Towards active citizenship in Syria. Donatella Della Ratta.

Peer creativity and user-generated contents: Towards active citizenship in Syria

The latest mash-ups, cartoons, slogans, jokes, songs and web series reveal a new dynamic between the ruler and the ruled. 

by Donatella Della Ratta

As images of violence, civil war and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance and creative disobedience continue sprouting across the virtual alleys of the Internet. These creative gems – mash- ups, cartoons, slogans, jokes, songs and web series – are also the germs of a viral peer-production process at work at a grassroots level in the new Syrian public sphere. From time to time they manage to find their way out of the Internet overflow and get noticed. 
 
Beginning weeks after the first demonstration hit the centre of Damascus on 15 March 2011, an advertising poster, which started as a regime backed billboard campaign, took the unexpected shape of a viral peer-produced work that is still being shared and re-manipulated by users after more than a year since its creation. The outdoor billboard campaign, clearly aiming at restoring order in the streets and preventing people from protesting again, featured a raised hand declaring: ‘Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law'; 'Whether a girl or boy, I am with the law' and similar slogans, all matched with multi-coloured, raised hands. At some point, with these coloured hands raised everywhere in public spaces, cities had a sort of Orwellian atmosphere – ‘Big Brother’ was watching citizens and reminding them to comply with the law.
 
Soon after, parodies of these posters started mushrooming in cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised, coloured hands, each virtual poster carried a different slogan. ‘I am free,’ said one raised hand on a Facebook group. ‘I lost my shoes,’ said another, echoing the suggestion of shoes being thrown at the dictator, a customary way of protesting leadership in the Arab world. ‘I am not Indian,’ joked another poster, being the ironic answer to a regime that has exclusive control over the formal meaning of ‘law’ and ‘lawlessness’. ‘I am not Indian’ was reaffirming the ‘Syrianness’ of citizens who weren’t going to be fooled by a government that was treating them as if they were foreigners in their own country.
 
At some point, the creative directors of the campaign became probably aware of the problematic usage of the word ‘law’ in Syria – and of the ambiguous relationship between ruler and ruled that it entailed – and released new billboards. This time, the raised hand simply said: ‘I am with Syria.’ The colours used where those of the Syrian national flag – red, white, black and green – and the slogan declared: ‘My demands are your demands’. It was probably safer, from the regime’s perspective, to try to win citizens’ hearts and minds by appealing to a generic form of ‘nationalism’, as if all the Syrian people’s demands would be exactly the same, and would coincide with those of the regime. In a way, the ‘I am with the law’ campaign switching to a generic ‘I am with Syria’ could have been a direct response to that ‘I am not Indian’, which invited the advertiser – and the ruler – to reframe the issue in the direction of a shared ‘Syrian’ common ground.
 
Yet the new, more accommodating campaign, registered another new wave of user-generated responses over the Internet, and not only in virtual spaces. Armed with a marker and most probably at night-time, some citizens took the courage to descend from the virtual alleys of Facebook to the real streets of Syria. They deleted the second half of the slogan – ‘my demands are your demands’ - and changed it into ‘my demands are freedom’.
 
In conferences or public talks, these witty examples of Syrian user-generated creativity usually elicit two different responses. The first praises this genre as the tangible signal that the ‘fear wall’ has been broken and Syrians are now able to express their opinions freely, hitting back the regime’s message with multi-sided messages of their own. The second, while admiring the creativity behind this user-generated counter- campaign, dismisses it as too small and insignificant to challenge the regime politically with only the power of humour and satire. This second response not only plays down the significance of user-generated creativity in political terms; it also deems it irrelevant to counterbalance industrially produced form of arts and culture, like TV ficton (the well-known musalsalat – soap opera industry), whose regime-tolerated contents and messages are able to reach out to a wider audience more than any viral campaign on the Internet. 
 
In reality, the boom of user-generated content in the Syrian uprising does tell us that Syrians are reappropriating a creativity, which was long monopolised by the regime and elite-driven cultural production. Cultural forms of dissent have long been engineered or allowed by the regime, in what Miriam Cooke calls ‘commissioned criticism’. The blossoming of this kind of peer-production on the Internet reveals that Syrians enjoy a new relationship with power and authority. This relationship now entails a feedback mechanism, which is well illustrated by the ‘raised hands’ campaign, where the advertiser – and the ruler – is obliged to modify the original message as a result of the failure to communicate it or because of the miscommunication it had originated.
 
On a strictly political level this might lead nowhere, if the ruler is not willing to take into consideration the ruled’s opinions and feedback.  But on a social, cultural level, this reveals the kind of culture emerging from the Syrian uprising, which the Internet does not determine but helps to frame and allows to emerge. Therefore, the first job done by creative resistance and the new emerging user-generated creativity is to put into bold relief the existence of this previously hidden or underground Syrian ‘remix culture’ that Lawrence Lessig defines as the ‘read/write culture’ as opposed to the 'read only culture'.
 
The peer-produced raised hands going viral over the Internet and sometimes even in the Syrian streets do also another important job for Syrian society. In her enlightening analysis of jokes, cartoons, films and everyday life practices of cultural resistance under Hafez al-Assad’s rule, Lisa Wedeen explains how these live sites of political dissent work to undermine public rhetoric and the ‘disciplinary effects’ of the leader’s cult. She underlines that, while the latter ‘isolates and atomizes Syrian citizenry by forcing people to evaluate each other through the prisms of obligatory dissimulation, then the comedies, cartoons, films and forbidden jokes work to undo this mechanism of social control'. 
 
Yet, it is precisely the act of recognising what Wedeen calls the ‘shared circumstances of unbelief’ that makes the regime’s ‘politics of as if’ stronger and its disciplinary effect more effective even through these artistic practices of dissent. In this perspective, arts and culture – even those expressing dissent and defiance – become functional to perpetrate the regime’s symbolic power.
 
In Wedeen’s analysis, jokes, caricatures, films, TV serials, all these cultural resistance forms under Hafez Assad, are successful because of ‘the viewer and the artists who have managed to speak to each other across the boundaries of censorial prohibition and restraints’. On the contrary, user- generated creativity sprouting from the Syrian uprising is successful because it establishes a dialogue between citizens, a non-mediated one.
 
User-generated creativity does not need any approval to go through censorship, and it is not produced under the regime’s supervision nor engineered by any top-down strategy. It simply blossoms at a grassroots level and creates room for what Yves Gonzales-Quijano calls ‘un dialogue citoyen’ (‘a citizen dialogue’). As critic Ahmed Ellabad puts it, when he describes the shock provoked to professional content creators by this grassroots creativity: ‘Revolution was the biggest outdoor exhibition the world has ever known. Citizens competed to express their political ideas in a way that, to my view, will never be repeated... Some would create incredible slogans, others would paint their bodies but the most important thing is that all these propositions would find people to watch them, to react to them, to discuss with those who had created them.’
 
Unlike cultural resistance under Hafez Assad, user- generated and peer-produced creativities are effective not because they manage to bypass the censors and create a connection between citizens and artists. In the former case the connection between the two functions through the content of the artwork; it exists because of it, and does not exist outside it. On the contrary, through user- generated creativity a direct dialogue between citizens is established where content does not mediate the relationships between them.
 
In this way, the distance between artists and audiences fades away, being replaced by a unique figure, i.e. the citizen who is able to create, even through what Clay Shirky defines as ‘the stupidest possible creative act’, namely a Facebook page, an Internet meme, a viral cartoon. The ‘raised hands’ campaign shows the fluency of Syrians in official rhetoric and their ability to challenge it and regain control over the world of symbols.
 
Internet functions as the place where Syrians not only see their creative works featured; they see their connections displayed. It is the public venue where citizens recognise themselves as creators and being capable to create. The ‘raised hands’, still blossoming after more than one year of the uprising, signal the fact that people are not connected through shared unbelief anymore; but, rather, through a shared awareness of their ability to create and recreate.
 
This is a follow up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change, produced in partnership with HIVOS. Click here to access the blogroll of DevelopmentPLUS on citizenship
 
Donatella Della Ratta is PHD fellow at Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional studies, New Islamic Public Sphere Program, Copenhagen University (DK) and at the Danish Institute in Damascus (Syria). Her PHD work revolves around the production and distribution of Syrian TV drama. Donatella has published several chapters in collective books on Arab TV industries and two monographes on Pan Arab satellite channels. She blogs on Arab media at http://mediaoriente.com  and tweets at @donatelladr
 
* This article is part of a publication produced for the art exhibition 'Culture in defiance: continuing tradition of satire, art and the struggle for freedom in Syria', Prince Claus Fund Gallery, Amsterdam, June 4 – November 23. Click here for more information. Full version publication
**Please note this paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license. Please read the conditions before republishing it http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/