The Revolution Was (Not) Televised: Libyan Rebels and the Accessibility of Amateur Video
Daniel Mauro / FLOW Staff
Following the takeover of Tripoli by Libyan rebels in late August 2011, world news organizations have presented a significant amount of coverage of the Libyan Revolution, reporting the events of ongoing conflicts and search for ousted ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Many English-language world news television networks currently maintain dedicated sections of their websites tracking the development of events in Libya, including Al Jazeera English, BBC World News, and CNN International, amongst others. While the news and commentary published on these sites in correlation with their respective television reports present an extensive view of the Libyan Revolution, many of the reports do not interface with the individuals and operations of the takeover beyond major moments of violence or celebration. Such a representation is indicative in the banner link for the featured site at Al Jazeera English. This news coverage is far from insufficient, yet, as with most any event, there is more to the story as evidenced in amateur media, the focus here being video. Operating in modes of distribution far different from those of world news television networks, the accessibility of these videos points to some of the broader constraints and limitations in the realization of the political potential of amateur video.
Select amateur videos may be seen incorporated into the television reports of the networks mentioned above, but a greater variety of videos produced amongst the rebel members may be found by digging through video sharing sites and search engines on the Internet. While many of these amateur videos also capture moments of violence and celebration, the imagery of amateur footage offers views of the revolution between battles that are not typically televised. Most of these videos, however, reach very few viewers. Production is plentiful, yet distribution and consumption pose challenges to any political potential they may have. Such potential is too often assumed to be a part of the technology, itself, perceived under shortsighted prospects that a technology such as a video camera inherently enables an effective, meaningful form of communication. Similar to popular debates concerning the possibilities of social media, much of the discourse of amateur video is surrounded by its assumed democratizing qualities. Summarizing this discourse, communications scholar Kyle Conway notes:
The current rhetoric of media democratization inscribes itself in a long line of discourse concerned with the relationship between technology and democracy. [Some scholars observe] that a certain utopian rhetoric has accompanied [a] popular excitement surrounding each new development of communications technology… …Others have contended that what matters is access to technology rather than the technology’s intrinsic qualities: democracy improves when access to the means of media production becomes more generalized.1
Access to technology and the ability to produce are not the only important factors in media democratization. Conway continues his article, arguing that such rhetoric neglects the role of distribution.
Since the publication of Conway’s article in 2004, much has changed in the distribution of amateur video on the Internet with the rise of YouTube and other video sharing sites. As the dominant video sharing site in terms of amount of content and viewership,2 YouTube and its operations hold significant power in the distribution and consumption of video on the Internet. Communications scholar Michael Strangelove describes YouTube as representing a transformation in the structure of media culture and communication, stating, “This is the transformation of who is saying what to whom.”3 However, YouTube offers no clear connection between the “who” and “whom” in this transformation. Searching on YouTube for videos related to the Libyan Revolution yields thousands of results: reports from world news organizations, other television clips uploaded by individual users, commentaries, and miscellaneous unrelated videos. Similar results may be found through search engines such as Bing and Google. While results from casual searching are ephemeral and by no means conclusive of the search algorithms of a site like YouTube, they are indicative of the disjunctive organization and distribution of online video. A video shot by an amateur on the ground with Libyan rebels is not easily searchable or accessible, thus limiting the potential audience it may reach.
After wading through many search results, one of the more prevalent and accessible sets of amateur videos available on YouTube comes from user routergods, aka Humphrey Cheung, an American “freelance cameraman”4 who began shooting his videos while exploring refugee camps in Tunisia, then finding his way amongst a group of Libyan rebels. Working in computer networking and IT before flying to Libya, most of the videos uploaded to his YouTube channel consist of computer networking tutorials, as well as the more dubious footage of auto show models. Shooting with a GoPro Helmet HERO and Canon T3i—part of Canon’s prosumer-oriented Rebel series of DSLRs—Cheung offers an occasional video demonstrating his tests with equipment. The collection of his footage from Libya offers an impressive array of moments both in and out of battle. With the proximity he has to the rebel group, his videos portray a view of the revolution both personal and jarring, from perspectives not typically presented by television news networks. The videos range from a harshly close image of a rebel fighter following the shooting of his friend, to an affectionate moment as refugees care for a child who lost his father. Of all the videos, Cheung’s most extensive footage is his twenty-six part coverage of the Battle of Galaa & Sofitt Hill on June 7, 2011. Consisting of over four hours of video from his GoPro Helmet, Cheung captures intense and mundane moments throughout the day of the battle. Furthermore, Cheung’s videos show the practice of image-making in the rebel movement as rebels construct an image of the revolution by posing for a photographer.
Altogether, Cheung’s Libya videos complement the world news coverage of the revolution by expanding upon the operations of war and showing personal details of the lives affected by war. Although these videos gained some attention through a four-part series at Gizmodo, the most viewed videos on his YouTube channel remain the footage of auto show models. His videos of the Libyan Revolution account for only a fraction of the total views of the channel. Production of amateur video may be the first step toward media democratization, but the availability, accessibility, and quality of distribution channels must also be clearly established if amateur video is to communicate on a broader scale and partake in any significant form of political discourse. YouTube and other video sharing sites offer potential in enabling a multivocal collection of content, but whether or not those voices are actually heard is a much more complicated matter. As an ever-present part of popular discourse, the concept of “media democratization” deserves a thorough interrogation and definition, and this task can be begun by examining the structures and networks underlying the limitations of communication through amateur video.
Thanks to Stuart Davis for his invaluable discussion and input on this column.
Please feel free to comment.NOTES
- Kyle Conway. 2004. Digital video, microcinema, and the rhetoric of media democratization. Spectator. 24 (1): 42-52, p. 43. [↩]
- YouTube Statistics: http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics (Accessed September 10, 2011). [↩]
- Michael Strangelove. 2010. Watching YouTube: Extraordinary videos by ordinary people. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 9. [↩]
- Humphrey Cheung describes himself as a “freelance cameraman specializing in warzone/protest coverage” on his website: http://www.routergods.com/?page_id=9 (Accessed September 10, 2011). [↩]