Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran, Immediacy, Premediation

Media coverage of the aftermath of the fraudulent Iranian presidential election is notable for the ways in which televisual immediacy in the news has shifted in an era of social networking and premediation. As I have argued elsewhere, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 mark in some sense the last global remediation event, epitomizing the double logic of remediation that emerged most powerfully in the explosion of the 1990s. Televisual media coverage of 9/11 combined the immediacy of live video with the hypermediacy of the windowed interface. Across the globe people could watch live the burning and collapse of the Twin Towers in the midst of a hypermediated environment of multiple media feeds, both visually on screen and textually through print, televisual, and networked media. Televisual immediacy and digital hypermediacy combined to produce a collective affective sense of shock and terror.

In the past week, media coverage of events in Iran has had a very different feel and has demonstrated a very different media logic. In part this is the result of the heavy-handed media crackdown by the repressive Iranian regime. Live video coverage has been interdicted; journalists' visas have not been renewed; news reports to the outside world have been severely curtailed. In the absence of live and robust media coverage by global media outlets like CNN, BBC, or Al Jazeera, social networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have stepped in to fill the void. Live-blogging on sites like Huffington Post has been particularly helpful in mediating the chaotic flow of words, images, sounds, and videos coming from Iran. While we may not have live video feeds coming to us directly from Iran, we do have multiple social networks just waiting for the next tweet or video or status update.

Hyperbolic claims for a new Twitter Revolution have filled the print, televisual, and socially networked mediasphere. Internet guru Clay Shirkey epitomizes this media hyperbole in claiming that this is "the big one[,] . . . the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media." It was certainly true that, especially in the first days after the election, in the face of the Iranian government's crackdown on many socially networked internet sites, Twitter proved to be extremely agile and difficult to shut down. Almost by the minute, specifications for mirror sites and other non-Iranian servers were spread through hundreds and thousands of tweets. Many Iranians took advantage of software developed by the Falun Gong to resist Chinese censorship by providing servers that changed IP addresses almost by the minute. Yet as many others have noted, what has been transformed is not the Iranian revolution (if it in fact proves to be one) but Western media coverage. Twitter and other social media have provided vehicles for those in Iran to communicate to the rest of the world, and in some cases has been used to publicize protests and demonstrations in Iran. But these instances mainly intensify practices that have been under way for some time.

Indeed, after some initial mis-steps in the weekend following the June 12 election, CNN has begun to foreground the constraints under which it has been forced to operate, reporting dramatically on the restrictions its reporters have had to deal with. Consequently, instead of its reporters covering live events in Iran, CNN has been covering other media, particularly social networks like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Although CNN has taken great pains to emphasize the difference between their usual practices and their current reporting on social networks and amateur videos, Jon Stewart has not been alone in pointing out that CNN's Iran reporting only intensifies and extends their growing reliance on email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and iReporters over the past couple of years.

This fascination with social networking on the part of the MSM marks a transformation of the notion of perceptual or affective immediacy, from the liveness of video to the connectivity of social networking. As I spell out in much greater detail in my forthcoming book, this shift is part of a larger sea change from remediation to premediation. This change is particularly evident in the temporality of print, televisual, and networked news media, which has increasingly modulated from remedition's concern with the immediate present or the recent past to premediation's concern with the becoming present of the future. As epitomized by the ongoing media coverage of the social unrest in Iran, which is focused on the next tweet or YouTube video, the next email message or Facebook update, the concern with immediacy has not disappeared, but rather has been relocated from the liveness of the present to the liveness of futurity.

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