This is a little bit late, but I wanted to share a recent piece I wrote for Muftah. You can find a link to the original piece here: http://muftah.org/i-scream-you-scream-on-protest-social-media-and-history/
“There is this trouble called twitter now, social media, in my opinion, is the biggest trouble for all societies.”
– Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
As anti-Erdogan protests continue to spread across Turkey and solidarity protests crop up around the world, commentators remain at odds as they debate the parallels between the #OccupyGezi movement, the Egyptian protests of Tahrir Square, and the American #Occupy movements.
While there are arguments that can be made on both sides, one similarity cannot be denied. Social networking sites have once again proved crucial in rapidly disseminating information to protesters and sympathizers alike. They have also, however, introduced a new question regarding these movements and a dimension that could prove to be hugely consequential in the long-term: when does a movement become history?
Ice Cream, Tear Gas, and the Longue Durée
It is easy to think of contemporary social movements as ground breaking, or even revolutionary, for their dissemination of information and news across borders. Although social network sites like Twitter and Facebook facilitate this process, and certainly speed it up, it is not clear that anything new is really happening.
Twentieth century French theorist Fernand Braudel wrote of the longue durée, or the long-term perspective on history in which the ebbs and flows of slow but steady transnational circulation and its impact on the socio-cultural tides of the Mediterranean region were clearly evident.
For Braudel, the trade routes that spanned from North Africa to Turkey, and the geographic features that defined these regions, encouraged both the spread of certain cultural commodities and the canonization of particular moments in the shared history of the Mediterranean region.
In historic Palestine for example, the struggle to maintain cold temperatures and transport mountain ice fostered a particular love and deep appreciation for a hard-to-preserve delicacy—ice cream. It was not until the rise of affordable, portable freezers and mass-produced plastic wrapped treats that ice cream became a street food accessible to the masses rather than a luxury item.
Today, however, new territorial difficulties have spawned a renewed appreciation for ice cream in Palestine. Ice cream and tear-gas come hand in hand during hard hours of demonstrations and border crossings. Even as Palestinians wait in lines at checkpoints for hours to get to work or school, wandering ice-cream salesmen have brought a measure of calm.
The difficulty of producing and bringing the rapidly melting treat through the layers of the Israeli occupation have created a deeper appreciation for the treat and helped tame hot tempers during long hours spent in humiliating lines. In the long run, ice cream is unlikely to be viewed as a vital ingredient of long-term justice and peace in Palestine, but the acts of civil disobedience brought on by those nourished by a bit of calm in the storm will be remembered.
The story of ice cream in Palestine is a strange example, yes, but one with a message: temporality is important. A good’s lasting power, accessibility, and mobility all deeply impact its cultural value and meaning. Tea from China, soap from France, and tobacco from the Americas were prestigious in part because they took so long to reach new consumers. Similarly, ice cream in Palestine has taken on a new significance in opposition to the brutality it often accompanies.
Braudel asserted that historical events have similar parameters. In the great naval battles of the seventeenth century, only major events were deemed worthy of the arduous journeys messengers undertook in bringing news back to the capital. This reality begs the question: how did messengers know an event would be deemed worthy of documentation?
To be sure, there were indicators—major loss of life or property, territory gained or usurped, and the duration of the conflict. Often though, it was a judgment call; messengers set the standard for what we would eventually canonize in our history books. And poets, playwrights, and musicians influenced how we evaluated these events.
Today, our messengers tweet in real-time, and anyone with a simple piece of electronic hardware and access to an Internet connection can make that judgment call. So who influences how we will remember events, and when do they shift from news story to history?
There is no single, easy answer. However, the 24 hour/1440 minute/60 second news cycle has indisputably sped up the process by which events transition from contemporaneous to historical.
Braudel’s longue durée has gone into hyper-speed. Timestamps accompany tweets and Facebook posts, and mobile apps simplify swiping to the most recent posts. Time on social media mirrors the workings of a clock, and who we choose to “follow” or “like”—combined with highly guarded algorithms—determine who become our most prominent storytellers.
Yet we do not just want to hear stories—we want to be a part of them. From “choose your own adventure” books to gaming systems, we “millenials” constantly seek out new ways to engage with the stories with which we surround ourselves. Game developers have made fortunes dramatizing war stories and re-releasing the same game with different scenery and “bad guys.”
Naturally, this desire to be active participants has expanded into our social media consumption as well. The popular game, Farmville, for instance, initially made a name for itself by integrating into people’s social networks, adding a new dimension to online identity. Now, games populate the Facebook sidebar and shared game invitations and updates fill newsfeeds alongside status updates and re-posted news stories.
A new game recently debuted on Facebook and Playstation 3—Tahrir Square Defense: Battle of the Camel. Produced by a group of Egyptian developers, the game offers Facebook users a chance to relive the infamous clashes that took place between protestors and military police in Tahrir Square in 2011.
The game itself is rather basic; deploying protesters to strategic locations through a combination of pointing and clicking, players work to stem the tide of mounted attackers with a variety of improvised weapons and defensive towers. Throughout the game, the voices of broadcasters and snippets of iconic news coverage from February 2011 recall the drama of the battle.
Reflecting on the actual Battle of the Camel, protesters remarked that it was a horrific harbinger of a new era in the Egyptian revolution. In some ways, the game’s debut is perhaps just as significant as the battle itself. It cements the #Jan25 movement in #history.
We All Scream For Ice Cream!
Protests are ongoing in both Taksim and Tahrir. As history unfolds in real-time, it remains difficult to predict what events will become major components of our cultural memory. Our messengers need not travel far to bring the news home, and each new day of protest seems to bring larger crowds to the forefront—along with more horrific stories.
The #OccupyGezi/#DirenGeziParki demonstrations have galvanized protests across Turkey, and awoken the #Occupy moment from its slumber. Yes, social media allows us to share news, show solidarity, and mobilize activists with the click of the button, but it is the people and their long hours in the park that will determine if this movement will have cultural resonance.
Today, we have a choice to make: do we want pre-packaged, factory-standard ice cream bars, or do we want to climb the mountain and bring down the finest snow? Smart–civil–disobedience takes time, yes, but it is the stuff of history. And while one woman is standing in solidarity in the park, another will slowly start bringing frozen water down from the mountains. It may not make it into the history books this very minute, or hour, or even this year, but centuries later, our ancestors will remember and recount the story.