Digital ‘Artifacts’ of Revolution

On October 16, 2014, popular photo hosting service Twitpic announced it would be shutting down. The announcement came after weeks of negotiation, as the company attempted to find a buyer that might save it from obsolescence. Twitpic advised users to download their own photo archives and gave step-by-step directions to aid users in saving and storing their photos before it was too late. Fewer than ten days later, no one—not even the photographers themselves—would have access to the Twitpic records anymore. In the end, Twitpic gave us little time to consider what might happen to those photos, where they would go, who owned them, and what we could do about it. Documentary material from nearly every major news event over the past five years was sitting in the digital Twitpic repository.

The ‘Arab Spring,’ as it is popularly known, reinforced our collective enchantment with social media as events across the Middle East and North Africa were broadcast on TV and computer screens worldwide. The revolutions were unprecedentedly technologically mediated. They were organized, documented, and transmitted through digital social media, which supported some early and misguided perceptions that social media was the revolution, rather than the longstanding historical cries for political and economic reform. Still, social media was important, and this is a discussion of how a digital narrative of the Arab Spring is underpinned by the preponderance of digital texts that we—academics, journalists, activists, and others—use to explain it. During the Twitpic shutdown, some activists, journalists and other Twitter users saw the potential for great losses. They tweeted, texted and posted pleas for Twitpic users to preserve their photos, knowing that Twitpic servers stored pieces of revolutionary history.

The Twitpic shutdown illustrates the confluence of forces at play in preserving and losing the digital ‘artifacts’ of revolution. These forceshave come to my attention over the course of my own efforts at record-keeping, researching unfolding events, and, most importantly, speaking to activists and protesters and engaging with various archival projects on the ground in Egypt between 2011 and today. The Egyptian revolution is being catalogued, archived and remembered in numerous and ambitious ways by activists, artists, institutions and organizations. The practice of archiving has itself become a repertoire of resistance. While the unique characteristics of the political and technological moment of revolution present unprecedented opportunities to retain, save, and remember multi-media artifacts, they also encompass a shocking potential for loss, deletion and forgetfulness. In the critical space between online content and the offline context, there looms the inconvenient and inevitable problem historicisation. It is important to consider how we will historicize the Arab Spring. The digital age and our connected lives have rendered archiving a practice we must engage with in the present. We must consider how to incorporate digital artifacts into our practices of remembering, or like the fallible, perishable, vulnerable documents of the past, this archive may too be lost to new forces of forgetting.

The last three years have revealed a powerful politics of deletion that is transforming the digital textuality of the Arab uprisings online. In these spaces, the counter-revolutionary politics ‘offline’ are converging with the content rules and constraints of digital platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) ‘online’ to actively reconfigure and renegotiate the living digital histories of the uprisings. Understanding the social movements and political mobilizations of the Egyptian revolution means parsing the role of digital media as part of an ecological whole, where offline spaces, politics, ideologies and economics create meaning for the digital tools that are helping to redefine them.

 

Image credits: AK Rockefeller https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/