Bassel Khartabil (aka Safadi) gets a research position at MIT Media Lab

This is the news of the day: our friend Bassel Khartabil, jailed by the Syrian regime since March 2012 (and recently moved to an unknown location) has just been offered a research position with the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab.

Bassel’s latest project, which is about reconstructing the ancient city of Palmyra in 3D, was launched few days ago by a group of friends under the name of “#new Palmyra”. Wired has recently reported about the project and the huge campaign which is growing around the world to protest the arbitrary arrest of Bassel and his condition of being incommunicado since last October 3rd.

Bassel’s family, friends, colleagues, and people around the world who do not know him in person but know him through his work as an advocate for a free and open Internet have been mobilizing since. Love and support for Bassel’s cause are growing faster and faster everywhere in the world and on the web.

And now it’s truly amazing to see how the MIT Media Lab, whose director Joi Ito is a dear friend and former colleague at Creative Commons, are celebrating Bassel’s efforts in advocating for free culture, and in protecting and preserving Syria’s cultural heritage.

We will never forget Bassel and what he did for the Internets, for Syria, and for all of us.

We’re looking forward to seeing you back home, ya Bassel, ya dude.


(by Muid Latif)

Petition Online:

Freebassel Campaign:
Twitter: @freebassel
Hashtags: #newpalmyra #freebassel #missingbassel

#newpalmyra on Al Arabiyya news today

Violence and Visibility in Contemporary Syria: An Ethnography of the “Expanded Places”

My latest essay on Syria is out on CyberOrient Vol. 9, Iss. 1, 2015


This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as redefined by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies. Drawing on the author’s own ethnography conducted in Syria in 2010, and on anonymous YouTube videos, it introduces the concept of “expanded places” to look at sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. Building on Rancière’s work on the distribution of the sensible, the article argues that, at the intersection of those simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration, a new geography of visibility and violence is being shaped which rearranges the existing into a completely new political form and aesthetic format. Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.
Bab al hara

This short film (you can view it here) results from the combination of the author’s own video ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village within the framework of her Ph.D fieldwork on Syrian TV drama; and of several videos produced by anonymous users and Arab TV channels that were widely shared on the networks between 2012 and 2014.

“ls not every ethnographer something of a surrealist,

a reinventor and reshuffler of realities?”

(Clifford, 1988:147)


This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as reconfigured and redefined by the combined action of contemporary warfare and networked communication technologies.1 It focuses on the interweaving of the destruction of places as a result of war, and the ever-circulating images of those very places, which are endlessly reproduced and recreated through and on the networks. I argue that a new understanding of places is being shaped and brought to light at the intersection of these simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration.

This novel geography of visibility and violence is defined around sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they are being re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. I introduce the concept of “expanded places” to define these sites that are enjoying a form of mediated after-life despite the fact that their physical selves have been destroyed. Here “expanding” does not refer to the repetition, recreation, reproduction, and re-circulation of images; nor to the proliferation of the latter if understood as a mere growth in quantitative presence across contexts.

In order to reflect on the characteristics and implications of the process of “expansion” being generated on and through networked communication technologies I build on the conceptual framework developed by Jacques Rancière (2013) on the “distribution of the sensible,” which emphasizes the political dimension of aesthetics, and reads the aesthetic dimension as inherently political. I draw on his reflections on the “aesthetic regime” to look at my own ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village (al qariyya al shamiyya), a theme park located in al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. From 2006 to 2010, the site served as a location for the TV series Bab al hara (The Gate of the Neighborhood), with its romanticized storyline of the Syrian resistance against French colonial rule in the 1920s; which did in fact start in the al Ghouta district. In 2012, as the Syrian uprising turned into a fully-fledged civil war, the Damascene Village was occupied several times by opposing factions, each of them shooting video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series. Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

Before being expanded by the combined action of warfare and the networks, the Damascene Village was already a politically charged, symbolic site; as different layers of times and places – the historical al Ghouta of the 1920s anti-colonial struggle – were mass mediated through a fictional representation – the Bab al hara TV series – where the actual, physical space had become entangled with its imaginative representations. However, there is something fundamentally new occurring when networked communication technologies become involved in the process of mediating a space that has been physically destroyed. The aim of this article is precisely to look at the intersection between violence and technology, between annihilation and regeneration, where expanded places are generated; and to explore the new “fictionality” being shaped here, understood as a way of assigning novel meanings to the empirical world, a philosophical device to rearrange the existing into a completely new (political) form and (aesthetic) format (Rancière 2013:33).

My argument is that in order to think of this new form and format of violence and visibility, we have to focus on the techno-social platform triggering the process of expansion of places, that is networked communication technologies, understood both as the multi-layered technical infrastructure of social networking sites mediating signs, spaces, meanings and people; and as the subject of that very mediation, made up of anonymous and unidentified individuals. Using ethnographies of the Damascene Village, studied both as a physical site and as its expanded versions, I will underline how key features of the networks – circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship – forge a new relationship between visibility and violence, which, by expanding the former through a never-ending layering and cross-referencing of times and spaces, ceaselessly replicates the latter.

Because of the incessant speed and dissemination made possible by the networks, images of expanded places prove to be extraordinarily resilient. At the same time, they are both the place and the methodological device for violence, if the latter is executed through images. Violence is also inflicted on the image itself, as the dramatic ending of the Damascene Village will reveal.

Prologue: from al Ghouta to Bab al hara, turning physical and mediated spaces into expanded places

Al Ghouta (oasis) is an area surrounding Damascus, and was formerly known as the green belt of the Syrian capital. In Syria’s collective memory, al Ghouta is the place where the anti-colonial struggle against French occupation took shape and was organized in the 1920s. The connection between the physical space and its symbolic value in shaping shared ideas of nation, unity, and resistance has been widely celebrated in Syria’s cultural production.2 In the country’s collective imagery al Ghouta has become a “place” in Yi Fu Tuan’s understanding of the term: something that “feels thoroughly familiar” (Tuan 1977:73).

During the post-independence years, al Ghouta was the favorite venue for picnics and family outings, the ideal place for Damascene families to seek relief from the heat and the hustle and bustle of Syria’s capital. However, as a result of the liberalization policies that in the late 1980s considerably expanded commercial ventures in several sectors of the economy previously controlled by the state, al Ghouta was affected by a wave of property development and exposed to a process of uncontrolled urbanization.3 As part of the transformation of al Ghouta into an urban suburb, a theme park was built to attract further investment to the area, together with a culture of leisure and consumption. Named “the Damascene Village” and located in the Eastern part of al Ghouta, strategically close to the international airport, the entertainment facilities reproduced the stunning beauty of the Old City of Damascus and was home to a number of elegant restaurants, a museum of Damascene folklore, and a zoo.

For five consecutive seasons (2006-2010) the Damascene Village served as the location for Bab al hara, a Syrian TV series that quickly became one of the highest rated in the history of Arab satellite television.4 Bab al hara idealized the daily life and social customs of a Damascene neighborhood at the time of the French mandate, celebrating the people’s struggle against colonial rule; which, as said earlier, was organized precisely in al Ghouta, the area where the TV series had been filmed. Therefore, the Damascene Village became a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.

In May 2010, in the context of the fieldwork I was conducting for my PhD research on Syrian TV drama, I spent a month in the Damascene Village, embedded with the Bab al hara crew. At that time, the physical site of the Damascene Village had been metaphorically turned into Bab al hara. Inside the Damascene Village everything, from the architecture of the buildings to the design of the shops and the goods being sold, was the spatial manifestation of a corporate-driven entertainment culture inspired by the Pan-Arab TV series property of a top entertainment group, the Gulf-based, Saudi-owned MBC. The Syrian suburb was occupied, both physically and metaphorically, by pan-Arab capital, which reshaped the symbolic geography of the place, turning it into a mass-mediated reproduction of itself as reenacted in Bab al hara.

In November 2010, I took a group of university students and professors on a day trip to the Damascene Village. Everything that happened during the outing was Bab al hara-related.  We dressed up as its characters; we talked to each other employing its language, making references to its symbolic universe; we even performed sequences from the TV series using them as an access point for discussing contemporary Syria. Our experience was a full embodiment of Jeremy Rifkin’s reflection that “theme parks symbolize the primacy ofconsumption as formula for organizing social relationships” (Anton-Clavé 2007:156);5 and of Guy Debord’s understanding of “spectacle” as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1999:2).6

Both domestically and at a pan-Arab level, Bab al hara was the perfect media representation of an inclusive national, multicultural project. In fact, the hara (neighborhood) portrayed in the series included Muslims and Christians, men and women, all of them united by the common fight against foreign occupation, and struggling to preserve their national unity and a shared identity of al watan (the homeland). This message of inclusiveness was in tune with the seemingly reform-minded project backed by president Bashar al Asad and his inner circle of advisors, widely supported by the cultural elites of the country, including the Syrian TV drama makers.7

As noted by Lisa Wedeen (2013), TV entertainment, together with other market-oriented languages, had contributed to spreading the fantasy of a multicultural Syria under al Asad’s leadership, where consumption, linked to stability and order, could make the “good life” accessible to everybody. The Syria of the 2000s was a fully-fledged “neoliberal autocracy” where aspirations for a good life had become melded to “fantasies of multicultural accommodation, domestic security, and a sovereign national identity” (Wedeen 2013:842-843). Bab al hara had rendered this vision into the shiny, corporate-driven language of a blockbuster TV series. Everyone could become part of the Syrian dream, just as everyone potentially belonged to al watan.

However, in March 2011 the Syrian uprising broke out, making al watan a very contentious, politically charged issue, and bringing to the surface the contradictions and clashing ideas hidden behind a seemingly inclusive vision of national unity and belonging. One year later, in August 2012, I saw the Damascene Village again, on my computer screen; yet, this time it was not serving as a film location for Bab al hara.8 The place had been occupied by a group of anti-al Asad armed rebels; soon after, it was re-conquered by the Syrian army, then again retaken by opposition forces, who remained there under siege until nothing was left of the former Damascene Village. Video accounts were shot and uploaded to YouTube from both sides, narrating the seizure of the Damascene Village by using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from Bab al hara. In some cases, they re-enacted entire sequences from the TV series; a realistic mise-en-scene which turned a fictional, romanticized story of unity and resistance against the French occupation into a real-time (and armed) clash between different factions at a time when the uprising was turning into a full-blown civil war.

Syrian and pan-Arab news stations reporting about the events in the Damascene Village edited the YouTube videos taken by the army and the rebels together with archive footage taken from the TV series, using its soundtrack to package their news features. Once again, everything was Bab al hara-related. Paradoxically, all the media discourses generated around the clashes in the Damascene Village of the 2010s – including those produced by non-fiction media – borrowed from the nostalgic, fictitious reproduction of historical events in the Syria of the 1920s. Once circulated online, these media discourses were once again re-manipulated and remixed by anonymous users cross-referencing between the fictional historical Damascus of the 1920s, the real Damascene Village of the 2010s, and the news accounts of the destruction of the latter that eventually became entangled with the narrative universe of Bab al hara. This layering of media might be interpreted as a process of “remediation” in Bolter and Grusin’s understanding (2000), that is a way of referencing older media and repackaging them in order for new media to achieve its cultural significance.

Yet, there is something fundamentally different in the process of hyperlinking, cross-referencing and generating endless layers of times, spaces and meanings initiated and boosted by any networked content – whether a self-produced video item, or a piece of mainstream television – if uploaded to YouTube and shared across the networks. Jodi Dean (2010) has rightly described the feedback loops and the circuits of drive as the main feature of networked communication technologies. Here the latter is understood as a techno-social infrastructure defined by characteristics of reflexivity and the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost. Messages become mere contributions to the ever-circulating flow of data upon which networked communications technologies thrive. The implications of this process in terms of production of meaning are dramatic. According to Dean (2009), the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification. “Networked communications – particularly in their continued entanglements with the mainstream media – format the terrain of battle between competing conceptions of the Real;” here the latter do not generate a plurality of visions, but a set of “disintegrated spectacles” which undermine any possible condition of belief and generate a feeling of “constituent anxiety” (Dean 2009:173).

This process – which is inherent to the networks – is amplified within highly contentious contexts, such as contemporary Syria, experiencing a violent and bloody armed clash of visions over the country’s future. If Bab al hara used to symbolize, at a mass media level, Syrian national unity and a shared idea of al watan, the uprising escalated into civil war has turned the TV series into a heavily contentious site. This is apparent from the YouTube videos shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels.

The Syrian army’s video features an unveiled young woman in military fatigues, a TV reporter embedded with the troops whose role is to witness and support the military fight to reconquer the Damascene Village by providing a live account for the wider Syrian audience. This recalls the character of Umm Joseph in Bab al hara, an old Christian lady who fights for the independence of her country alongside her male (and Muslim) colleagues, symbolizing the multicultural inclusiveness of the hara as a metaphor for the entire country. On the contrary, the rebels’ videos feature only men who are mostly bearded; a trait that clearly suggests their religious affiliation. In a fascinating (and surreal) mixture of the real and fictitious, the rebels call themselves rijal al Ghouta al sharqiyya (the men of Eastern al Ghouta), borrowing the expression from the TV series; and, at the same time, referring to the real al Ghouta, which stands both as the filming location of Bab al hara, and as the area they are conquering while shooting the video. Visually and textually playing with the intertwinement and cross-referencing of places and times, the rebels’ videos denounce the siege being imposed by the Syrian army on the al Ghouta of the 2010s, connecting it to the historical siege of that very area carried out by the French troops in 1920s as dramatized and narrated in Bab al hara.

These video accounts being circulated on the networks clearly show that the fantasy of inclusiveness behind the hara – and behind Bashar al Asad’s political project – has now been fragmented into clashing narratives packaged by opposing armed factions that have occupied both the physical space of the Damascene Village, and the symbolic, mediated space of Bab al hara. Thus, the Damascene Village has been transformed from a set staging an historical fight fictionalized for the sake of TV drama to a set enabling real armed fighting, used by opposing parties to re-enact Bab al hara’s re-enactment of the people’s anti-colonial struggle, and to give it novel meanings in the context of the Syrian civil war.

Bab al hara was already a contentious space long before the Syrian conflict broke out. From the time of its first broadcast, back in 2006, the TV series generated several heated debates, mostly on Syrian media. For example, critics had pointed to the inaccurate representation of the women of the hara, who were portrayed as passive mothers and wives, subject to their husbands’ and fathers’ will. Others accused the TV series of ignoring the vibrant cultural life and the high educational level of Damascenes at the time, focusing exclusively on the lower, uneducated class.9 However, these controversies mostly took place within the space of traditional mainstream media, such as the written press or TV talk shows. Now, the combined action of violence performed in the context of an ongoing civil war and of networked communication technologies has broken up the narrative of a shared nationhood into a variety of competing versions of reality; none of them able to restore the conditions necessary for a belief in a shared national project. A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

Expanding warfare through the networks: an ethnography of expanded places

Drawing from the ethnographies of the Damascene Village, I want to reflect on the relationship between visibility and violence in the performance of contemporary warfare as defined by and through the networks, and on the implications of being exposed to violent events in the context of a networked environment. Philosopher Micheal Shapiro (2011) calls this situation of continuous exposure to violence the presence of war. It is by virtue of the “technologies of perception” shaping our communication habitat. He argues that an overlap between the materiality of violence being performed remotely and the comfort of the places where we consume it is produced (Shapiro 2013:137). This reflection is key to approaching expanded places as novel environments generated by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies.

Long before new media, scholarship had raised the question of the juxtaposition of conflict zones as places for the production of violence, and comfort zones as environments for the consumption of the latter, emphasizing the role of visual media in bringing together these apparently opposing contexts. Several works have focused on the relationship between violence and visual media, stressing the capacity of the latter to shape a sort of dramaturgy (and ideology) of warfare. Susan Sontag (1977) was the first to underline that the over-saturation of images of violence and violent images had resulted in hindering their potential capacity to generate any sort of ethical responsiveness. Finally, their very existence could not help but bear witness to “the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction” (Sontag 1977:70).

Judith Butler (2009) pushed this reflection farther by arguing that the role of images was not only to document violence, but to actively perform it. This capacity to contribute to the performance of violence is, in her view, closely connected to their rapid spread and dissemination through a diverse set of media. Butler has stressed the importance of media circulation in shaping the relationship between violence and visibility, and has directly linked media representations to modes of military conduct. In her words: “there is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation” (Butler 2009:29).

Yet the role played by networked communication technologies in generating expanded places exceeds that of facilitating the mere circulation and proliferation of visual media, and of producing and reproducing media representations. Here the networks have to be conceived not only as a techno-infrastructure boosting the endless reproduction of images and texts, but also as the human fabric beneath the mechanism of that very reproduction. The web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2004), also defined as participatory web or “social” web, is in fact at the same time the technological infrastructure and the human network connecting people and information in a system of cross-referencing and hyperlinking. Reflexivity and circulation are key features describing this environment of networked data and people, together with anonymity and decentralized authorship.

The combination of the technological and human element defining networked communication technologies generates a fundamental difference with non-networked media, such as photography or television, which were the focus of Sontag and Butler’s reflections. By virtue of the networks’ techno-human infrastructure, visuals and data are not just copied or disseminated, but hyperlinked and cross-referenced with other visuals and data, and connected to an ever expanding web of people, places, and times. Within this architecture, everybody is a maker of messages and a connector between one message and another; between one node of the web and another. The hyperlinking of people, places, and times is central to the process of expanding places that have been annihilated by violence and warfare, while at the same time being multiplied in endless mediated versions where new spatio-temporal and symbolic connections are established.

The fate of the Damascene Village makes this apparent. Here, different layers of time have overlapped: the historical 1920s; the 1920s as re-imagined by a media product made in the 2000s; the 1920s celebrated in a fictional version of the 2000s and re-employed in the 2010s by opposing factions to fight a real war and endorse their own version of armed resistance. Places have also merged: the historical site of al Ghouta with its physical replica, the Damascene Village; and the fictional representation of al Ghouta offered by Bab al hara with the militarized and physically besieged Damascene Village. New meanings have been generated through this melting of times and places, as shown by the self -recorded video accounts produced by the rebels and the Syrian army. Both sides have linked a fantasy of the historical al Ghouta as re-elaborated by Bab al hara to their own fantasy of conquering Syria’s collective imagination through the physical occupation of the TV series location, which is also the material site where the local anti-colonial struggle originated. By re-articulating the links between historical resistance struggles, the fantasy of this very resistance filtered through TV fiction, and their ongoing armed resistance, both the rebels and the loyalist army have been playing with images and signs, cross-cutting times and spaces.

The multi-layered cross-referencing of a plurality of times and spaces is a result of the process of expansion which occurs by virtue of the techno-human infrastructure of networked communication technologies. This spatio-temporal overlap and the blurring of the boundaries between a fictional replica of a physical, historical place, and the latter’s material existence, coincide to shape a continuous real-time and live-presence which characterize time and space in expanded places. The YouTube videos that have been uploaded by the armed rebels and the Syrian army, shared by thousands of unknown users worldwide, remixed by Arab TV news stations, re-manipulated by other unknown users who edit them once again and, finally, re-injected into the ever-circulating data stream generated by the networks, have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as theDamascene Village. Expanding a place, in fact, does not only mean multiplying its spatio-temporal existence, but also interconnecting it with other places, times, languages, material existences and individualities.

The endless making and remaking of the connections between images and spaces and the continuous attribution of novel meanings to the empirical and symbolic world generate  alternative ways of framing the “existing sense of reality,” redefining the “trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done” (Rancière 2009:49). Along these lines a new fictionality emerges; which, as conceptualized by philosopher Jacques Rancière (2013), does not refer to the making up of a fictitious universe, nor does it evoke a relationship of truth and falsehood. As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

Fictionality has to be understood as the philosophical device rearranging the existing into a completely new (political) form, and (aesthetic) format. I argue that the relationship between the political and the aesthetic being established in expanded places has to be defined along the lines of Rancière’s reflection (2013) on the “aesthetic regime,” that is a framework organizing the visible, the thinkable and the sayable independently from the logic of causality or representativity characterizing previous forms of “distribution of the sensible.”Within the “ethical regime” and the “representative regime” the question of the image was raised in reference to an external principle (Rancière 2013:16-17); whether ethical (that is “truth content” of the image, its “end or purpose”) or representative (i.e., its ability to imitate in a “good or bad, adequate or inadequate” way). Images have been assessed and judged within the ethical and the representative regimes around a principle of truthfulness, or of representation. In the former, images have to aim at something, have to move and mobilize: in the latter, they have to describe “proper ways of doing and making” according to a criterion of representation or mimesis (Rancière 2013:17).

However, the logic of expanded places does not respond to any of these criteria. The fictionality specific to the aesthetic regime is, in fact, a framework marked by a “proliferation of modes of speech and levels of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33) where temporality is defined around a “co-presence of heterogeneous temporalities” (Rancière 2013:21) – as we have witnessed with the continuous layering of times and places in the Damascene Village. In the context of Rancière’s aesthetic regime the logic of facts and the logic of fiction are blurred, as much as in expanded places like the Damascene Village.

This seems to bear a resemblance to Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal (1994) defined as a space “whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of the truth” (Poster 2001:170). The proliferation of mediated languages which shaped Baudrillard’s understanding of “simulation” (1994) as the main process describing the hyperreal could evoke the layering of forms and formats that have entangled the real Damascene Village with its representations through Bab al hara, re-connecting it again to the historical al Ghouta. However, while Baudrillard’s simulation is a mediated process which “bears no relation to any reality,” expanded places are shaped around the networked re-elaboration, re-imagination, and re-manipulation of materialities, physical places, and historical events (Poster 2001:173). Both the Damascene Village and Bab al hara are mediated embodiments of the fantasy of national unity and resistance historically and symbolically represented by al Ghouta. The expanded versions of the Damascene Village generated through networked communication technologies also bear reference to the events happening on the ground in contemporary Syria (the siege of al Ghouta carried out by the Syrian army), re-connecting them to an historical event that occurred in another time (the siege of al Ghouta carried out during the French colonial mandate) which occupies a strong symbolic place in the country’s collective imagination.

All the expanded versions of the Damascene Village bear a connection to other times and spaces, a connection which is used by each faction to support its own version of reality. Yet, what we should focus on is not this relation to a supposed ontological reality lying beneath expanded places; but rather the process by which the networks add new layers to the existing sense of reality, and how this results in creating new “communities of sense” (Rancière 2009). The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter whether the fantasy of al Ghouta elaborated by Bab al hara corresponds to an historical reality; what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

In this context “the Aristotelian dividing line between two ‘stories’ or ‘histories’ – poets’ stories and the history of historians – is thereby revoked, the dividing line that not only separated reality and fiction but also empirical succession and constructed necessity (…) Testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33-34). Therefore, instead of looking at the questions generated by expanded spaces in relation to an adherence to reality and truth, or in connection with an idea of representation, I suggest focusing on the way new meanings, novel political forms, and aesthetic formats emerge within these environment by virtue of the process of cross-referencing and hyperlinking boosted by the networks. This constitutes a major shift from Sontag and Butler’s reflections on violence and visibility elaborated in the context of non-networked media. Both scholars had evoked either an ethical or a representative function of the images which, within the networked environment connecting people and data defining expanded places, is replaced by a logic where “descriptive and narrative arrangements in fiction becomes fundamentally indistinct from the arrangements used in the description and interpretation of the phenomena of the social and historical world” (Rancière 2013:33).

Defining new forms and formats in expanded places

Novel political forms and aesthetic formats appear in the context of networked communication technologies that define expanded places around a new idea of realism. I argue that these forms and formats are fundamentally different from those shaped by non-networked media. Departing from critical theories of realism developed in cinema studies – such as Andre Bazin’s idea that the real should be “aimed at” (Deleuze 1989:1) – and from the “ideology of realism” put forward by television – directly linked “to the possibility of ‘live'” broadcast (Zimmer 2015:84) – I propose looking at these new forms and formats in light of the characteristics of circularity, reflexivity, anonymity and decentralized authorship which, as previously underlined, describe the networks as a techno-human infrastructure.

Reflecting on the distribution of the sensible and on the different organizational forms it generates, Rancière has emphasized the role that “mechanical arts” played in shaping a new aesthetic, and therefore political, format (Rancière 2013:27). Here technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission; rather, it is the platform that allows a fundamental shift introduced within the aesthetic regime (i.e., “the honor acquired by the commonplace”) to emerge and be visualized (Rancière 2013:29). In Rancière’s view, the aesthetic revolution – another way of saying modernity – has broken with a certain relation to the image established within the ethical and representative regimes; revoking, on the one hand, “the representative tradition’s scales of grandeur,” and, on the other hand, “the oratorical model of speech in favor of the interpretation of signs” (Rancière 2013:30).

The combination of an aesthetic shift with the technological possibility of focusing on “the anonymous” and on the “minute details of ordinary life” has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a “new form of fiction,”10 and look at reality as capable of “bearing greater fictional invention” by virtue of the never-ending connections between times, places, and people, being continuously made and remade, done and undone (Rancière 2013:34). According to Rancière, documentary films, because of their inner aspiration to capture reality, have a greater chance of rendering the blurring of lines between different material realities and their representations which defines the aesthetic regime.

The French philosopher does not explicitly mention networked communication technologies. However, his emphasis on the anonymous subject as an active producer of history understood in terms of fictionality bears more than a resemblance to the “prosumer” of the networked age.11 In places that have been expanded by the combined action of warfare and technology everyone can participate in the task of producing and reproducing history, as we have seen in the Damascene Village, where the rebels, the Syrian army, pan-Arab news channels, and thousands of unknown users have all contributed to remaking the connection between the historical al Ghouta and the actual besieged al Ghouta, between Bab al hara and their own fantasy of national resistance.

The peculiarity of such new formats as the YouTube videos disseminated virally over the web 2.0 is that they combine a visual culture of “compulsive documentation films” packaged to signify the quintessential form of “experience;” with “the diffuse dispersal of information” of the networked experience (Zimmer 2015:97). As argued by Catherine Zimmer (2015:97), “self experience should be exchanged and circulated in order to become relevant. In other words, subjectivity and mediated representation are one and the same,” as they are both determined by the techno-human infrastructure of the networks where these formats are produced and circulated. Once again, a technological possibility helps render a fundamental aesthetic – and political – shift, that is the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks. At the same time, serving as a distribution platform, networked communication technologies boost the production of content, which is then re-injected into the networks in an endless cycle of circulation.

Therefore, the new formats of realism shaped on the networks result from “ever-accumulating layers of technological mediation;” they are defined, as Zimmer (2015:112-113) underlines, by “a reflexive structure that makes explicit reference to the manner in which any event or understanding of an event is multiply mediated.” The story of the Damascene Village clearly evokes this process of connecting layers of networked times, places, and people; and creating a new understanding of reality which contains all those apparently contradictory strata in a sort of continuous real-time presence. While producing the personal and the individual, at the same time the video accounts shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels are networked multilayered formations that become “increasingly indistinguishable in aesthetic and function from the social spectacle, the virtual assemblage, and the hypermediation of networked communication” (Zimmer 2015:112).

By virtue of their networked genealogy the formats generated within expanded places shape a fluctuating understanding of reality and history, as they continuously rearrange links between signs and images; being influenced by the circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship of the networks as they do so. Throughout this process they “reconfigure the map of the sensible;” through the modeling of new perceptions, trajectories and meanings they come to produce new political forms (Rancière 2013:35). A new aesthetic order à la Rancière generates “uncertain communities” politically questioning “the distribution of roles, territories, and languages” (Rancière 2013:36). Yet, in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Epilogue: resilience of the image in expanded places

A paradox within expanded places is that, after having been physically annihilated, they are regenerated through their own images which, once injected onto the networks and hyperlinked to other images, times, and spaces, grant to their destroyed selves an endless, networked after-life. In fact, images lie at the core of the process of life-extension. Expanded places are image-fed, growing around the proliferation of the networked forms and formats previously described.

The networks, conceived as the techno-human infrastructure enabling expansion by virtue of its circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship, bear another structural characteristic that contributes to strengthening the proliferation of images in expanded places, which is the diffused ownership of the information circulating through networked communication technologies. Having inserted images in the data stream image-makers lose control – and ownership – of their own visual production. This is apparent in the case of the Damascene Village; even in the presence of a mainstream corporate product such asBab al hara, whose ownership is protected by copyrights, its circulation on the networks produces a de facto loss of control over it, resulting in indiscriminate viral sharing and manipulation by anonymous users, other satellite networks, and armed groups like the Syrian army and the rebels.

The loss of ownership over content, which has been widely celebrated by the cultures of sharing and remixing, was already observed in the 1970s by Jean Luc Godard.12 “Poor revolutionary fools, millionaires of images of revolution,” remarked the French filmmaker in his documentary film on the (failed) Palestinian uprising, Ici et ailleurs (“Here and elsewhere,” 1976). Those Palestinians who had generated thousands of images that were supposed to celebrate the victory of their revolution had actually lost control of those very images; which then could serve to tell multiple, contradictory stories. The condition of being image-makers who are no longer image-keepers is the link connecting a documentary film from the 1970s and the over-mediated and networked environment where expanded places proliferate.

However, it is precisely because of the content producers’ failure to preserve their own production that places such as the Damascene Village are granted a further life and can endlessly proliferate and hyperlink with other images within the techno-human infrastructure of the networks. The process of expansion of places relies precisely on this split between image-makers and image-keepers. Images should be left free to circulate in order to nurture the endless data flow upon which networked communications technologies prosper; they should escape from their makers for the sake of being injected into the ever-circulating stream of networked forms and formats. Because of this, a superabundance of images populates expanded places, images that are extremely resilient, and become even more so by virtue of the speed and the dissemination of other data hyperlinked to them in a non-stop flow. Here, images have a dual nature; they are, on the one hand, the methodological device for the performance of violence and, on the other hand, the object of this very violence.

The scholarship has widely reflected on visual media as a tool and technique for executing violence. Analyzing visuals from Abu Ghraib, Catherine Zimmer (2015:44) concluded that torture was not only documented but “performed through the act of photography.” Summing up a decade and more “politically and culturally saturated by the ‘war on terror’,” she remarked that this “state of exception” had served as a perfect ideological context for torture-based media production (Zimmer 2015:53-55). However, violence can be performed on violent images themselves, as the ending of the Damascene Village suggests.

In August 2013, a chemical attack was launched on the area of al Ghouta. It resulted in further deaths, destruction and starvation within the district. Because of the dramatic shortage of food, a fatwa was issued allowing people to eat animals not usually consumed. There was a lion in the zoo at the Damascene Village. The Arabic word for lion is asad; therefore, in a highly symbolic act, the anti- al Asad rebels under siege killed the lion and ate its meat. A video was shot documenting the entire process, with the purpose of sharing it online. However, shortly after being uploaded, the footage was removed by YouTube, which claimed that it violated the company’s community guidelines.

Only a snapshot from the rebels’ video has been saved, and it is still circulating (at the time of writing) on the networks. Other images from the video have been sentenced to death by the networks, and condemned to eternal oblivion. Another type of violence has been inflicted on violent images by the networks acting upon a double-edged logic. On the one hand, the technological infrastructure beneath networked communication technologies, functioning around reflexivity and circulation, boosts the expansion of places that have been physically destroyed, regenerating them, and granting them a form of survival after annihilation. On the other hand, that very infrastructure that nurtures “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2009) condemns all things produced to comply with disciplinary frameworks that have been elaborated by private companies and corporate capital.

Hence, those producing violence are also submitted to violence; this operation is much more nuanced and almost imperceptible, as it is perpetrated by the networks adhering to a corporate principle that establishes what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. Contemporary image-keepers are no longer that generation of filmmakers who used to reflect critically on the question of image. The networks have become today’s image-keepers; they store and preserve, or delete and destroy images following a logic that still is to be fully explored, understood, and critiqued.


This article has reflected on the increasing role played by networked communication technologies in shaping and re-designing the spatiality and perception of contemporary warfare, and the latter’s relationship to visibility and the production of visual economies. Drawing on ethnographies from the Syrian Damascene Village, it has argued that the combined action of violence and visibility, warfare and networked communication technologies produces what I have described as expanded places. Expanded places are endless networked versions of physical sites that have been destroyed, and then regenerated through the multiplication of mediated forms and formats enabled by networked communications technologies. They thrive on the latter’s techno-human infrastructure, and rely on the endless proliferation of images occurring as a result of the loss of control of image-makers over their own production. Expanded places are aggregators of new communities of meaning; they are able to catalyze the formation of new meanings and identities, and add novel layers of signification to an existing reality, creating their own multiple realities and histories.

The ethnography that I have conducted on the Damascene Village, with the help of several videos produced and uploaded by multiple subjects (some of them identifiable, others anonymous), constitutes a first case study aiming at discussing the characteristics of expanded places, and at opening up a reflection on multiple spaces generated by the intertwinement of warfare and technology. The article has looked at the prominent role that images play in shaping the expanded places; how they inhabit them; and how they help create new connections between signs and spaces, granting new life to these expanded spaces and catalyzing new communities of sense around them.

The sad ending of the Damascene Village has added another layer for further reflection, which relates to the ownership and control over the images within the networks. The latter not only generate new layers of signification and meanings to an existing reality; they also establish rules, codes of conduct, and a politics to govern and manage expanded places. The disappeared footage of the lion killed in the Damascene Village should stand as a reminder that the process of expansion and multiplication of mediated languages around a place could be blocked at any moment; and that there is a politics – and a political economy – behind even such seemingly ethereal places, which calls for further investigation.


Anton-Clavé, Salvador 2007. The Global Theme Park Industry. Wallingford: CABI.

Baudrillard, Jean 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press.

Bolter, David J., and Richard A. Grusin 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Butler, Judith 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Clifford, James 1988. The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Dean, Jodi 2010. Blog Theory. Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Debord, Guy 1999. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles 1989. The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Poster, Mark 2001. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, Jacques 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury, paperback edition.

Rancière, Jacques 2009. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics. In Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics.  Beth Hinderliter, William Kaizen, Vered Maimon, Jaleh Mansoor and Seth McCormick, eds. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 31-50.

Shapiro, Micheal 2013. Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Tuan, Yi-Fu 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wedeen, Lisa 2013. Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria. Critical Inquiry 39:841-873.

Zimmer, Catherine 2015. Surveillance Cinema. New York: New York University Press.


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments that greatly contributed to improving the final version of this article; and the editors for their support during the review process. A big thank you to Kay Wallace who did the final proofread; to the Bab al hara producers for giving me access to the filming in 2010; to Khalil Younes, Hillary Mushkin, Omar Ghazzi, Mohammed Abdallah, Salim Salama, for inspiring me to pursue my work on the “expanded” al Ghouta; to the people of al Ghouta, still living under siege. I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Arab Image Foundation (FAI) in Beirut for giving me access to rare and precious visual material on Syria at the time ofthe French occupation. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Danish Institute in Damascus for supporting my research work on al Ghouta and expanded places with a research grant.

Such as the literary production by Badawi al Jabal (a pen name of Mohammed Sulayman al Ahmed), a Syrian poet and anti-colonial political activist.

For further reading on neoliberal reforms in Syria, see Haddad, Bassam (2012) Business networks in Syria. The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.  Stanford: Stanford University Press

For further reading on Bab al hara and entertainment television in the Arab world, see Khalil, Joe F., and Marwan M. Kraidy (2009). Arab Television Industries. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Emphasis added.

Emphasis added.

For further reading on Bab al hara, and on the political economy of  Syrian TV drama industry, see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The fifth season of Bab al hara was aired in Ramadan 2010. The TV series restarted several years later; a sixth and seventh seasons were broadcast in Ramadan 2014 and 2015.

For further reading see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

10 The provocatory title of Rancière’s essay (2013) is: “Is History a Form of Fiction?”

11 This definition was coined by Alvin Toffler in 1980 when he predicted that, with advanced technologies, the role of producers and consumers would merge.

12 For further reading on the cultures of sharing, see Lessig, Lawrence (2008) Remix. Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. London: The Penguin Press.

Le tre fasi del web in Siria

Ci sono pochissimi articoli ben informati sulla Siria, e ancora meno sui media siriani, e praticamente quasi nulla in Italiano. Percio` ri-posto questo bell`articolo di Enrico De Angelis, anche lui vissuto a Damasco per lungo tempo e oggi di base al Cairo, appena uscito per Arab Media Report, che spiega molto bene l`evoluzione del cyberattivismo in Siria.

Tre anni dopo lo scoppio della rivoluzione: la sfera virtuale siriana si trasforma

In Siria nel corso dell’ultimo anno c’è stata una rivoluzione nella rivoluzione: un’evoluzione significativa delle pratiche di utilizzo di Internet e dei social media come mezzo di espressione e di distribuzione di contenuti.
Se si escludono i mezzi di comunicazione governativi, che rappresentano un discorso a parte, oggi chi si avvicina alla sfera Internet siriana si trova di fronte a uno dei panorami informativi più interessanti del mondo arabo. Una moltitudine di siti d’informazione, aggregatori web, agenzie di stampa online, pagine dedicate a campagne o reti di attivisti offrono oggi un’enorme quantità di informazioni sulla rivolta in Siria. Alle iniziative che nascono e poggiano unicamente sulla Rete devono essere aggiunti tutti quei media (radio, televisioni, giornali, riviste) che pur distribuendo i propri contenuti su altre piattaforme considerano ancora essenziale la propria presenza in Internet. Negli ultimi tre anni, i siriani hanno aperto più di cento testate (radio, giornali, riviste e televisioni) sempre più professionali e dotate di una redazione.

Sono queste nuove istituzioni mediatiche che oggi dominano la sfera Internet siriana. Le pratiche di utilizzo del web non si riducono più a un uso individuale della Rete, ma assumono una dimensione sempre più collettiva. L’accesso ai contenuti è in altre parole sempre più mediato, anche sui social network, da organizzazioni che producono direttamente contenuti per gli utenti della Rete oppure si preoccupano di gestire, curare e organizzare i contenuti prodotti nei social media per renderli maggiormente fruibili al pubblico. Questa recente evoluzione nasce come risposta ai problemi che l’uso dei social network aveva creato in Siria a partire dall’inizio delle rivolte. I giovani attivisti oggi tendono a vedere non solo i vantaggi, ma anche gli svantaggi collegati all’uso di social network commerciali come Facebook, Twitter e Youtube. I social network, in un primo tempo salutati come veicolo fondamentale delle Rivoluzioni arabe, sono oggi accusati di favorire individualismo e dispersione, oltre che di diffondere esagerazioni e distorsioni dei fatti.

Dopo una fase di sperimentazione necessaria a questa presa di coscienza, il web siriano attraversa attualmente una profonda fase di riorganizzazione e di ricerca di nuove forme di comunicazione online. L’obiettivo è quello di conservare gli elementi positivi delle forme di comunicazione digitali in termini di partecipazione e libertà di espressione, limitando allo stesso tempo alcuni dei difetti legati a tali forme di comunicazione.

Un po’ di storia: Internet in Siria prima della rivoluzione

Per comprendere l’evoluzione della sfera Internet siriana e i nuovi attori che la popolano è necessario fare un passo indietro e descrivere, seppur brevemente, la storia del rapporto tra i siriani e le piattaforme sociali del web. La Siria ha avuto con Internet una relazione molto differente da altri paesi della regione, a cominciare dall’Egitto. Prima dell’inizio della rivoluzione nel marzo 2011, l’uso dei social network come strumenti di lotta politica in Siria è molto limitato. Piattaforme come Facebook, Twitter e Youtube sono oscurate dal regime fino all’inizio del 2011. Le autorità si preoccupano di evitare la formazione di comunità di blogger-attivisti come quelle che erano emerse in Egitto, perseguendo ferocemente chi tenta di pubblicare contenuti ritenuti troppo critici.

A partire dal 2004, alcuni siti di informazione che sfidano le narrative del regime cominciano a nascere. All For Syria, fondato da Ayman Abdel Nour, un uomo politico vicino a Bashar al-Asad e poi passato all’opposizione, diviene uno dei punti di riferimento per la critica alle politiche del regime. Nello stesso periodo nasce Amuda, un sito di informazione creato per contrastare le narrative del regime in relazione alla questione curda dopo le rivolte nel governatorato di al-Hassaka del marzo 2004.

Negli anni successivi decine di siti di informazione, più vicini al regime o in ogni caso attentamente controllati, vedono la luce: Syria News, Cham Press , DPress, solo per citarne alcuni tra i più rilevanti. Prima della rivolta, sono questi siti a rappresentare la dieta internet dei siriani. Mentre in Egittoi blogger diventano importanti attori sulla scena politica, i siriani utilizzano Facebook e Youtube unicamente come una nuova forma di divertimento e interazione sociale.
La necessità di utilizzare programmi proxies per aggirare la censura del regime rallenta inoltre la velocità di connessione, rendendo ancora più complesso il passaggio verso forme di attivismo politico online.

2011: l’esplosione del fenomeno social network

Questo scenario si trasforma improvvisamente nei primi mesi del 2011. Le rivolte egiziana e tunisina spingono diversi gruppi di giovani a fare ricorso a Facebook come spazio di organizzazione delle prime proteste. Con una mossa a sorpresa, il regime nel gennaio 2011 decide di eliminare il blocco a Youtube e Facebook, probabilmente nel tentativo di lanciare ai giovani attivisti un messaggio di apertura. Il risultato è una colonizzazione improvvisa dei social network. Nei primi mesi della rivolta, Internet è l’unico mezzo disponibile agli attivisti per coordinarsi e per ottenere visibilità. Scontenti per la mancata copertura della rivolta da parte dei media internazionali, aggravata anche dal divieto di ingresso imposto dal regime ai giornalisti, molti giovani si improvvisano citizen journalist. Nascono pagine come Sham News Network che si incaricano di raccogliere e distribuire video e notizie attraverso una rete di attivisti sparsi su tutto il territorio.

La produzione di contenuti in modo amatoriale da parte di normali cittadini raggiunge proporzioni fino ad allora sconosciute nell’ambito di un evento internazionale. Come ha affermato un giornalista, il 75% delle notizie sulla Siria proviene dagli attivisti. Era l’aprile 2012, ma oggi questa percentuale potrebbe perfino essere maggiore. La Siria è la prima crisi internazionale raccontata attraverso il giornalismo amatoriale e i suoi nuovi media, piuttosto che attraverso il giornalismo professionale e i suoi media tradizionali. Tuttavia il ricorso intenso e, soprattutto, improvviso ai nuovi media ha comportato anche dei costi. I siriani non hanno esperienza nell’uso della Rete. Non hanno avuto il tempo di organizzare comunità di net-attivisti in grado di filtrare efficacemente i contenuti come era accaduto in Egitto nel corso degli anni 2000. Il giornalismo amatoriale, come quello professionale, ha bisogno di tempo per far emergere le voci più credibili e professionali cui potersi affidare quando ci si affaccia sull’oceano di informazioni del web.

Per i siriani questo processo è stato particolarmente difficile, sia per la rapidità con cui è avvenuto, sia per la mancanza di un rapporto di fiducia reciproca tra i diversi attivisti della Rete. Come afferma Damascus Rebel, una net-attivista siriana: “Penso che all’inizio nessuno potesse avere fiducia in nessun altro. Perché nessuno aveva veramente un background né una storia sui social media o altrove. E molti non volevano utilizzare i propri veri nomi, come me. Così nessuno sapeva io chi fossi. Quindi si trattava dello sviluppo di nuove relazioni. Cominci aggiungendo qualcuno su Skype e a parlargli. Anche se nessuno usa la telecamera. In queste condizioni, costruire una credibilità è stato un processo molto lungo”.

Il web siriano durante la rivolta si è sviluppato in modo disordinato e improvvisato. Da una parte è uno degli eventi internazionali più documentati grazie a una nuova generazione di giornalisti-attivisti sul campo. Dall’altra tuttavia questa abbondanza di informazioni circola in centinaia di pagine, siti, profili personali, account twitter al cui interno è difficile orientarsi, sia per i siriani che soprattutto per gli osservatori internazionali. La confusione di ruolo tra attivista e giornalista ha favorito molte esagerazioni e distorsioni, contribuendo a confondere ulteriormente il pubblico e a discreditare la produzione di informazione che circola nella Rete.

La terza fase del web siriano

Lentamente la sfera Internet siriana si è evoluta con l’obiettivo di risolvere alcuni di questi problemi. Sono nate delle iniziative che cercano di mediare tra la produzione di contenuti del web e il pubblico, filtrando i contenuti, archiviandoli, contestualizzandoli e controllandone l’attendibilità in modo simile a delle vere e proprie redazioni giornalistiche.

Sul lato giornalistico, un esempio è il Damascus Bureau, che si occupa di offrire una piattaforma comune dove giornalisti indipendenti possono pubblicare.

Le reti di attivisti/giornalisti si professionalizzano. L’agenzia di stampa ANA nasce da un’iniziativa di Rami Jarrah e Deiaa Dughmoch allo scopo di raccogliere le notizie prodotte dagli attivisti sul campo ma anche di mediare tra queste reti e i più importanti media internazionali. Nel settembre 2012, un gruppo di citizen journalist crea l’Aleppo Media Center che si occupa di coprire l’area della città di Aleppo e dintorni e di vendere contenuti ai media internazionali. Nell’aprile 2013 vede invece la luce Shabha Press Agency che cerca di coordinare le attività di gruppi dispersi di attivisti nel Nord della Siria.

Tutte queste organizzazioni rappresentano un’evoluzione del citizen journalism siriano che individua ancora in Internet le sue piattaforme fondamentali. Passando a una dimensione più istituzionale, queste organizzazioni garantiscono un maggiore controllo sull’attendibilità delle notizie, ma permettono anche di concentrare l’offerta informativa su un numero più limitato di piattaforme, laddove in precedenza gli attivisti pubblicavano individualmente i contenuti su Youtube e Facebook. Infine, il processo di istituzionalizzazione permette di attirare fondi e di intensificare i training per le reti di reporter sul territorio siriano.

Il tentativo di trovare delle sinergie è esemplificato dal progetto di Monis Bokhari “Syrian Media” che si occupa sia di costruire un database delle testate nate dopo la rivoluzione sia di organizzare incontri tra i responsabili delle varie organizzazioni. Come afferma Monis: “l’obiettivo è fondare una lingua comune per il nuovo giornalismo siriano. C’è ancora mancanza di professionalità tra i citizen journalist siriani così come mancanza di collaborazione. È necessario scambiare le nostre esperienze e darci delle regole”.

Alle nuove organizzazioni giornalistiche si aggiungono progetti di archiviazione e gestione dei contenuti che circolano sul web. Dawlati, è un portale che a partire dal marzo 2012 raccoglie contenuti appartenenti a diverse forme di espressione (graffiti, caricature, estratti video, articoli) che ruotano intorno alla ricostruzione di una società civile aperta e democratica. Un altro portale con obiettivi simili è quello di SyriaUntold: un aggregatore che si preoccupa di catalogare contenuti web e trasformarli in storie giornalistiche, fornendo loro un contesto definito e verificandone l’autenticità. In questi casi, l’obiettivo è sperimentare nuove forme di produzione e trattamento dei contenuti che circolano nella Rete per renderli più facilmente fruibili da un pubblico sia locale che internazionale.

In questo senso, il tentativo di riorganizzare le forme del web risponde a un altro problema: la rappresentazione del conflitto siriano nei media internazionali. I contenuti crudi prodotti sul web dagli attivisti infatti non solo sono stati accusati di essere spesso poco credibili, ma circolando direttamente sul web sono poi facilmente sfruttabili dai media internazionali per dare risalto agli aspetti più violenti della rivolta in Siria. La creazione di istituzioni mediatiche in grado di gestire i materiali prodotti attraverso le nuove tecnologie risponde anche alla precisa scelta di non lasciare più ai soli media internazionali la possibilità di selezionare i contenuti e le voci cui dare risalto.

L’apertura di agenzie di stampa locali, aggregatori web e altri siti di informazione è l’unica strada attraverso cui gli stessi siriani possono riprendere in mano il controllo di quei contenuti che essi stessi producono.

Digital Peripheries: Internet Activism and Surveillance in the Mediterranean

Friday 14 March 2014 from 1 PM to 5 PM, at University of Chicago Paris Centre

This conference brings together scholars and activists who focus on the Mediterannean region to analyze the uses of technology for political mobilization, surveillance, and repression. Investigating how contemporary information and media technologies might encourage decentralized collaboration and/or invite novel occasions for social control, the conference interrogates the extent to which new forms of web 2.0-oriented participation have actually enabled critical publics. Panelists will also explore how activists are attempting to counter the corporate and state control of content, the ways in which information is curated and disseminated, and the growth of innovative modes of surveillance. To what extent has the Internet helped to create conditions conducive to a world-affirming politics and to what extent is it like any other technological advance—also or even primarily dependent on the content?

with Emiliano Campagnola, Michael Dawson, Sylvia De Fanti, Donatella Della Ratta, Sami Ben Gharbia, Johanne Kuebler, Korinna Patelis, Lisa Wedeen and Ebru Yetiskin.


Digital Peripheries



Aaron Swartz domani al Teatro Valle Occupato

Nel 2008, Aaron Swartz scriveva il Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, proprio qui, nel nostro paese:

L’informazione è potere. Ma come con ogni tipo di potere, ci sono quelli che se ne vogliono impadronire. L’intero patrimonio scientifico e culturale, pubblicato nel corso dei secoli in libri e riviste, è sempre più digitalizzato e tenuto sotto chiave da una manciata di società private. Vuoi leggere le riviste che ospitano i più famosi risultati scientifici? Dovrai pagare enormi somme ad editori come Reed Elsevier.

C’è chi lotta per cambiare tutto questo. Il movimento Open Access ha combattuto valorosamente perché gli scienziati non cedano i loro diritti d’autore e che invece il loro lavoro sia pubblicato su Internet, a condizioni che consentano l’accesso a tutti. Ma anche nella migliore delle ipotesi, il loro lavoro varrà solo per le cose pubblicate in futuro. Tutto ciò che è stato pubblicato fino ad oggi sarà perduto.

Questo è un prezzo troppo alto da pagare. Forzare i ricercatori a pagare per leggere il lavoro dei loro colleghi? Scansionare intere biblioteche, ma consentire solo alla gente che lavora per Google di leggerne i libri? Fornire articoli scientifici alle università d’élite del Primo Mondo, ma non ai bambini del Sud del Mondo? Tutto ciò è oltraggioso ed inaccettabile.

“Sono d’accordo,” dicono in molti, “ma cosa possiamo fare? Le società detengono i diritti d’autore, guadagnano enormi somme di denaro facendo pagare l’accesso, ed è tutto perfettamente legale — non c’è niente che possiamo fare per fermarli”. Ma qualcosa che possiamo fare c’è, qualcosa che è già stato fatto: possiamo contrattaccare.

Tutti voi, che avete accesso a queste risorse, studenti, bibliotecari o scienziati, avete ricevuto un privilegio: potete nutrirvi al banchetto della conoscenza mentre il resto del mondo rimane chiuso fuori. Ma non dovete — anzi, moralmente, non potete — conservare questo privilegio solo per voi, avete il dovere di condividerlo con il mondo. Avete il dovere di scambiare le password con i colleghi e scaricare gli articoli per gli amici.

Tutti voi che siete stati chiusi fuori non starete a guardare, nel frattempo. Vi intrufulerete attraverso i buchi, scavalcherete le recinzioni, e libererete le informazioni che gli editori hanno chiuso e le condividerete con i vostri amici.

Ma tutte queste azioni sono condotte nella clandestinità oscura e nascosta. Sono chiamate “furto” o “pirateria”, come se condividere conoscenza fosse l’equivalente morale di saccheggiare una nave ed assassinarne l’equipaggio, ma condividere non è immorale — è un imperativo morale. Solo chi fosse accecato dall’avidità rifiuterebbe di concedere una copia ad un amico.

E le grandi multinazionali, ovviamente, sono accecate dall’avidità. Le stesse leggi a cui sono sottoposte richiedono che siano accecate dall’avidità — se così non fosse i loro azionisti si rivolterebbero. E i politici, corrotti dalle grandi aziende, le supportano approvando leggi che danno loro il potere esclusivo di decidere chi può fare copie.

Non c’è giustizia nel rispettare leggi ingiuste. È tempo di uscire allo scoperto e, nella grande tradizione della disobbedienza civile, dichiarare la nostra opposizione a questo furto privato della cultura pubblica.

Dobbiamo acquisire le informazioni, ovunque siano archiviate, farne copie e condividerle con il mondo. Dobbiamo prendere ciò che è fuori dal diritto d’autore e caricarlo su Internet Archive. Dobbiamo acquistare banche dati segrete e metterle sul web. Dobbiamo scaricare riviste scientifiche e caricarle sulle reti di condivisione. Dobbiamo lottare per la Guerrilla Open Access.

Se in tutto il mondo saremo in numero sufficiente, non solo manderemo un forte messaggio contro la privatizzazione della conoscenza, ma la renderemo un ricordo del passato.

Vuoi essere dei nostri?

Luglio 2008, Eremo, Italia

(tradotto in italiano da Silvia Franchini, Marco Solieri, elle di ci, Andrea Raimondi, Luca Corsato)


Domani al Teatro Valle Occupato, nell`ambito dei Commons Cafe`, parliamo , insieme a Juan Carlos de Martin del Centro Nexa su Internet e Societa, del Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, della tragica morte di Aaron e delle domande che ha sollevato in tutto il mondo che riguardano l`accesso al sapere e il diritto alla condivisione della cultura prodotta con fondi pubblici.

“E` giusto tenere sotto chiave e distribuire a pagamento la conoscenza scientifica frutto della ricerca universitaria pubblica? Chi veramente guadagna dalle piattaforme a pagamento come JSTOR, gli autori o gli editori?

Come disseminare la conoscenza online? Come garantire il diritto all`accesso al sapere e alla sua condivisione, allo stesso tempo salvaguardando gli autori? Come puo la ricerca scientifica sopravvivere, se viene distribuita gratuitamente online?
Si possono cambiare, oggi, leggi sulla circolazione e la distribuzione del sapere che appaiono obsolete nel mondo digitale? Esistono nuovi modelli di finanziamento della conoscenza, che rendano competitiva l`universita nel mondo digitale senza bloccare l`accesso pubblico al sapere?”



Lessig on Aaron Swartz: Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

It has been an awful week. Together with Adib Kheir, who was a very important person to me, I am mourning with the entire Internet community the loss of  one of the bravest fighters for the open web, Aaron Swartz. Somebody who fought so much to keep the Internet an open place; somebody who -among millions of other great things he did – helped to start Creative Commons and successfully mobilized the web against SOPA.

This “kid” (he was only 26 yrs old)  committed suicide in his NYC apartment one week ago. Since then, the debate on the Internet about this tragic loss and the reasons behind it has been growing and growing.

I will try to come back on this and give more context to the readers of this blog who might not be all familiar with Aaron and his case.

But tonight I want to re-publish something that touched me deeply in my heart. It`s Lawrence Lessig`s latest post on Aaron, who he deeply loved. It is just heartbreaking. And it gives us a lot to think about..about law, moral, society, and love.


A time for silence

A week ago today, Aaron gave up. And since I received the call late Friday night telling me that, like so many others who were close to him, I have not rested. Not slept, really. Not connected with my kids, at all. Not held my wife except to comfort her tears, or for her to comfort mine.

Instead of rest, I have been frantically trying to explain, to connect, and to make sense of all of this. Endless emails responding to incredible kindness, phone call after phone call with reporters and friends, and the only solace I know: writing.

But none of that has made this better. Indeed, with every exchange, it only gets worse. I understand it less. I am angry more. I think of yet another, “If only I had …”

I need to step back from this for now. I am grateful for your kind emails. I am sorry if I can’t answer them. To the scores of people who write to tell me they were wronged by US Attorney Ortiz, I am sorry, that is not my fight. To the press — especially the press wanting “just five minutes” — I apologize. This isn’t a “just five minutes” story, at least from me.

There have been a handful of smiles this past week. My three year old, Tess, putting her arms around my neck, holding me as tight as she possibly could, promising me “the doctors will put him back together, papa, they will.” A screenwriter friend, grabbing me after a talk in New York, and pulling me into an argument about his next great film. And best of all, the astonishingly beautiful letter from MIT’s president, acknowledging — amazingly — at least the possibility of responsibility, and appointing the very best soul on that side of Cambridge to review and guide that great if flawed institution’s review.

But these smiles have been drowned by endless sadness, and even greater disappointment — and none more pronounced than the utterly profound disappointment in our government, Carmen Ortiz in particular.

I hate my perpetual optimism about our government. Aaron was buried on the tenth anniversary of the time that optimism bit me hardest — Eldred v. Ashcroft. But how many other examples are there, and why don’t I ever learn? The dumbest-fucking-naive-allegedly-smart person you will ever know: that guythought this tragedy would at least shake for one second the facade of certainty that is our government, and allow at least a tiny light of recognition to shine through, and in that tiny ray, maybe a question, a pause, a moment of “ok, we need to look at this carefully.” I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that Ortiz could achieve the grace of Reif. But the single gift I wanted was at least a clumsy, hesitating, “we’re going to look at this carefully, and think about whether mistakes might have been made.”

But oh Lucy, you’ve done it again.

Ortiz’s statement is a template for all that is awful in what we as a political culture have become. And it pushes me — me, the most conventional, wanting-to-believe-in-all-things-patriotic, former teenage Republican from the home of Little League baseball — to a place far more radical than I ever want to be. Ortiz wrote:

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz,

Yes, Ms. Ortiz, you obviously can “only imagine.” Because if you felt it, as obviously as Reif did, it would move you first to listen, and then to think. You’re so keen to prove that you understand this case better than your press releases about Aaron’s “crime” (those issued when Aaron still drew breath) made it seem (“the prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain”). But if your prosecutors recognized this, then this is the question to answer:

Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

His motive was political — obviously. His harm was exactly none — as JSTOR effectively acknowledged. But he deserved, your “career prosecutors” believed, to be deprived of his rights as a citizen (aka, a “felon,” no longer entitled to the political rights he fought to perfect) because of what he did.

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of? King, whose motives were political too, but who, unlike Aaron, triggered actions which caused real harm. What’s that number?


And how many was he even charged with in the whole of his career?

Two. Two bogus charges (perjury and tax evasion) from Alabama, which an all-white jury acquitted him of.

This is a measure of who we have become. And we don’t even notice it. We can’t even see the extremism that we have allowed to creep into our law. And we treat as decent a government official who invokes her family while defending behavior which in part at least drove this boy to his death.

I still dream. It is something that Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren are thinking along the same lines. On this anniversary of the success of the campaign to stop SOPA — a campaign which Aaron helped architect — maybe I’m right to be hopeful that even this Congress might do something. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe.

But for now, I need to step away. I apologize for the silence. I am sorry for the replies I will not give. Aaron was wrong about very few things, but he was wrong to take his life. I have to return to mine, and to the amazingly beautiful creatures who are trying to pull me back.

I will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.

18 January 2013 ·

Lessig on Free Bassel

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and professor at Harvard Law School, has published on The Wall Street Journal a very touching op-ed for our Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi, detained in Syria since March 2012.

Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell

A Syrian tech wizard is jailed by the Assad regime. His sin? Spreading the word about utilizing the Internet.


It has been a decade since lawyers and technologists formed the nonprofit corporation Creative Commons to help artists and authors share their work with each other and the world. Creative Commons offered free copyright licenses, tied to underlying computer code that made it simpler for artists and authors to signal the freedoms they want their creativity to carry to prospective users and the world.

Very quickly, a wide range of creators, including scientists, scholars, educators, musicians, bloggers, photographers and filmmakers began using these licenses to make their works more freely available—legally, and within the protective contours of traditional copyright. The resulting explosion of shared material today includes hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr, tens of thousands of “open access” scholarly articles, thousands of videos on YouTube and, and the heart of all free culture, Wikipedia.

For most of us in the West, this movement has supported a new era of creative excitement and intellectual freedom. In some parts of the world, however, the cost of supporting this movement to share information has been high.

Creative Commons began in the U.S. But very quickly the idea spread globally, adapted in each case to fit the copyright laws and language of specific countries. Thousands of volunteers internationally worked to spread the technology, including code indicating that material is covered by a Creative Commons license and thus free to use and adapt, within specified limits.

Yet as Creative Commons spread, its meaning was morphed by the countries that adopted it. In South America, for instance, Creative Commons was regarded as a victory in the battle between North and South—between the West and the rest, so to speak—over intellectual property rights. Brazil’s minister of culture, the musician Gilberto Gil, embraced Creative Commons as a symbol of the new flexibility that he thought copyright law should have.




CC/Joi Ito

Computer programmer and open-source developer Bassel Khartabil

Throughout the Middle East, Creative Commons has become part of a broader and growing movement for freedom that captured the sense of a people starved for access to culture and truth beyond their own borders. With the connections made possible by the Internet, the licenses opened the door wide to legal sharing of all kinds of material.

In nations with repressive regimes, though, governments have grown suspicious and increasingly wary of so-called free culture. Now one early Creative Commons supporter in Syria may face the ultimate penalty for his work to give Syrians an easier way to share their creative work.

Bassel Khartabil is a 31-year-old computer programmer. He is also a pacifist and the Syrian lead for the Creative Commons project. For more than a decade, he has been working locally to integrate Syria into the online world, going into schools and businesses, for instance, to teach them how to use the new tools of technology, and educating future bloggers and website architects.

Mr. Khartabil has also helped spread freely licensed software and culture throughout the region and in so doing encouraged Syrians to develop critical skills like remixing. The ability to take images and other material and mix them into social commentary—as the Jib Jab videos do in the U.S., for instance—is a free-speech right that Americans take for granted. But in a country like Syria, the ability to do something like juxtapose dubious claims by the country’s leadership with more truthful images from other sources makes remixing an important tool for political dissent.

In late 2012, Foreign Policy named Mr. Khartabil one of this year’s top 100 thinkers. The magazine singled him out for “fostering an open-source community in a country long on the margins of the Internet’s youth culture.”

But Mr. Khartabil wasn’t able to accept that honor. He was arrested in March by Syrian authorities because of his work and has been held—at times in utter isolation—ever since. His family fears the very worst.

Mr. Khartabil isn’t a partisan, aligned with one Syrian faction against another. He represents a future, aligned against a totalitarian past. The Syrian government is fearful of the potential threat to the totalizing control that defines the modern Syrian state. The government thus wants to shut the free-software, free-culture movement down, in a way that only a totalitarian regime can.

Syria won’t win this battle in the long term, just as the regime is unlikely to outlast the insurrection now wracking the country. It, too, will learn that the future cannot be stopped, even if the men and women leading it can be silenced.

Mr. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and a member of the board of Creative Commons.

A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Online Artists Share Work—Tyrants Would Prefer They Share a Cell.

Appello per salvare Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi: La sua unica colpa e` di essere per Internet libero

Ringrazio Francesca Caferri di Repubblica, e tutti quelli che in queste ore si stanno mobilitando per attirare l`attenzione sul caso di Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi, detenuto in Siria dal marzo scorso e in grave pericolo di vita.

Conosco Bassel da molti anni. Bassel e` un ingegnere web bravissimo, un convinto sostenitore di un Internet libero e aperto, della condivisione in rete, dell`open source. Ma, soprattutto, per me e` un caro amico: una persona con cui ho condiviso tante avventure, una persona generosa, che ha sempre anteposto se stesso agli altri, sempre pronto ad aiutare. Ricordo quando i miei genitori sono venuti per la prima volta a trovarmi a Damasco, era Bassel che si e` occupato di trovargli da dormire, quando il turismo era alle stelle ed era difficile scovare persino un letto nella capitale siriana. Li ha invitati per un succo di gelsi e gli ha sorriso, stabilendo un contatto con loro, anche se non c`era nessuna lingua comune.

Ricordo quando abbiamo fatto il Creative Commons Iftar a Damasco, e la community libanese e` scesa a frotte in citta`, e Bassel era appena tornato dalla Cina con una polmonite. Fu lui a portarli in giro per Damasco vecchia, a mostrargli le bellezze della citta`, ad assicurarsi che stessero bene mentre lui a malapena si reggeva in piedi.

Ricordo tanti viaggi fatti da Damasco a Beirut in taxi con lui, per presenziare meeting sul tema dell`open source e della condivisione su Internet. Bassel era sempre li, ad occuparsi di noi, con quel suo modo che metteva tutti a suo agio.

Bassel e` un techie, ma non di quelli freddi, che passano ore al computer e non guardano negli occhi chi ti sta di fronte. Bassel ha un cuore enorme, e una grandissima ironia, che ci ha sempre fatto andare avanti, in tutte le peggiori situazioni.

Dal marzo 2012 ho perso ogni contatto con lui, io e tutta la sua famiglia, e tutti i suoi amici. Vorrei che fosse qui, a scherzare, come facevamo tante volte assieme.

La sua assenza ci dilania. La sua colpa e` aver immaginato la liberta`. Bassel e` alla corte marziale come quelli che hanno imbracciato le armi.

Ma l`unica arma che Bassel abbia mai preso in mano e` la tastiera del suo computer. E l`unico suo crimine e` aver sostenuto la condivisione, la collaborazione e la liberta`.




Siria, il web si mobilita: “Liberate Khartabil, La sua unica colpa è essere per Internet libero”

L’ingegnere elettornico di 31 anni, specializzato in software open source, è stato indicato da Foreign policy come uno dei “cento pensatori più influenti del mondo”. E’ stato arrestato a marzo a Damasco e da allora non se ne sa più nulla

È stato scelto da poco dall’autorevole rivista Foreign policy come uno dei “cento pensatori più influenti del mondo”. Ma questo forse lui neanche lo sa. Bassel Khartabil è stato arrestato a marzo a Damasco dalle forze di sicurezza del presidente Bashar al Assad e da allora resta in carcere. I motivi dell’arresto di questo ingegnere elettronico di 31 anni, di origini palestinesi, specializzato nello sviluppo di software open source non sono noti: alla famiglia e alla sua fidanzata – che avrebbe dovuto diventare sua moglie nell’aprile scorso – non è stato comunicato nulla.

Quel che è certo è che da allora non gli è stato consentito ricevere visite e che da qualche giorno è stato trasferito in una prigione di massima sicurezza, nei pressi di Damasco, una struttura militare dove vengono custoditi i detenuti accusati di reati come il tradimento, dove è impossibile ricevere assistenza legale e molti dei prigionieri vengono mandati a morte.

Per la liberazione di Bassel da settimane è mobilitato il mondo della Rete: un sito internet è stato aperto con il suo nome dai suoi colleghi di Creative Commons, organizzazione no profit che si occupa di condivisione legale su Internet. Nei giorni scorsi hanno celebrato al Cairo i dieci anni dell’organizzazione, e registrato un video per chiedere la sua liberazione che sta circolando in tutto il mondo. Su Twitter è stato creato un hashtag #FREEBASSEL e un attivista al giorno, in ogni parte del mondo, digiunerà in uno sciopero della fame a catena per protestare contro il suo arresto. Ma nulla finora è servito per far avere notizie del giovane. “Bassel è una persona che da anni lavora per l’apertura della Rete: la sua unica colpa è stata quella di essere stato a favore di Internet libero”, dice Donatella Della Ratta, capo di Creative Commons Arab World e animatrice insieme a un gruppo di amici stretti delle manifestazioni di solidarietà.

Nella motivazione con cui spiega perché ha scelto di inserirlo nella liste dei pensatori più influenti del mondo, accanto ad Aung San Suu Kii e Barack Obama, Foreign policy spiega che Bassel è “un giovane ingegnere le cui capacità hanno aiutato a inserire la Siria nel mondo di Internet e hanno aiutato a creare una comunità open-source in un Paese rimasto a lungo ai margini della cultura giovanile” e che è stato scelto “per il suo impegno in nome di una rivoluzione pacifica in Siria”. Pochi giorni prima di scomparire Bassel aveva affidato a Twitter un messaggio: “Le persone che sono davvero in pericolo non lasciano mai il loro Paese. Sono in pericolo per un motivo, ed è quello stesso motivo che li spinge a rimanere”.
(19 dicembre 2012)


Syrian Hands Raised: User Generated Creativity Between Citizenship and Dissent

My article publishes on  Jadaliyya`s recently launched media page.


[“Young Or Old, I Am With The law.” Photo by Donatella Della Ratta]

As much as images of violence, civil war, and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance, and creative disobedience continue to sprout across the virtual alleys of the Internet. These creative gems are also the germs of a viral peer-production process at work at a grassroots level in the new Syrian public sphere. Such acts of creativity—mash-ups, cartoons, slogans, jokes, songs, and web series—are probably too small and inconsistent in impact compared to the horrific magnificence that shelling, bombing, sniping, and killing scenes that provide daily fodder to global television viewers. It is also challenging to discover them; in fact, as remarked by Tunisian blogger Sami ben Gharbia at the Arab Bloggers meeting in Tunis (3-6 October 2011), Facebook is not the most suitable platform for activists to store, archive, tag, search for content, and give it a context.

Facebook`s chaotic flow of people’s relationships enmeshed with information and updates probably matches the mess and instability of Syrians’ daily life, but clashes with standard media routines made up of practices like tracking original sources, archiving, and planning schedules. From time to time, these daily exercises of creativity manage to find their way out of the Internet overflow and get noticed, analyzed, and framed in a broader discussion, usually centered on art and dissent in a time of unrest.

Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, my attention was caught by one of these creative works, namely an advertising poster. The poster started as a regime-backed advertising campaign and then took the unexpected shape of viral peer-produced work, still being shared and re-manipulated by users more than a year after its creation. The outdoor campaign, which started just a few weeks after the first demonstration hit the center of Damascus on 15 March, was clearly aimed at restoring order in the streets and discouraging people from participating in further protests. Billboards featured a raised hand declaring: “whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,” “whether girl or boy, I am with the law,” and other similar slogans, all matched with multi-colored, raised hands. At some point, with all these colored hands raised everywhere in public spaces, cities had a sort of Orwellian atmosphere, a sort of “Big Brother” watching citizens and reminding them to comply with the law.

Soon thereafter, parodies of these posters started mushrooming in cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised colored hand, each virtual poster carried a different slogan. “I am free,” said one raised hand on a Facebook group.

[“I am Free” Uncredited Image from Facebook]

“I lost my shoes” echoed another—suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a way to express scorn and dissent in the Arab world. “I am not Indian,” joked another poster, meaning “I am not stupid”, “you cannot fool me.” By answering “I am not Indian” to the “I am with the law” poster, citizens were using a colloquial, ironic – and rather racist—saying to re-affirm their “Syrianness.” Syrians didn`t want to be fooled as if they were foreigners in their own country; being very much aware that the regime had exclusive control over the formal meaning of “law” and “lawlessness.”

[“I am not Indian” 
Uncredited Image from Facebook]

At some point, probably after realizing the problematic nature of the word “law” —and the ambiguous relationship between ruler and ruled that it entailed in the country – the campaign was re-designed to reflect a more neutral, sober form.

This time, the raised hand simply said: “I am with Syria.” The colors used were those of the Syrian national flag—red, white, black, and green—and the slogan declared: “my demands are your demands.” It was probably safer to try to win citizens’ hearts and minds by appealing to a middle-way, a generic form of “nationalism,” as if all the Syrian people’s demands would have to be exactly the same.

In a way, the “I am with the law” raised hands campaign’s switch to a generic “I am with Syria” slogan could have been a direct response to the “I am not Indian” poster which invited the advertiser —and the ruler — to re-frame the issue in the direction of a shared “Syrian” common ground. Yet the new, more accommodating campaign registered another novel wave of user-generated responses over the Internet, and beyond the virtual spaces. Armed with a marker (and probably at nighttime), some citizens took the courage to descend from the virtual alleys of Facebook to the real streets of Syria. They deleted the second half of the slogan—“my demands are your demands”—and changed it into: “my demands are freedom.”

[Modified billboard reads “My Demand is Freedom.” Uncredited image from Facebook]

When I present this witty example of Syrian user-generated creativity at conferences or public talks, I usually get two different types of comments. The first praises this category of creative acts as the tangible signal that the “wall of fear” has been broken and that Syrians are now able to express their opinions freely, hitting back at the regime with multi-sided messages of their own. The second type of comments, beyond admiring the creativity behind this user-generated counter-campaign, dismiss it as too small and insignificant to challenge the regime at a political level. This type of criticism also deems user-generated creativity irrelevant to counterbalance industrially-produced forms of arts and culture, like television fiction (the well-known musalsalat), whose regime-tolerated content and messages reach a much wider audience than any viral campaign online. Here both comments are focused on the content of user generated creativity, whether in its political or artistic dimension. However, by doing that, they miss its context, i.e. the environment where this creativity is generated and the relations it entails.

Instead, I argue we should rather analyze the context of the Syrian user-generated creativity in order to understand what this implies and reveals, on both political and artistic dimensions, i.e. the existence of a pro-active citizenship movement comprised of peer-creators who are able to manipulate regime-backed messages and re-inject them into public space.

In this perspective, Syrian user-generated creativity is a victim of what American scholar and Internet expert Clay Shirky (2010) calls “the milkshake mistake.” Shirky refers to an American researcher who, when asked to study consumers’ habits vis-a-vis milkshakes, decided to focus exclusively on the social behaviors of the purchasers rather than on the product itself. Focusing on the context of the purchase rather than on the object purchased, he noticed that the majority of the milkshake buyers had bought the product in the early morning to take it away during their long commute to workplaces. What inspires Shirky in this story is that products do not exist in isolation but are enmeshed in cultural and social environments where purchasers “hire” them to perform certain “jobs.”

Like Shirky’s milkshakes, the Syrian user-generated counter-advertising campaign should be understood for the “job” it does on behalf of Syrian citizens. By analyzing the user-generated raised-hands counter-campaign as purely a piece of content, the result would be to dismiss it as something trivial or irrelevant, both in the political and in the artistic sense, as they would not be able to compete with any spectacular contentious action—such as a demonstration—or with industrially-led media production—as musalsalat. Instead, we should perhaps focus on the context that has generated it, following Shirky`s remark that even “the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act;” and asking ourselves why and to what purpose this “stupid” yet creative act is still useful.

Japanese entrepreneur and Director of MIT Media Lab, Joichi Ito, speaks of the Internet as a context-oriented environment where people and information are interconnected. This interconnection generates memes, i.e. units for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices that spreads virally from person to person. Memes are like ongoing open-ended conversations. They replicate information and produce copies of themselves; yet not exact copies, as in the user-generated raised hands of the Syrian counter-advertising campaign.

Cognitive systems’ expert and scholar Francis Heylighen identifies in “collective utility” one of the main criteria that makes the meme travel from one individual to another and get to be re-used: “the meme is useful for the group, without necessarily being useful for the individual.” Joichi Ito reinforces this idea by stating that “it is the use, familiarity and reproduction that makes a meme powerful and proves its aesthetic quality.” Going back to the context of Syrian user-generated creativity, how can the reproduction, sharing, and re-manipulated rendering of these memes be useful to Syrian citizens? Which “job” do these memes do on behalf of Syrians? And what do they tell us about grassroots communities and creativity in the context of politics and cultural reproduction?

Initially, as a premise, drawing from sociologist Charles Tilly’s work, we must be aware that over-emphasizing these practices of grassroots resistance and creativity bears the risk of producing “populist analysis.” To avoid romanticizing user-generated creativity’s political contribution and overestimating its scope, it should be reiterated that these everyday-life practices of cultural resistance are not the only form used to express dissent in the country. User generated creativity does not operate in a political and social vacuum; as much more visible practices of public defiance and unrest are currently at work, like demonstrations, civil disobedience acts (random roadblocks, general strikes, etc.), and even armed resistance. The creative resistance expressed through user generated creativity like the “raised hands” campaign works in tandem with other, more political, practices and it is to be considered an important public venue to express dissent and defiance; yet not the only, nor the most important, one in political terms.

Secondly, the meme phenomena sheds light on the existence of what American scholar Lawrence Lessig defines as “read/write culture” (RW) as opposed to “read only culture” (RO). The latter qualifies itself around content, produced by a small group of people and consumed by the larger masses with the latter having very little possibility of interaction and intervention on it. Alternatively, RW culture—which Lessig dubs as “remix culture”—is defined by the possibility for the users to add, change, influence, and interact with a piece of content which is produced by one but can potentially become reproducible by many. In this perspective, the content—as something produced by few and transmitted to many—loses its prominence; while the context, being defined by the relations and interactions of peers who exchange, modify and manipulate a piece of content, becomes central.

It is precisely in this context-oriented framework where content loses prominence that even “the stupidest act of all” emphasized by Shirky becomes a creative act; as it gains importance within the network of people that are replicating, re-using, and re-manipulating it.

It is important here to recall that RW culture has existed for centuries and it is not an Internet-generated phenomena. According to Lessig, in fact, it’s only during the twentieth century that, as a result of an industrialization process, culture becomes professionalized and turns it into “read-only,” i.e. “a culture less practiced in performance, or amateur creativity, and more comfortable […] with simple consumption.” In his view, before culture had been mass-industrialized and professionalized, users had the possibility to consume content but also to generate it; everybody had the chance to be a producer and a consumer at the same time.

The possibility for the users to be able to read and write culture again is brought back with the new century, thanks to Internet-enabled technology. This technology provides the tools that make the remix culture happen again and on a mass scale; yet remix culture is not itself technologically-determined.

Communities and cultures are influenced by the underlying technology, yet “grow far beyond the technology itself,” as MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito remarks. By providing easily accessible and cost-effective production tools, the Internet simply brings back, on a mass scale, a way of producing and understanding culture that has existed from time immemorial. Yet the exception to this trend is in fact the 20th century, which is the only period in history when cultural production became professionalized and industrialized, pushing forward a class of people who retained a de facto monopoly over cultural production, i.e. the professionals.

The boom of user generated creativity in the Syrian uprising signals that Syrians are seizing again the read-write culture which was long monopolized by the regime and elite-driven cultural production. Cultural forms of dissent have long been engineered or allowed by the regime, in what miriam cooke calls “commissioned criticism” in her in-depth analysis of Syrian seemingly-dissident creative production. The blossoming of user generated production in the Syrian cyberspace reveals that Syrians enjoy a new relationship with creativity that is a new relationship with power and authority, too.

This relationship now entails a feedback mechanism which is well illustrated by the raised hands campaign where the advertiser and the ruler are obliged to modify the original message as a result of the failure to communicate it or because of the miscommunication it had generated. On a strictly political level, this might lead nowhere if the ruler is not willing to take into consideration the ruled’s opinions and feedback. But on a social, cultural level, this tells us a lot about the kind of culture emerging from the Syrian uprising, which the Internet does not determine but helps to frame and pushes forward. Therefore, an important “job” done by user-generated creativity in the Syrian uprising is to put into bold relief the existence of a locally-grown remix cultures which were previously hidden or underground.

Furthermore, the peer-produced raised hands campaign going viral over the Internet and, sometimes, even in the Syrian streets, is itself an indirectly political job. In her enlightening analysis of jokes, cartoons, films, and everyday life practices of cultural resistance under Hafez al Assad, political scientist Lisa Wedeen explains how these expressions of political dissent work to undermine public rhetoric and the disciplinary effects of the leader’s cult. The regime, in fact, disciplines its citizens by demanding from them evidence of obedience and pushing them to act “as if” they were believing in the cult. This merely external compliance based not on belief but conformity actually reinforces the regime’s coercive power by generating mistrust, uncertainty, and suspicion among Syrian citizens.

Defiant art and creativity can counteract the atomization that Hafez al Assad’s cult produced in Syrian society. As remarked by Wedeen, transgressive cultural works help undo the social fragmentation and re-connect people. She explains that “when a joke is told, when laughter resounds in the room, people are also canceling the isolation and atomization manufactured by a politics of as if.” All these forms of creative resistance—jokes, caricatures, films, and TV serials—are successful because of “the viewer and the artists who have managed to speak to each other across the boundaries of censorial prohibition and restraints.”

Yet, in this perspective, arts and culture—even if expressing dissent and defiance—paradoxically become functional to perpetrate the regime’s symbolic and coercive power; as these practices shed light on what Wedeen calls “shared circumstances of unbelief” that bind citizens and make them repeatedly comply with the leader’s cult, albeit only formally.

Moving from Hafez to Bashar al Assad’s era, what can the forms of peer-produced art and user generated creativity tell and teach us in the emerging political context of the uprising? In which ways do they differ from the previous artistic forms of dissent described by Wedeen? And what role are they playing in the political context in the making? I argue that the most important “job” done by the user generated creativity sprouting from the Syrian uprising is revealing a new concept of active citizenship where citizens recognize themselves as peers enabled to create and master the language of read-write culture.

In the cultural resistance forms born under Hafez al Assad, it was the content of the creative acts—whether industrially-produced like a TV comedy, or grassroots-generated like a joke—that pointed out to both artists and citizens their shared conditions of unbelief vis-a-vis the regime; by doing this, it established the connection between the two parties, otherwise living in atomization and fragmentation. The connection between citizens and artists, or citizens and citizens, were formed through the content of the artworks. It was a temporary connection in the sense that it did not exist above and beyond the content of that very joke or TV comedy; and it had a dramatic counter-effect, i.e. to reinforce the cult of the leader and the coercive power of the regime.

On the contrary, user-generated creativity expresses a link between peers that might eventually generate a piece of content. This link exists despite the content which is created: as it is developed in a context-based environment, the Internet, where relations and interconnections are at the very core of the system. User generated creativity is the expression of these direct connections between people that have become peer-creators: the context defined by these networked relations becomes prominent and takes the place once assigned to content.

In this way, the distance between artists and audiences, between producers and consumers, between one citizen and another, fades away, being replaced by a unique figure, i.e. the user who is able to create, even through Shirky`s “stupidest possible creative act;” a Facebook page, an Internet meme, or a viral cartoon.

As MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito remarks: “it is more about creating life that creating a non-living piece of art”. In this sense, the memetic engineer/Internet artist Ito describes is very close to these active citizens and peer creators emerging from the Syrian uprising `s user generated creativity. He continues:

The memetic engineer seeks to have the particular meme copied and replicated where traditional artists are protective of their work. It is the use, familiarity and reproduction that makes a meme powerful and proves its aesthetic quality.

The raised-hands counter campaign is built around a meme that has been reproduced, re-manipulated, shared, and remixed for more than a year and a half. It goes beyond any artistic or aesthetic judgment; it is a citizens’ forum which includes and displays the most disparate opinions and political positions.

[‘I Want to be Martyred” Uncredited Image from Facebook]

“I want to be martyred,” says one of the user-manipulated raised-hand, expressing the position of those who are willing to die for Syria. Another user-generated poster, featuring two hands that are about to shake each other, declares: “whether anti or pro-regime, you are still my brother and we care for the country,” evoking a middle ground proposal as a solution to the crisis.

[“Whether Anti or Pro-Regime, You Are Still My Brother..” Uncredited Image from Facebook]

Also extreme pro-regime positions are featured within the user-generated “raised hands” counter-campaign; a poster with Bashar al Asad`s picture stating: “whether you like it or not, I love him.”

[“Whether you like it or not, I love him.” Uncredited Image from Facebook]

Finally, the raised-hand user-generated campaign is revelatory of people’s connections that are not built through shared unbelief anymore; but, rather, thanks to a shared awareness of their ability to create, re-create and actively contribute to an open-ended citizenry’s forum. Here citizens match with peer-creators, and peer-creators with citizens, both engaged in “creating life” more than non-living artistic objects.

[Collage of remixed versions of the original posters. Some are satirical, others are ironic.
For instance one reads “My was is your way but the tank is in the way” and another
“I am with the law, but where is it?” Image courtesy of Ammar Alani]



[1] Clay Shirky (2010) Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin Press.
[2] Joichi Ito (1997) Aesthetics of the Internet – Context as a medium, paper for Ars Electronica Festival
[3] Francis  Heylighen (1996) Evolution of memes on the Network: from chain-letters to the global brain, paper for Ars Electronica Festival. 
[4] Joichi Ito (1997) quoted above.
[5] Charles Tilly (1991) Domination, resistance, compliance…discourse, Sociological Forum, vol 6, n 3
[6] Lawrence Lessig (2008) Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, Penguin Press.
[7] Clay Shirky (2010) quoted above.
[8] Lawrence Lessig (2008), quoted above.
[9] Joichi Ito (1997) quoted above.
[10] See Donatella Della Ratta (2012) Dramas of the authoritarian state, Middle East Report online, February
[11] miriam cooke, 2007) Dissident Syria. Making oppositional arts official, Duke University Press, Durhan & London
[12] Lisa Weeden (1999) Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria,The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
[13] Lisa Wedeen (1999) quoted above
[14] Lisa Wedeen (1999) quoted above
[15] Lisa Weeden (1999) quoted above
[16] “Communities, multi-user games systems, markets, search engines and router configurations are all context oriented. The aesthetic of context is the design of such context-oriented systems which are outstanding in their nature. A good context-oriented system causes the network of living connections to converge, interact and grow. It adds value to the network and attracts users and connections.
[17]Joichi Ito (1997) quoted above.
[18] Joichi Ito (1997) quoted above.
[19] Joichi Ito (1997) quoted above.

Resistenza Creativa in Siria, oggi

Puo` sembrare folle parlare di resistenza creativa in Siria, oggi, alla luce di una rivoluzione che diventa ogni giorno di piu guerra civile (e contiene in se` tutte le premesse per diventare un conflitto regionale e persino mondiale, vedi quello che succede in queste ore al confine con la Turchia).

Eppure le pagine Facebook, i blog, i siti, i forum dove i siriani, quelli di dentro soprattutto, discutono della situazione, ancora pullulano di umorismo, battute, cartoni satirici, parodie. Ancora tanta parte del paese prova a fare resistenza creativa e non violenta, e a mettere in atto pratiche innovative di disobbedienza civile anche in questa situazione di violenza assurda e quotidiana.

Domani 5 Ottobre saro` a Ferrara al Festival di Internazionale a cercare di parlare proprio di questo, a fare un po di luce su quel mondo sommerso di siriani “resistenti” e creativi che i media, dall`una e dall`altra parte, ignorano.

Con me c`e un ospite di eccezione, un caro amico dei “bei tempi” a Damasco, Orwa al Mokdad. Orwa era uno studente di letteratura dell`Universita di Damasco, giovane, bello, romantico, innamorato dell`amore e della vita. Scriveva racconti e poesie quando la rivoluzione e` cominciata, nel Marzo del 2011. Ha cominciato a sognare anche lui, come tanti giovani siriani, un paese piu libero e piu giusto. Dopo essere stato incarcerato e ovviamente torturato, gia nei primi mesi della rivoluzione, Orwa e` uscito dalle galere siriane pieno di odio.

In una lettera al fratello, che legge in questo bel documentario fatto da Al Jazeera English, racconta di come ha venduto la sua libreria, quello che di piu caro aveva al mondo, per comprare un`arma e riunirsi alla lotta armata contro il regime.

Poi, pero`, non l`ha fatto, nonostante i segni delle torture che si porta sul corpo. E ha deciso di lottare con la penna, con la telecamera. Continua a scrivere racconti, teatro, poesia, ed e` l`autore di Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, una pungente satira a puntate sul web contro la repressione del regime siriano.

Ma anche contro gli sbagli della rivoluzione.

Domani 5 Ottobre Orwa sara` a Ferrara al Festival di Internazionale, per la prima volta in Italia, per la prima volta in Europa, a parlare della sua soap opera, ma anche del senso che il pacifismo e la lotta non violenta possono avere oggi in Siria – se ne hanno ancora alcuno — .

Domenica 7 Ottobre l`argomento resistenza creativa in Siria sara` discusso invece a Pisa, nell`ambito dell`Internet Festival, sempre con il nostro Orwa.

Sempre Domenica 7 ottobre, a Pisa,provero a fare una panoramica su questi ultimi due anni con un intervento su Creativita` user-generated e cittadinanza attiva. Storie e remix dal Medio Oriente a Occupy Wall Street.