Since 2006, I have spent time in a number of Arab cities examining youth-generated media – that which were made famous in connection with protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. Youth-generated media refer to the communicative ways in which young people actively challenge the social, political and cultural spheres of power with the intense excitement of a social movement. From vibrant graffiti, protest songs and placard writings to tweets and Facebook campaigns, youth are exercising their communication rights across the Middle East and North Africa.
As the “Arab Spring” uprisings have shown, the interest of Arab youth in cultural politics is evident in the burgeoning of youth-generated media and young people’s participation in public life. Benefiting from newly introduced media freedoms, young people are engaging in both traditional mainstream and alternative media. But for years before and during the so-called Arab Spring, younger generations from Morocco to Iraq expressed their cultural politics through a variety of communication tools and outcomes.
Using tools and platforms as diverse as theater, dance, puppets, murals, print, video, radio, cassettes and loudspeakers, they embarked on a myriad of alternative communication projects. They initiate, imitate, explore and develop ways to communicate their fears and anxieties about a changing world in which they rarely have any say. Although children and youth under the age of 24 make up more than half of the estimated 300 million people in the Arab world, their active participation in media and public remains limited. 1
One objective of my research is to account for the increased visibility of youth-generated media in an empirically based and theoretically inspired framework. Historically, the study of the relationship of media and youth has been largely limited to media directed at youth, rather than media generated by young people themselves – in other words, research concentrated on youth-oriented media’s effects and consumption patterns. By introducing the concept of youth-generated media, my research departs from the effects and consumption studies to examine youth cultural politics and material possibilities at this specific historical juncture in the Arab world.
There are three departure points for my work. First, this research is theoretically anchored in the interpretive humanist tradition. I am more interested in the critiques of the development model that came from Paulo Freire’s books on liberating pedagogy, John Downing’s radical media as an aspect of symbolic and material participation in resistance and social change, and Clemencia Rodriguez’s discussion of citizen media as providing “access and space” for participation. 2
My second point of departure regards the definition of “youth.” Instead of adopting the blanket 12–14 age bracket commonly applied in UN and World Bank documents, I suggest we recognize the complexity of young people’s identities. In this, I engage the sociology of childhood, which recognizes that any attempt to define youth is most often (mis)guided by an adult understanding of what being young means and insufficiently acknowledges how young people define themselves.
Third, media must be more carefully defined. Media extends beyond the traditional mass communication platforms to include a range of traditional (storytelling, poetry), emerging (tweets, posts) and culture-jamming (graffiti, flash mobs). This definition escapes the conceptual penitentiary, wherein “media” is limited to newspapers, film, TV, Internet and cellphones – all “objects” – and interpreted anthropologically as socio-technical institutions. 3 In a course I taught on alternative media in the Middle East, I encouraged students to see the human body as a tool of expression, to examine squares, cars and walls as instruments of communication, to appreciate banners and placards as meaning-making objects and to study them together with ‘media’ as traditionally defined.
To investigate this phenomenon with adequate nuance, my research is concerned with the creation and circulation of youth-generated media. What motivates young individuals or groups to engage in media development? What type of media are Arab youth creating? How do youth conceptualize, execute and circulate their media? What social, economic and cultural contexts affect these media? And what are the implications of youth-generated media on Arab discourse? To be more precise, what do young Arabs do with media, not what do media do to them?
There is ample evidence to suggest that youth make their voices heard, whether in dress, cultural preferences or everyday activities. Today’s youth, however, are exploring additional modes of expression to communicate among each other and with other social groups. This is especially the case with increased access to cheap media-making tool kits such as photocopy machines, cameras, mobile phones, computer software and the Internet.
As the means of producing media become cheaper, smaller and more accessible, youth are appropriating these tools to produce meanings in non-traditional forms.
In the process, they re-define the utility and usage of these media. Youth-generated media are not only limited to a specific social, cultural or political context.They do not only figure in industrial and developing societies, but have also been flourishing in both liberal and extremist circles.
Let me illustrate youth-generated media based on my fieldwork in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. My intention is not to compare and contrast youth in these countries. Instead, my interest is in juxtaposing some of their experiences through the development and circulation of youth-generated media.
Lebanese blogging and activism: Fink Ployd
The first case study is set against a border skirmish between the Lebanese radical group Hezbollah and Israel, which triggered a 34-day war, complete with ground battles and attacks on civilians. Unlike previous similar conflicts, the conflict commonly referred to as the July 06 War was broadcast live and featured a broad range of political views, commentary and footage. Given the amount and range of coverage, the popularity of a website like bloggingbeirut.com – which received more than 400,000 hits a day during the war period – might seem surprising. What drove such traffic?
At a cost of approximately US $600, a twenty-something Lebanese man who uses the nom de plume of Fink Ployd managed to share his thoughts, organize collective action and re-write part of the war narrative. 4 Ployd also commented on media coverage, dispelled rumors and, in the process, developed an alternative news service.
Between July 26 and August 14, 2006, a viral, open-source, guerrilla urban intervention – based on stickers marked “I ♥ Beirut” that were posted on public property – made its way across twenty five cities in the United States, Europe, North Africa and Lebanon. Appropriated from Milton Glaser’s “I ♥ NY logo,” “I ♥ Beirut” was first launched by a New York-based collective blog called The Lebanon Chronicle. 5 Ployd joined their call, reaching out to his blog’s audience to expand the reach of the campaign.
He then proceeded to develop a forum, www.Iheartbeirut.com, to exchange ideas and suggestions on developing the campaign and linking various individuals and organizations. An individual in Switzerland volunteered to redesign the logo, enhancing the color and re-formatting it for printing purposes. With the new logo, Fink asked his audiences to download and post it on significant landmarks. But more important, he requested them to photograph the stickers in context and email him the pictures. Ployd described the purpose of the whole campaign as “to show support, to see it on the streets and then share it online.” 6
Over the next twenty days, Fink re-organized these pictures in various collages to reveal how the stickers were displayed in cities such as San Francisco, Paris, London and Auckland. The campaign also appeared in the foreign press such as The New York Times and art magazines such as Glamcult.
Referring to his blogging activities as a “news reporting service,” Ployd believed that “it was a media war with certain perspectives missing” and claimed that Blogging Beirut helped rectify the situation by offering one of those perspectives.
While power and Internet outages, lack of access, and a range of logistical problems may have hindered bloggers, Ployd insisted on providing “rich media” with photos, audio and video clips. Branding his own BloggingBeirut.com TV, he managed to produce a number of videos about life under siege.
The first was of Beirut at night with no electricity – just a shot in the dark of Beirut’s skyline; the last portrayed a nightclub in the mountains, complete with interviews and commentary. In between, he produced a video documenting the effects of an Israeli air raid on a power station south of Beirut. Between July 13 and July 15, thousands of tons of oil spilled into the Mediterranean Sea after an air raid on a petroleum depot. This event affected him personally: “Anyone who knows chemistry knows what would happen with such an oil spill,” he explained in conversation. By July 25, Blogging Beirut was reporting an “environmental disaster” along the coastline. Two days later, Reuters reported that a slick had reached some 50 miles up the coast and estimated it could contain up to 30,000 tons of oil. 7
One immediate question emerging from my research on Blogging Beirut is how young people’s often collective, collaborative and sequenced work seems an essential characteristic of youth-generated media. Ployd’s activities demonstrate one of youth-generated media’s core characteristics: its ability to develop a chain of media and other activities that work in concert to achieve young people’s communication goals.
The story of the oil spill demonstrates young people’s ability to draw attention to self-expressive stories that create sequences of actions, which involve media as well as forms of activism. Similarly, the “I ♥ Beirut” campaign integrated sequentially a number of media-related activities, from printing the stickers, claiming public space, and taking and emailing the photos to editing and posting a collage.
Saudis and the Silver Screen: Haifaa Al Mansour
In the 1960s and the 1970s, citizens of Saudi Arabia were exposed to uncensored Egyptian, American, European and Indian films. Conventional movie theaters did not exist, but university auditoriums, sports clubs and tents doubled as viewing areas. At the time, the shortage of cinema halls was not the result of a particular ruling, but rather a lack of public and private investment for such projects. It was not until the oil boom of the mid-1970s that some dedicated open-air theaters became available exclusively for men.
In 1979 and following the failed siege of the Grand Mosque, public viewing of movies declined sharply under pressures for more conservative practices. 8 As a result, the film experience was limited to the privacy of homes or private theaters with the introduction of VCRs, satellite television, DVDs and the Internet. Only recently did Saudis venture into producing their own movies, which they still cannot show inside the Kingdom.
In the absence of institutions that would stimulate filmmaking, the possibilities for experimentation are increasing in a virtually vacant media space, with digital technology offering opportunities for creative or tech-savvy young Saudis. Movies in various formats are traded, copied or shared on the Internet; at the same time, young Saudis are experimenting with smart phones or home-video production kits.
The computer and Internet are taking the place that movie theaters traditionally occupied for distributing films. Once watched, these movies become the subject of online discussion groups, blogs and Facebook comments. In this capacity, new media are re-inventing the spatial and social spaces of movie viewing. But particularly interesting is the appearance of homegrown video and film production.
Educated in both Cairo and New York, Saudi filmmaker Haifa Al Mansour has been making movies since 2003. 9 Al Mansour’s first three short films reveal what Faye Ginsburg calls “cultural revival, identity formation and political assertion.” 10 Particularly interesting is her choice of topics, which echo many of the fears and ambitions of Saudi society. First, she filmed Man? (Who?) (2003), which tells the story of a killer disguised as a woman who slits a young mother’s throat. 11 Then, she shot Al-Rahil al-Murr (Bereavement of the Fledgling) (2003), the story of a child who leaves his village, vowing never to return.
Finally, she made Ana wa al-Akhar (The Only Way Out) (2004), the story of three young men – an Islamist, a liberal and a fence-sitter – who explore their differences while lost in the desert. Al Mansour’s ability to develop her film projects was challenged by numerous socio-cultural obstacles, including ikhtilat (Saudi restrictions on the free mixing of the sexes), prohibitions against filming in public and a lack of equipment. She expected some opposition “because the film deals with one of the most sensitive topics in Saudi society – women – but I didn’t expect that strong a reaction. I think controversy is a healthy sign if it is well-directed. It makes people think and question a lot of things that have been taken for granted.” 12
Al Mansour’s choice of topics is as important as her processes of production and distribution. Al Mansour shot on location in Saudi Arabia and recruited members of her family and friends to act as crew and actors. At the expense, perhaps, of professional audio-visual quality, she selected basic equipment and trained her crew to use them. Her process shows an attempt to develop a participatory project where community stories are told by community members and viewed by the community itself.
More important, her creative distribution strategy helped revive movies as a Saudi cultural manifestation. In a country where movie theaters are banned and film viewing is restricted to the privacy of individual homes, Al Mansour and her growing Saudi supporters wanted to engage the broader community with the film’s messages. Uploaded on a website in 2003 – before YouTube was even introduced – this distribution method created a spatially and socially negotiated sphere for movie viewing. As the first female Saudi filmmaker, she is shaping a Saudi identity of producer, as opposed to consumer of films; at the same time, she is acting as a role model for other females.
Taking these two case studies as indicative of a larger longitudinal study, let me make two general observations:
- Youth-generated media are subject to co-optation and dominance. Particularly alarming is how market forces threaten to assimilate young people’s practices. Al Mansour moved from being a filmmaker to film consultant to television host, only to leave Saudi Arabia and relocate to Australia. It is too soon to evaluate her recent return to filmmaking, but the marketing campaign associated with her work suggests the emergence of a market-savvy filmmaker.
- Young people’s media development practices change as their cultural politics are modified or completely transformed. Fink Ployd’s website somehow went into the Internet black hole as he became disillusioned with new media’s potentials and moved to more community-based, face-to-face activities, particularly around issues of environmental protection.
As a phenomenon, youth-generated media is the result of an increased access to cheap media-making toolkits and amplified networks of media exchange and circulation of all kinds. As a concept, moreover, youth-generated media is a reflection and refraction of societal structures, political struggles, cultural tensions, economic uncertainties and new media possibilities. At the core, youth-generated media are associated with questions of economic and cultural globalization, particularly issues of dominance, resistance and hybridity.
By operating alternative and parallel networks of self-expressive media development and circulation, some young people have achieved an environment for participatory communication. In the larger project that will emerge from this research, I tell vivid stories of drag-racing video makers, the first female blogger in Saudi Arabia, video letter producers and media-event organizers. Additionally, I recount the history of young poets, pirate radio, poster designers and others associated with contemporary popular movements. In line with Freire’s argument, young people are reclaiming their rights to be treated as human beings in solidarity with others around the world.