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New Texts Out Now: VJ Um Amel, A Digital Humanities Approach: Text, the Internet, and the Egyptian Uprising

[Cover of [Cover of "Middle East Critique," Volume 22, Issue 3 (2013).]

Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel), “A Digital Humanities Approach: Text, the Internet, and the Egyptian Uprising,” Middle East Critique Volume 22, Issue 3 (2013).

Jadaliyya: What made you write this article?

Laila Shereen Sakr/VJ Um Amel (LSS/VJUA): The idea for the article came from a discussion I had over a year ago with Middle East Critique Guest Editor Mark LeVine about why some scholars are averse to study text that is accessed through a database. I explained to him why I believe it is critical to have people trained in humanistic and social research looking at what is posted on the Internet. At a time of great debate on how activists in the Middle East have used emerging technologies towards political mobilization, I believe that studies on digital or social media must carefully unpack the politics and the technology together.

I gave him the example of when I analyzed the frequency of several hashtags (#) in Twitter posts on Egypt over a year using R-Shief, a digital archive I built. The comparative, historical map showed a sudden surge of posts on #Tahrir in November 2011. At first glance, I assumed the surge of activity was about the controversial parliamentary elections. It was not until I read what people were posting that I realized these were public outcry was about the deadly Mohammed Mahmoud Street military attack on civilians. This sort of analysis of social media data, in my opinion, can help us more accurately write history. This is only one example. When you put these little gems of information together we get a new picture that challenges the accepted portrayal of political resistance in the region.

In this article, I set out to make a case as to why researchers should incorporate computational analytics and content from digital archives in their research. What does this data tell us that historians, political scientists, and anthropologists do not already know about the Egyptian revolution as in this example? This is not a small task, and this article only begins to address the subject.

I aim to debunk several myths in the work and instead develop several principles that should inform our work in the field:

1. Technologies are not objective, accurate, or void of political or cultural formations.

In my research, I have expressed concerns over Arabic software localization—which is a means of adapting computer software to different languages and regional differences. At an even deeper level, the shift in programming from using C++ (a highly mathematical computer language) to using Java (a computer language that contains lots of English-based vocabulary) has meant a shift into what is culturally English-based. Yet, the academic field of Internet Studies is so young that its ethical standards and traditions are still being debated. Results are often published without public access to the data or tools used in the analysis.

Critiques of race, power, and colonialism are rarely brought into studies on how, for example, Egyptian activists have used Silicon Valley tools to design their own virtualities specific to local culture and history. As recently as 2006, developers were still building applications to enable Arabic characters on a keyboard. Several open source projects to develop software for Arabic on Drupal, Yamli, Google, and other platforms enabled Arabic-language content to grow dramatically in the years to follow.

2. It is not okay to study only English language posts when researching Arab social media.

Any scholarly project that studies digital media or social media on the Arab world must consider the Arabic content which comprises 80%-99% of posts on the region. Studying only the English-language tweets is simply not enough and will skew the results. In my visualized analysis of Facebook users, for example, the case for why it is imperative to read the Arabic text is clear.

 
[Figure One: This is an analysis of more than six million Facebook users from 2011-2012 conducted by R-Shief, Inc.]

3. Big data is not notable due to size, but because of its relationality to other data.

Another more common definition of big data, by business analyst Doug Laney, points to three key qualities of such data: volume, velocity and variety . This has larger theoretical implications. Indeed, big data is a poor term to describe the storage and analysis of large and or complex data sets using techniques such as NoSQL and machine learning.

The challenge to normalize uneven data inputs into one system or database requires building a network where each data point has its position and function in relation to all the other data points. When the size, speed, and variety of the data reaches a threshold, new, creative methods are developed to keep all the pieces working together. The traditional table of rows and columns are not always the most efficient way to store and process data. It is in the relationality of the data to each other where machine learning can take place and programs can be built to be “smart.”

In a recent blog post on R-Shief’s new search engine, Kal3a (Arabic for “castle”), the new system’s data architecture is carefully explained. By 2014, I would say that the methodological shift to using big data in textual analysis in the humanities has meant a shift from big data to smart data – or big, smart data.

4. Visualizations of Internet data are not about claims about material bodies or the intentions of communicators.

They are traces of an embodied moment of intentional use of digital media. Every data point has an embodied analogue at some moment. And tweets, as a particular category of digital data, have a very particular (historically specific, geo- specific) moment of origin that is exceedingly tangled with material bodies. My project is to figure out what the emerging patterns tell us about the virtual body politic.

A difference between the body politic and the virtual body politic is that while the former is understood as an abstraction of a group of people governed by one authority, the latter is that abstraction of people who exchange ideas publically online about the governance of an authority. Yet, how do we analyze the negotiation between the materiality (the analogue) and information patterns (the data points). In a world that is witnessing Arab revolution and counterrevolution and Twitter popularity, how might even minimal participation in virtual, networked publics—through retweeting, video documenting, blogging, etc—affect the body politic.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

LSS/VJUA: This article presents an argument for conducting humanities-based research on current events in the Middle East using computational means to examine the infinitely growing scale of social media streams. Specifically, I argue that the political uprisings in Egypt emerged from a matrix of influences, notably, the convergence of three cultural rubrics:

  1. A technological infrastructure consisting of the Internet, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, smart phones, the convention of the hashtag (#), phone numbers stored in digitized contact lists, personal mobile communication devices.
  2. Embodied digital practices such as use of mobile devices, or behavior in public demonstrations towards media cameras, screens, and storytelling.
  3. National narrative of thawra (Arabic for “revolt” or “revolution") woven into the discourse by the vox populis, pundits, and journalists alike.

Together, this convergence enabled the mobilization of a body politic that was identified by global witnesses as part of a broader "Arab Spring" originating in Tunisia, and the moment of what has become a cycle of revolution and counterrevolution in the Middle East.

The article begins with a brief description of the methodology conducted in this study – cultural analytics . Eschewing the technological fetishism that prevails in much of the discourse around Internet research, specifically social media analytics, this methodology instead insists on the integration of history and culture in a manner that links learning outcomes with the affordances of media. I then provide a review of scholarship on media and the Middle East that reveals a lack of engagement with digital media content, whether as primary sources or in critically questioning the tools and analytics provided.

The following sections discuss the process of building knowledge management system and digital archive, R-Shief. Of course there are many challenges to building digital archive of social media streaming content. Much like when people started using Islamic court records for historical research, it is a lot of trouble to sift through these new sets of document -- bad handwriting, very coded in technical language, etc.

The article ends with a close analysis of the tweets on #Tahrir from 2011-2012. This section is meant to serve as a foundation for future, in-depth close textual analysis of social media. When charting various hashtags in this exercise, it seemed evident that Tahrir has been imagined as a nationalist trope for the revolution.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

LSS/VJUA: Previously, I spent a lot of my time writing about the digital archiving process and the computational innovations. In a paper delivered via Skype at the World Congress for Middle East Studies in Barcelona in 2010, I wrote:

“To amass an archive is a leap of faith, not in the function of preserving data, but in the belief that there will be someone to use it, that the accumulation of these histories will continue to live, that they will have listeners….R-Shief joins a history of archival art works that urgently seek to critique historical information on the contemporary Middle East—information currently under siege, in real time and place, as cultures are destroyed or lost in conflict. However similar, R-Shief is a website that is concerned with archiving and indexing, rather than showcasing, on issues including but not limited to art and culture.”


[Figure Two: On Implementing the Digital Form: (Re)Thinking R-Shief from VJ Um Amel on Vimeo.]

As a practitioner and teacher, I question the nature of digital information and existence in the twenty-first century, particularly across cultures. As a VJ (video jockey), I extend the narratives archived from social media onto cinematic screens in interactive performances where audiences co-author the stories. My aim is to demonstrate how embodied habits of communication are expressed virtually, and to understand how communities use technology to design their own narratives and worlds.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LSS/VJUA: I hope that this article helps encourage more people trained in rhetorical thinking, criticism, and the humanities to take engage in critical thinking on the Internet and the Middle East. And that it serves as a critical intersection among translators, technologists, social scientists, artists, activists, and literary critics. New collaborative skills and theories are emerging, and it is my firm belief that, as educators in the twenty-first century, it is incumbent upon us to redirect our pedagogical projects to address the critical need for new skills—more collaborative, highly interlocutory, and capable of interpreting the moving and unreliable sign in a world of growing big data.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LSS/VJUA: I am excited about writing regularly for Jadaliyya’s Vox Populis page in 2014. Beginning this spring, R-Shief will be providing trending topics on Jadaliyya. These computer analytics will be accompanied by an analysis I write on a monthly basis. Stay tuned.

Over the next two years, I am participating in a working group on “Producing the Public: Space, Media, Participation” through a grant awarded by the Arab Council on Social Sciences. My project investigates the formation of the Egyptian virtual body politic within a framework of public participation. “The Egyptian Virtual Body Politic” will combine data visualizations of Internet content with interviews with a network of Arabic-language software developers and activists into a short documentary film. The documentary will investigate the interaction between these software developers and information patterns their work engender. In addition to the documentary film, research conducted through video interviews and computer analytics will result in a journal-length article and an interactive display of data visualizations.

Future plans also include preparing a book manuscript that chronicles interactive media systems and theorizes how such environments provide new knowledge on the subjects of the virtual, the body, and the body politic.

NOTES

[1] Doug Laney, “Application Deliver Strategies,” META Group, Inc., 6 February 2011.

[2] Read more on R-Shief’s pilot Arabic Text Analysis Engine.

[3] In an earlier article in Jadaliyya, “Studying Social Streams: Cultural Analytics in Arabic,” I provide some historical context and specific language for the growing interest in the analytic properties of social media content.

Excerpts from “A Digital Humanities Approach: Text, the Internet, and the Egyptian Uprising”

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we clearly have moved from the world of ‘new’ media to a world of ‘more’ media. When we reached 2011 and the Egyptian uprisings—which many hailed as the revolution brought about by Facebook—the ubiquity of computers, digital media software, and computer networks had led to an exponential rise in the numbers of cultural producers worldwide. No longer simply a matter of the rise of new media production in new global contexts, these social media platforms served as the database architectures for the accumulation of data on a scale heretofore unknown.

This over-proliferation of data challenges one’s research methodology—the impossibility of knowing or representing such a mass of information requires new ways of investigating and interpreting. In just a few years, a plethora of articles and books on the Arab uprisings were published and trillions of Twitter and Facebook postings were micro- blogged in multiple languages. Though social media is often considered co-authored by the public, much research on ‘the Arab public’ has focused on political histories, [4] public opinion through traditional polling,[5] or conducted ethnographic investigations.[6] In this regard, they have tended to undercut the mechanisms for verification and authority within the domain of the digital. Digital knowledge production is not like pop-culture or traditional public texts, i.e. newspapers or legal documents. Rather, it offers a redefinition of ‘the public’ as societies systematically engage more in the Internet, open-source transactions, and mobile devices, for example, worthy of rigorous study.

Addressing Challenges

My approach here, CCA, is built on a cooperative research and analytic framework to examine large-scale multilingual data and contextual knowledge from contemporary social movements. This newly emerging research by computer scientists, linguists, social scientists, humanities scholars, and interaction designers seeks to understand how both micro-level qualitative analysis and ‘big data’ computational analytics offer varying and complementary perspectives on complex sociocultural research questions. I am interested in gaining critical insights into how transformational ideas and information on a large scale move differently among various actors within and across movements. I approach research questions by combining network analysis and language analytics/text-mining with CCA. This methodology entails large-scale analysis, in particular of the R-Shief living data repository (http://r-shief.org), a unique and rich archive of multilingual social media content from the 2011 uprisings, along with qualitative research based on ethnographic, social, and historical inquiry. R-Shief is a "big data’" repository in terms of volume, velocity, and variety of data (see details below).

Cultural analytics is an emerging methodology for researchers who wish to examine rich sociocultural phenomena across heterogeneous and multimodal data sources. It leverages a range of mixed methods for understanding the nature of digital knowledge production across media and social networks, while simultaneously engaging in historical and cultural analysis. The body of literature studied includes not only scholarly and scientific materials, but also social media, blogs, and other online publications. It is in part the socio-digital convergence of technology, cultural transformations, and national narratives that enabled the mobilization of what people and participants have called the "Arab Spring." The political upheaval mediated on the Internet over the past few years has raised crucial questions about the influence of technology (particularly social media) in mobilizing and enabling popular uprisings.[7]

[...]

In the case of the Egyptian Revolution, the challenge facing scholars when examining contemporary digital media and political change is how to analyze information quantitatively about groups of people in a region where, historically, data science has been used to support a form of colonialism.[17] As Timothy Mitchell explains in Colonising Egypt,[18] the practice of science and systems of ordering national standards are modern projects that enable governments to maintain discipline and surveillance. A cog in the colonial project, the science of documenting every political act reflected a "tendency of disciplinary mechanisms, as Michel Foucault has called these modern strategies of control, . . . not to expect and dissipate as before, but to infiltrate, and colonise.’"[19] At a time when unprecedented Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment exist throughout the West, critical readings of race and cultural meaning across media are necessary. Thus, another challenge to studying technology is learning how to distinguish the tool from the political designs embedded in them.

A review of scholarship on media and the Middle East reveals a lack of engagement with digital media content, whether as primary sources or in critically questioning the tools and analytics provided. While many humanities scholars bring rich insights in history and culture, their analyses often are constrained by limited tools for understanding the ontology and syntax of digital production and social media networks. Arguments by writers, such as Malcolm Gladwell, who writes that "high risk social activism requires deep roots and strong ties,"[20] likely can be verified or challenged only by a combination of ethnographic research and social network analysis on large-scale datasets.

Knowledge production in the digital realm tests the boundaries between the cultural, the archival, and the technical. It can embody all of these dimensions at once, and thus reconfigure our understanding of each. To this extent, the digital humanities and sciences require new methodological and conceptual tools with which to attend to computation and empirical knowledge.

NOTES

[4] For example, M. Lynch (2012) The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the Middle East (New York: Public Affairs).

[5] The annual Arab Public Opinion Poll conducted by Zogby International and Brookings Institute (2003–11).

[6] For example, J. Anderson & D. Eickelman (2003) New Media and the Muslim World: The Emergent Public Sphere (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

[7] See further M. Castells (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (London: Polity)

[15] International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM).

[16] B. Etling, J. Kelly, R. Faris & J. Palfrey (2010) "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics and Dissent Online," New Media & Society, 12(8), pp. 1225–1243. 

[17] On the use of data to support colonialism, see J. C. Scott (1999) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press).

[18] T. Mitchell (1988) Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[19] Ibid., p. 12.

[20] M. Gladwell (2011) "Does Egypt Need Twitter?," The New Yorker, 2 February 2011. Accessed October 6, 2013.

[Excerpted from Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel), “A Digital Humanities Approach: Text, the Internet, and the Egyptian Uprising,” Middle East Critique Volume 22, Issue 3 (2013). © 2013 Informa UK Limited, an Informa Group Company. For more information, or to read the full text of this article, click here.]

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