least developed countries) is just a euphemism for UNTAPPED MARKET. Translation: Asia, India, Africa, Latin America.
And most are utterly silent about any of the gut wrenching human rights issues migrating across the globe where the messiness of race, class, genders, sexualities, ethnicity, immigration, war, torture, and oppression raises incredibly complex issues about the ethics of circulatory culture that extends way beyond the ethics of witnessing through representation. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the ethics of circulating Neda’s death in Iran. None of the BWMGNs are talking about the cell phone images of the monks demonstrating in Burma uploaded on various social media sites that were then used to put those same monks in jail.
Hillary, The State Department and Social Media
But Hillary Clinton and the State Department are talking: they are so excited about the possibilities of social media to reroute trouble in the streets into digital community engagement flare-ups in social networks that they recently sponsored a summit on social media for NGOs who work with youth in Mexico, a country on the verge of descending into civil war and becoming the next Colombia. The Alliance of Youth Movements, comprised of individuals from the private sector, the NGO community, and “some of the most successful digital movements around the world” met in Mexico City, one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous cities in the world, just two weeks ago to “explore the role of technology in connecting young people working to end violence.”
And guess who sponsored this social media confab? An A-list of the new gods of the viral and the buzz: Facebook, Google, MTV, MySpace, WordPress, YouTube, and…the U.S. State Department.
*a big shout out to Helen de Michiel for sharing research and conversation culminating in this blog posting