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Outside the Frame

Of the various reflections that addressed the role of social media in the Middle East uprisings — and within political change more generally — this one from Radio Free Europe was both interesting and instructive.

The article suggests that what we need is a new website dedicated to posting footage of political crises, where viewers both on the ground and around the world can see “first hand” what is going on. They point out the way a range of corporate sites were reluctant to pose politically sensitive material during various events and that the public would benefit from a more neutral site, perhaps called something like “Wikiwitness.”

It’s certainly an admirable aim. The authors of the piece are quite gentle on the temerity of corporations, but certainly corporate ownership of public forums is a real problem for free speech. A non-profit dedicated to this type of witness material could have great political impact.

On the other hand, it is part and parcel of the long history of how we dream of media to make our experience of events more immediate. Bypassing news organizations in the name of the direct witness is just a move from one form of representation to another. While not new to digital media, we seem to be increasingly ¬†tempted today by the possibility of “direct access,” “first hand” knowledge, “the leak,” or the “witness.” Digital devices seem to lead us into this paradoxical idea of the media of immediacy.

In her moving book-length essay, On the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag addressed exactly this fantasy by revisiting her life-long interest in photography. She revisits Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, in which Woolf suggests that the photography of war should speak to all people at all times in the same way and could thus be a means of inhibiting violence. Sontag is deeply skeptical of such universalism and uses the idea of the frame to help us see its fallacy — that photographs are not images of reality, but framed images of reality. That act of framing is always a political one. An image of a dead child only means something within which the context it is framed. Its meaning is never inherent to itself. Footage of a beating of another person means two totally different things if it is uploaded by a victim’s rights group or a hate group.

The culture of the digital “leak” (whether text, image, audio or video) in which we live today means that we are idealizing this bypassing of the frame. We have more and more raw material, but less and less reliable ways of making sense of it — of framing it. One of the dangers of this kind of discourse is that it prioritizes media technology over the institutions that provide meaning for the flow of information.

We have overprivileged the leak, when we should be working harder on the frame.