April 8, 2011
Chuck Kleinhans sent me a link to “The YouTube Revolutions,” by David Kenner published recently in Foreign Policy. The piece, while admirable in ways I plan to detail shortly, beautifully illustrates a great deal of my own concern and hesitancy about the role that YouTube, and social media more generally play in producing the Western reception of these revolutions as reiterated through the Western media’s response: a series of re-revolutions that move user-generated media with celebration and without interpretation.
Kenner provides 10 pages of Internet material that serve to introduce us to ten carefully selected videos. The first is the Introduction to the slide show: “Into the void has stepped an unlikely hero: YouTube. Over the last three months, the video posting site has turned into an aggregator for homemade videos of revolution. Revolutionaries all across the Middle East, filming with the video recorders in their phones or other rudimentary technology while dodging bullets or racing through angry crowds, have created an online visual archive of the uprisings: urgent, jittery videos, punctuated by gunshots, shouts, and moments of breathtaking horror. Unfortunately, they’re not easy to find — nobody is in charge with organizing this massive amount of information, and the videos tagged solely in Arabic can be hard for English-speakers to track down.”
Kenner takes on the function of the finder, translator, and curator: and it’s a worthy one. While YouTube is incomparably proficient for easy uploading, Google has yet to assign anyone the equally necessary if difficult function of archivist. Elsewhere I try to explain why “YouTube is a mess.” Needless to say, having trained journalists work at sorting through and then creating a path through the chaos is worthy, useful, and much appreciated work. Thank you.
However, Kenner does not take the next, and even more necessary professional step, which would be to provide analysis, context, and depth for what were and what remain free-floating images from several countries (each with their own histories and cultures), multiple authors, a variety of revolutionary activities, and a number of videomaking styles. Instead he is blinded or silenced by the jittery truth force, “the breathtaking horror,” of the clips he curates. Oddly, our definitive suspicion and ironic doubt about Internet images is trumped by the visceral force of “gunshots and shouts.” Because “they are difficult to forget” he lets them speak for themselves. His short linked text is pure description and no analysis. An odd move, given that the short videos are already there on the page and certainly do not need his reiterative captions which only serve to double their iconic charge.
Kenner writes: “This video, which was uploaded on Feb. 18, indicated the lengths that Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family would go to in order to retain their grip on power. As Bahraini protesters peacefully march down one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, the crackle of automatic weapons fire suddenly breaks out. The cameraman seeks refuge behind a tree, and there is a brief flash of him clutching prayer beads. When the video swings back to the protesters, some are laying on the ground, blood streaming onto the street.”
Meanwhile, exactly what we really need (given that we’ve seen the video, and a million like it) is not provided: trained specialists to unpack, differentiate, investigate, and otherwise spread this charge back to the world and its many distinct peoples by linking discrete images to long histories, varied locales, particular political and economic conditions, actual witnesses and local authors who can give detail and background to undeniably horrific recordings of violence.