18 days in egypt and decomposing i-docs

I have long been interested in how the web has become a platform for innovation, creativity, art, commerce, and interactions of all types, and I tend to become concerned about the longevity of the media content shared on the platform. My concerns are a function of the design of the web platform.

Principal among these concerns:

  1. The web exists as a system rooted in capital accumulation as the measure through which digital media is sustained and systematically regenerated
  2. The tension between open platforms and server architectures versus closed, proprietary systems
  3. The tendency toward decomposition and decay in media forms online, especially when APIs and shared data resources disappear
  4. The difficulties of saving, storing, and collecting mediated experiences across various forms, especially when stories are based upon resources shared via hotlinked media, API-based media, or media requiring a server-based, data-driven infrastructure to hold the work together.

In my dissertation titled “Toward a Storytelling Systems Analysis Model: A Situational Analysis of Three Global Crowdsourced Documentary Media Projects,” I set out to gain a greater understanding of how organizations and institutions emerge to sustain and produce interactive storytelling platforms that support crowdsourcing. One of the major findings from the research is that the infrastructures designed to support the creation of crowdsourced documentaries often decompose and decay due to technological changes such as shifting protocols and APIs and the revenue-generating imperative of social media providers to maintain their infrastructures.

One of the case studies in my dissertation analyzed the platform infrastructure and content of the 2011 online documentary experiment 18 Days in Egypt [MIT Docubase]. The creators of the project indicate that they intended the platform to be a time capsule for future generations to see. Their approach to building the platform had been to rely on third-party content providers—YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, among others—to host content to be assembled on their proprietary Groupstre.am platform.

On one hand, the principal developers of this project, Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat, put together a compelling experience worthy of the investment capital and grants they received from the Ford Foundation, their Kickstarter campaign, the Sundance New Frontier Story Lab, and the Tribeca Film Institute New Media Fund. On the other hand, the experience of the stories six years removed from the Arab Spring has suffered from significant decay based on the infrastructure supporting their work.

The platform for 18 Days in Egypt contains 365 individual stories published since its inception. 47 contributors contributed only one story, and only 10 users account for 60% of the compositions created on the platform. This data was compiled by scraping the full results of the “Explore” section of the site. Naturally, the site does not capture the full breadth or depth of the experiences of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, but its platform does permit a visitor to explore stories that add color and qualitative understanding to the experiences of people on the ground.

In present day, the site faces significant technical challenges. Upon code inspection, numerous Javascript errors appear in the Chrome and Firefox browser consoles. Links to YouTube videos lead to items removed due to copyright infringement, account deletion, or video removal by authors. Twitter resources have vanished. Additional online services like Imageshack have become unreliable as hosts for images hotlinked within stories on the platform. The web’s hyperlinking capability is also its Achilles heel when considering the maintenance necessary to keep up with the requirements of third-party content providers.

This decaying infrastructure signals a need for strategies that support creative production of Internet-based media storytelling while keeping an eye towards future access and use of these artifacts and assemblages. As my work evolves in this area, I hope to refine some of the ideas explored in my dissertation and explore ways to more strategically archive and keep groundbreaking projects like 18 Days in Egypt from decomposing beyond recognition or disappearing completely.

No site is immune to content vanishing. The behavior is common and for various reasons is necessary. My hope is that the integrity of important work—that is, the work’s cohesion and ability to be accessed and understood faithfully—can become a greater priority in the development of interactive documentary platforms. The web’s instability challenges the integrity of the stories while providing a platform for new ways of assembling media.

Echoing Sarah Gaudenzi and Jon Dovey, “the task of the i-doc community is to continue the long patient slow work of building institutional infrastructures, developing audiences, and making a culture” (Dovey, 2017). More work is required to maintain integrity of digital media, and it begins with platform design.

Note: The folks at the Internet Archive do valuable work in attempting to preserve and protect the web. Jason Scott, in particular, has been doing this type of work for years with his Archive Team. The question of how to archive materials that exist under the control of Internet giants YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter particularly as utilized in storytelling projects becomes more significant as content disappears, moves, or is foreclosed upon due to legal pressures.