Preserving shared citizen journalism

On the need for real-time web archivist-curators

Robin Davis, Spring 2011. Written for Bonnie Mak's “Libraries, Information, and Society” course
Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois

Note: hover over Source! (Works Cited at bottom of page) to see a source; hover over This is a note! to see a note.


“When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.” — Jay RosenRosen, Jay. "A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism." PressThink. 14 July 2008. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link. Quoted in Kaufhold, Kelly, Sebastian Valenzuela, and Homero Gil De Züniga. “Citizen Journalism And Democracy: How User-Generated News Use Relates To Political Knowledge And Participation.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 87.3/4 (2010): 515-529. Emphasis Rosen’s.

The prevalence of relatively inexpensive mobile phones around the world enables users to tap easily into social networks, both offline networks, such as family and coworkers, and online networks, like contacts on Facebook and Twitter. These flat, interconnected networks relay information much faster and in greater quantities than hierarchical information structures, and in some countries, where these traditional outlets might have been compromised by overbearing government, new social media are crucial for broadcasting views and events that might otherwise have remained unheard. Citizen journalism is changing not only the news media, but also the political landscape, as it encourages local activism and political transparency.

From a scholarly viewpoint, citizen journalism fulfills another function: the creation of a popular historical record. Each photo, video, and piece of text posted online becomes a document, and collectively the media created by citizen journalists become an archive that reflects historical events and attitudes with arguable accuracy. The speedy mutability of internet, however, is both a boon and a hindrance to scholarly research that involves social media and citizen journalism. Sources can be found quickly, but they can disappear just as fast. Even if the user does not remove a piece of media, it still often resides on the social media service’s servers, which are optimized for immediate sharing and not long-term preservation for historical or academic purposes. The sheer massiveness of the aggregation of social media is also an impediment to scholarship.

This paper will examine how social media is used in citizen journalism and preserved for future research with a focused case study on the Egyptian Revolution. Information and communication technology have been widely utilized in other movements in other countries, including Iran, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Tunisia, Turkey, and Malaysia Howard, Philip N. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. Oxford: Oxford University, 2010. 3-4. Print. — but the use of social media tools has been especially highlighted as one catalyst for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in the spring of 2011, with headlines in Western media ranging from “Inside Egypt's Facebook Revolt” (Newsweek) to a “Massive Egyptian Protests Powered by YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Twitpic” (Fast Company). Howard, Philip N. “The Cascading Effects of the Arab Spring.” Miller-McCune. 23 Feb. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2011. Link.. Citizen journalism shared through social media networks fulfilled three specific roles during the Egyptian Revolution: locally political, globally representative, and communally reflective. These functions are and will be of great scholarly interest, but to be studied the material must be properly preserved, and to be preserved, it must be handled by archivists with a new set of skills.

Sparking the inevitable: citizen journalism as political catalyst

People were taking shots and photos. People were reporting violations on human rights in Egypt. People were suggesting ideas. People were actually voting on the ideas. And then they were executing the ideas. People were creating videos. Everything was done by the people [for] the people, and that's the power of the internet. There was no leader. — Wael Ghonim, speaking on the activity of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” Ghonim, Wael. “Wael Ghonim: Inside the Egyptian Revolution.” TED: Ideas worth Spreading. Mar. 2011. Video on web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link.

An initially unknown user on Facebook who went by the pseudonym “ElShaheed” created a memorial page in Arabic in late 2010 called “We are all Khaled Said”, commemorating a man who was allegedly beaten to death by the Egyptian police.Heaven, Will. “Egypt and Facebook: Time to Update Its Status.” NATO Review. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link. Another activist, in coordination with ElShaheed, created the page in English to reach an international audience and organize worldwide protests.“Social Media, Cellphone Video Fuel Arab Protests.” The Independent. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2011. Link. The pages in both languages became forums for Egyptians to air their grievances against the Mubarak dictatorship and post photos and videos of victims of police brutality. Wael Ghonim, an executive at Google in charge of marketing in the Middle East and North Africa, stepped forward as the creator of the Arabic page and self-proclaimed internet activist. “Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without You Tube, this would have never happened,” Ghonim said on 60 Minutes. “If there were no social networks it would have never been sparked.”“Social Media, Cellphone Video Fuel Arab Protests.” The Independent. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 23 Apr. 2011. Link. Two years earlier, another Facebook group, “6th of April Youth Movement”, was established to organize a local factory strike, which eventually became a nation-wide strike.Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 135. The group was a way for young, educated Egyptians to get further involved in politics and join offline campaigns and protests. In 2009, there were 70,000 members; in 2011, there are 165,000 members. These cursory numbers from Facebook do not distinguish between Egyptians and non-Egyptians, and may therefore exaggerate statistics. But communication via social media is certainly widespread in the area. In 2009, Facebook was the third most visited website in Egypt, after Google and Yahoo.Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 135.

The mass of photos and videos of battered victims and youth protests displayed on “We are all Khaled Said” and “6th of April Youth Movement”, and on other websites, and through other networks, and eventually broadcast by news media giants were usually grainy and pixilated, but they bore an emotional narrative that emboldened protesters. Blogging, another form of citizen journalism, continued to be important both as amateur news reporting and as political commentary, something the Egyptian government took seriously. By 2010, most of the 37 bloggers arrested in Muslim countries were arrested in Egypt; blog surveillance was especially heavy during elections.Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 112. But increasing numbers of internet users began to outnumber the authorities as they expressed dissatisfaction and recounted stories that went unreported in the news. In a country where the authorities had established a police network to closely watch for broadly defined terrorist behavior under “emergency law”, the watched now became the watchers. To use Foucault and Bentham’s terms, the inversion of the Panopticon mirrored the changes occurring in the body politic that culminated in Mubarak’s resignation on February 11. The technology that was ensuring Egypt’s modernization and economic power was also changing the machinery of political power, and as the docile bodies began to practice new behaviors, the previous style of discipline became stretched to a breaking point.Framework adapted from Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 138. Print. The single gaze of the disciplinary body was suddenly reflected in the gaze of thousands of mobile phones that were recording it.

Problematizing the “Facebook Revolt”: citizen journalism as global communication

The protests — dare one say it — would probably have occurred without the help of Facebook or other social networks like Twitter. ... The Western media has focused intently on the role of Western technology, but less so on the fact that active street protests, a strikingly familiar vehicle for revolution, brought down dictators. —Will Heaven in the NATO ReviewHeaven, Will. "Egypt and Facebook: Time to Update Its Status." NATO Review. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link.

How extensive was the role of citizen journalism shared through social media in inciting the revolution? Some Egyptians, like Gigi Ibrahim, a blogger and heavy Twitter user, stress that social media are organization tools for a human-powered revolt: “Facebook and Twitter and all these social networks are very important because they can spread a massive amount of information to a lot of people instantly, and effortlessly. ... However, at the end of the day, if the people don’t decide to go down in the streets and promote change and be willing to take the risks of being on the streets and face the police brutality that has been happening and face the arrests and so on, nothing will happen.”Mackey, Robert and Gigi Ibrahim. “Interview With an Egyptian Blogger.” The Lede Blog. The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link. The focus on Western technologies runs the risk of diminishing the Egyptian people’s roles and power. When the aforementioned Newsweek headline calls the event the “Facebook Revolt,” it is affixing the name of a well-known American company to the toppling of a dictator, something Mark Zuckerburg had no hand in. Crediting Facebook can emphasize global connectedness to inspire other people in other countries, but it can also wrongly assign some ownership of the revolution to Silicon Valley instead of Egypt.

It is also possible that Western mainstream media focuses on the role of social media largely because much of it is publicly accessible. The videos, photos, tweets, and blog posts from protesting Egyptians are effectively the face of the revolution for the world and are easily aggregated and redistributed by users and mainstream sources. For those not in the country, a shaky video of the protests caught on a citizen’s camera offers an arguably authentic glimpse at the on-the-ground experience. Ramy Aly, a researcher of social networking in Egypt, said on Al Jazeera’s Witness, “I think young people online were the tinder to set this [revolution] off. ... It [the use of social media] goes beyond people connecting to each other in the region. They're connecting us to the region. ... It resonates through a larger global consciousness.” El-Shahat, Samah, Sharif Nashashibi, and Ramy Aly. “A Multi-media Uprising?” Witness. Al Jazeera. AJE - Al Jazeera English. 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link. The instances of citizen journalism, such as images of badly beaten victims of police brutality, that appeared before the major protests began were exchanged between Egyptian peers and served to mobilize large numbers of Egyptian people. During and after mobilization, citizen journalism also functioned in a large part to communicate experiences from Egypt to other countries through social networks as well as traditional communication channels.

Interrupting dead time: citizen journalism as analytical process

Internet-based forms of citizen journalism do offer opportunities for interactive discussion and debate about risk episodes. In time, this positive facet may serve to counter the historical trend of focusing on risk as event rather than process and the ingrained tendency to home in on deaths, injuries and human dramas that are visual and visceral. —Gabe MythenMythen, Gabe. "Reframing risk? Citizen journalism and the transformation of news." Journal of Risk Research 13.1 (2010): 45-58. Business Source Complete. EBSCO. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.

As the months have passed from Mubarak’s resignation to the present, Egypt has slowly receded from the front pages. The heavy use of social media has not declined in Egypt, of course, and exemplifies a third role of citizen journalism. While other global or local affairs may distract the audience of traditional media from old but ongoing news, especially if the news is repetitious or unchanging in nature, the constant content creation enabled by tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can keep issues in the public eye for longer. In terms of Kathleen Biddick’s notion of “dead time”, citizen journalism through social media creates more events during what might have been dead time on the record between larger, more newsworthy happenings like the Tahrir Square protests.Biddick, Kathleen. “Doing dead time for the sovereign: Archive, abandonment, performance.” Rethinking History, 13:2 (2009): 137—151. Of course, this period of regime change is not dead time in the lives of Egyptian citizens; but the dead time of the archive of major international news is now punctuated more often with documentation of events as recorded by a multitude of people.

As users/viewers continue to engage with the issues by creating records, sharing them, and viewing them, the sustained gaze transforms the records from objects of spectacle into objects of analysis. The opportunity to express opinions in the form of comments on each piece of shared media and text invites and even demands a reaction. Each reaction becomes, in turn, another record. Conversations about political events have always occurred offline, but services like Twitter and Facebook, which thrive on added content, emphasize contributions to conversations more than passive consumption, not least through the design of the web page or application, which places the forms to add content in a prominent place above what has already been shared. The pages ask the user, respectively, “What’s happening?” and “What’s on your mind?” During a regime change, both questions prompt political responses that reflect and perpetuate the national conversation. Social media is often dismissed as a contributor to an increasingly shallow online culture, with Twitter’s 140-character limit cited as a restriction of meaningful thought. To be sure, the quality of shared text and media can vary greatly. But the possibility of contributing a great quantity of text and media, especially when it is politically significant, can also be regarded as a sense-making opportunity for communities undergoing change and reacting to it online.

Special web preservation issues

The vast majority of citizen journalism shared worldwide is in a digital format. The original video files resided on the devices of the event recorders, and the shared files are hosted by services like Facebook, YouTube, Twitpic, and news media websites. This presents a problem for preservation. These websites are designed to facilitate the quick exchange of media. While all content is usually archived (unless deleted by the user), these services are not designed to be repositories and do not employ preservation practices beyond redundancy. Many common formats, such as JPEG and MPEG, are supported, For example: Facebook’s accepted video formats and photo formats; YouTube’s accepted video formats but it is highly doubtful that these services will migrate these files en masse to displayable formats in the future when JPEG and MPEG are no longer accepted standards. Two questions arise concerning scholarly interest in Egyptian citizen journalism and social media: who is going to preserve the important digital objects, and how are they going to do it?

Currently, the largest web preservation effort underway is the Internet Archive, which crawls the entire web and periodically saves pages (usually complete with images and other linked files) to its massive database.Internet Archive. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Internet Archive. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Link. Its Wayback Machine tool allows users to search the archives by URL and browse the saved pages by date. As a general, wide-ranging archive, it is a very successful and popular undertaking, but because it is so vast, it is not robust enough for scholarly purposes.Szydlowski, Nick. ‘Archiving the Web: It’s Going to Have to Be a Group Effort.’ The Serials Librarian, 59:1, 35-39. The user must know the URL before searching for archived instances. Websites that update frequently are not completely archived because the crawler only retrieves information sporadically, and many websites refuse crawlers outright. No Facebook pages, for example, are archived by the Internet Archive, though companies can apply to Facebook to collect data through automated means.Facebook. "Automated Data Collection Terms." Facebook. 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Link. Twitter is likewise uncrawled by the Internet Archive, except for its front page. However, in April 2010, Twitter donated its entire archive of public tweets to the Library of Congress,Raymond, Matt, and Sean Garrett. “Twitter Donates Entire Tweet Archive to Library of Congress.” Library of Congress News Releases. 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. Link. ensuring that with a six-month delay, the public Twitter record would be scraped into a database designed for long-term preservation and powerful search. As a scholarly resource, the Twitter archive could be searchable by keyword, author, location, date, and time — all of which could, in researching the Egyptian Revolution, prove helpful in determining social trends. Still, the archive would be enormous and would likely be difficult to navigate without external context. Though the massive database of tweets could be evaluated using algorithms and searched with complex parameters, researchers would still need to sort through a lot of clutter to distill results to anything significant. Moreover, Twitter users may only represent a certain slice of a given population, and Twitter itself is only one tool used in conjunction with many other services. An archive of tweets would only preserve text; images and video, so important in an event like the Egyptian Revolution, would not be included, and neither would external links. As web archiving tools improve, it could be possible to automate a collection of web content using a system that searches for tags, location, and other significant data, with instructions to archive links from pages to a specified depth. But our tools are not smart enough yet to create meaningful collections of human-created content. Preserving an authentic, representative digital record of a historical event, then, entails intelligent identification of many interconnected sources and human mediation between collecting data and presenting results.

Building better collections

With that in mind, the solution may be to curate collections by hand, and some institutions are exploring this avenue. The California Digital Library, for example, is developing a subscription-based tool called the Web Archiving Service for scholars to archive websites as they surf, with the option to continue archiving them periodically.California Digital Library. “Web Archiving Service (WAS).” California Digital Library. 24 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Link. The Internet Archive has released the more widely used Archive-It, also a subscription service that similarly builds collections of born-digital content. The American University in Cairo is already using Archive-It to preserve a collection entitled “2011 Egyptian Revolution” that currently includes 19 blogs and Twitter feeds, five documentary projects, three memorial websites, 37 news websites, four photo and video sites, and a handful of related resources.American University in Cairo. “Collection: 2011 Egyptian Revolution.” Archive-It. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Link. To be sure, it is a small collection, and only includes content from February 1, 2011 and later. Each resource is described with only a category, the title of the page, and the dates of archiving. The collection itself is briefly described as a place to “[e]xplore news coverage, images, videos, blogs, and more on the 2011 protests in Egypt.” While the news category is sizable and wide-ranging, the collection does not appear to be a very serious or extensive undertaking, and the emphasis on social media and citizen journalism is disappointingly light. Moreover, there is no indication of the collection’s creator(s) aside from the American University in Cairo at large. (A news release from the University in March 2011 reports that Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the Department of History, is leading a six-person Committee of Documenting the Revolution, sponsored by the Egyptian National Library and Archives.Rehab Saad El Domiati. “AUC History Chair Leads Egyptian National Library And Archives Committee Documenting Revolution.” The American University in Cairo News Releases. 20 Mar. 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2011. Link. Fahmy is specifically quoted mentioning the need to preserve websites and digital video, but the Committee of Documenting the Revolution’s work appears to be unrelated to the Archive-It listing.) A good collection must be described comprehensively, both as a whole and for individual items. For a collection of websites and digital content, context must be established between the items as well, since they were “born” into a network. Part of archiving the web entails preserving “the meaning of relationships within and among digital objects”Janet Eke, et al. “Preserving Meaning, Not Just Objects: Semantics and Digital Preservation.” Library Trends 57.3 (2009): 595-610. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. EBSCO. Web. 19 Apr. 2011., at least until the semantic web has evolved to a point at which the preservation tools can infer the relationships. For now, to be readable and understandable in the future, a collection of preserved web material must be curated by hand and presented with extensive descriptions of items so that researchers can map how items are related and why they are included in the collection.

Perhaps as institutions begin to create and curate collections of digital content, archivists and librarians must take on a new role: real-time web archivist-curators. For events like the Egyptian Revolution, it is vital that knowledgeable information specialists collect important resources from the beginning. Immediate collection cultivation not only preserves objects that may be deleted soon after being shared, such as graphically violent video shot by citizen journalists, but also traces all the threads of a potentially historical event as they come together, evolve, and separate. Creating a collection in hindsight after the event is over or half over may mean missing crucial web content. Real-time web archivist-curators would also need specific political, sociological, and historical training to recognize when a collection should be begun and what should be in it. If the event uses citizen journalism shared through social media to the same extent that the Egyptian Revolution did, archivists will need to insert themselves in the networks to extract material of importance and approach the collection from a more popular perspective, rather than as an isolated information specialist. As with traditional archives, there may be an expertise disparity between the archivist, who is motivated to maintain the collection, and the participant, who is intensely involved in the situation. The successful real-time web archivist-curators would be collecting documentation of a local event of which they are knowledgeable but neutral. Citizen archivists may be valuable in identifying material and using a system of tags, which is useful as proven on content sharing sites like Flickr, but professional archivists would possess the training to determine what is of significant value and how to properly describe and preserve the content.

It is clear that the sharing capabilities developed for the internet have been extremely valuable tools during historical events like the Egyptian Revolution. Egyptian users utilized the technology in rewriting power structures, representing themselves internationally, and making sense of the phenomenon. The record that remains and is, in fact, still being created is therefore of great historical importance and will be necessary in understanding the Revolution in the future. Libraries currently lack robust tools and accepted best practices for event-based collections of preserved web content. As librarians and archivists accept new duties as information specialists, one role must be explored: a digital archivist who can immediately identify and describe valuable web content and preserve it in perpetuity.

Works Cited

Note: The topic of this paper was inspired in part by an internship position description from the California Digital Library.

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