Speak2Tweet: Archiving the Egyptian Revolution? A conversation with visual artist Heba Amin and Gretchen King

 

The recent eruption of street protests in the Middle East and North Africa region certainly highlights the potential of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in supporting struggles for social change. However, the use of social media for popular education and mobilization is often met with disruption by governments who regularly block websites, slow down Internet traffic, and disrupt cell phone transmissions (Sreberny 2011). During the first days of the massive street protests in Egypt in January 2011, the regime imposed an Internet shutdown that effectively purged the country off the world’s digital map (“When Egypt turned off the internet” 2011). Shortly after, developers at Google modified a voice messaging service called SayNow. The new platform was called Speak2Tweet and is still available online today at twitter.com/speak2tweet. During the Egyptian revolution, anyone could use this platform by calling from within Egypt, although cellular and landline phones were also interrupted by the government (Richtel 2011), or from abroad and leaving a voice message of any length that would automatically be posted to Twitter with the hashtag #Egypt. The result was thousands of messages generating an audio archive of a revolutionary moment. A selection of these messages is included below (Amin 2014).

Assalam Alaikum great people of Egypt, the people of hospitality (“kenana“). You have brought honour to the Arab world with your achievements. I used to hear of a hadith by the prophet, peace be upon him, ordering us to kill the “gecko”. And you know what a gecko is. I used to think that this hadith was weak and that there was no truth to it, because I used to believe that the gecko was that small weak creature that attacked insects and climbed walls. But I now I understand the meaning of gecko. That “gecko” which the prophet, peace be upon him, referred to, represents those who climb over their people. Their photographs hang on every wall, in every square and every street, even in people’s homes. They are seen all the time, every moment. The gecko, as you know, shoots its tail at its predator so it can escape with its life. And this is what those “climbers” do. Hosni Mubarak, clinging, gripping, climbing, throws the tail of his ministries at the Egyptian people in hopes of pleasing them. But no way! No way would the Egyptian people keep silent and accept Mubarak’s plea. Follow the hadith, for the hadith is correct, correct, correct. Corrected it Abdel Karim Furjani from Lybia. Thank you.

Voice recorded: February 2, 2011; translated by: Samiha Allouba

I dedicate this poem to the heroes of Tahrir, I was chanting it years ago when I was at the Natrun prison camp where I was imprisoned in 1994. I was the youngest ideological prisoner in Egypt. I experienced the injustice and humiliation that no child has ever seen. I was resident in ten different prison camps, the ugliest jailers, the ugliest prison cells, the worst sorts of torture I’ve ever seen. But now, my wound is healing when I see the heroes of liberation – Tahrir -, the healers of my wound, the wound that’s been bleeding all my life, the bleeding wound that I’ll take to my grave with it still bleeding. I’m the son of the Nile – listen to my reciting & hymns, Crying the ruins of our glory – with bitter tears deeply saddening me, what deep sorrow I have for our past times, I cry the wasted ages, I wonder if the past will come back for my singing and music, I’m the son of the Nile – longing for a sunrise to brighten me, Longing for a revolution by my brave people like a sweeping volcano, An altar calling upon me liberating our Egypt the holiest of holy, An altar stoning the followers of evil with burning fires, I’m the flood that is watching them, giving them a chance for a little while longer, I watch the tears of children, with overwhelming deep pain, And I count the bleeding drops into the vein of my veins, I’m the history that will not be merciful, sharpening my knife, The fires of injustice are scorching me, thus, will harvest them without remorse, Thank you, Abu Naseer El Sohaji.

Voice Recorded: February 5, 2011; translated by “Alive in Egypt” http://alive.in

My love for you, Egypt increases by the day. And you know that Egypt. You know it Egypt. You know that I live and die for you. Every day I love you more than the day before. It ends here my dear country, so be happy and proud of your children and martyrs. We gave up comfort. I swear to you we gave up everything, just so we can hold onto you, dear country. So be filled with joy, because we are freeing you! And in no time you will become again the magnificent country you once were. Be happy, because the next regime that will rule you will be worthy of that responsibility, not the lowlife revolting system led by Mubarak and his dogs. I swear to God you will be free, and soon! Because, we are not leaving. I swear we are not leaving. We are not buying all this nonsense talk about negotiation. It is a charade played by two parts of the corrupt system. And this is not our conversation. We are not leaving before we cleanse Egypt from this corrupt regime. This regime must be wiped out completely. Completely! Him and his followers who robbed this country. Mubarak alone stole 70 billion dollars! The rest of the thieves have robbed the country of more than 3 trillion dollars! And those statistics were obtained by international organizations. You see this Egypt? This is your money! They say you are poor, but this is your money. And we promise that the national treasures of your land will return to its rightful owners, and all those corrupt people will be prosecuted. We will be able to give you that, because none of us are backing down. Either we free you, or die trying to, so the next generation won’t have to wonder why gave up on their futures. God forbid we break down, because if that happens Egypt will cease to exist for a long time. But this hopefully won’t happen…over our dead bodies. There is no backing down, there is no turning back. We have sold our lives for you Egypt. Every single one of us. From teachers to doctors to engineers, to technician and farmers. We will sacrifice everything for you, and we are not turning back until we finally give you the gift of freedom. The fallen regime is our gift for you. So you will be able to prosecute the traitors in it as you see fit. No turning back, not without your freedom.

Voice recorded: February 8, 2011; translated by “Alive in Egypt” http://alive.in

Brothers, Hosni Mubarak has disconnected me from all forms of communication. I won’t be able to contact you. Neither by telephone, nor Internet, nor messages. I am going to the Square, and I bid you farewell, because I don’t know what could happen. Pray for me. Pray for me. I don’t know if I will be returning or not. Please, keep the flag flying when I’m gone. Peace.

Voice recorded: January 31, 2011; translated by: “Alive in Egypt” http://alive.in

The developers of the Speak2Tweet service hoped their efforts would “enable more Egyptians to be heard,” (Singh and Mardini 2011) and activists put in additional hours to transcribe and translate the Speak2Tweet archive into English, German, and French. In this way, individuals in Egypt used Speak2Tweet to circumvent the Internet shutdowns. When Egypt came back online a few days after the launch of Speak2Tweet, the platform was less used, but the archive remained. Afterwards, Speak2Tweet voice messages were also sent from Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, and Syria. In November 2012, Twitter and Google re-launched Speak2Tweet after the Assad regime shutdown the Internet in Syria (Ben-David, 2014).

Since the Egyptian revolution, visual artist and activist Heba Amin has worked to rescue the January-February 2011 recordings from Speak2Tweet, which she believes assembles “a unique archive of the collective psyche.” To help keep this archive alive, Heba has created several films juxtaposing Speak2Tweet voice messages and their translation with footage she shot of partially constructed buildings and infrastructure abandoned by the Mubarak regime. These films and her presentations featuring Speak2Tweet content found audiences in Egypt and across Europe in film festivals and art museums. This includes, “My love for you, Egypt, increases by the day,” a six-minute video adaptation of a Speak2Tweet voice message that toured eight countries in 2013 as part of Difference Screen (www.differencescreen.net) and is now available for download at rhizome.org/the-download/2012/mar. Where the Speak2Tweet recording (quoted above) appears in sound and subtitled text during the film, Heba’s super-8 camera captures the visual evidence of a corrupt regime through images of dusty stairs and unfinished apartment towers.

Heba joins InCirculation (in text and by audio file) to explain her efforts to use the Speak2Tweet Project (www.projectspeak2tweet.com) as a teaching tool for educating the public about the limitations of corporate-owned social media platforms and the repercussions Egyptian activists have faced post-Revolution.

 

 

Gretchen King (GK): Can you talk about the lead up to January 2011? Specifically, the awareness and engagement you had with regard to street protests and the role of autonomous media in supporting that activism even before the Speak2Tweet Project.

Heba Amin (HA): I was very much interested in urban theory. In fact that was a big part of my graduate work in regards to Cairo and how that relates to the emotional psyche of the people. Prior to the revolution I had been doing years and years of research but also about ten years of filming the urban infrastructure of the city and particularly the urban decay. I was interested in deteriorating architecture, deteriorating infrastructure, and how that contributes to the unrest in the city.

Prior to the revolution there was a tangible tension for everyone living there. It was not sustainable. In many ways, the revolution was not a surprise, yet of course nobody expected such a huge mass of people to mobilize on the scale that they did in Egypt.

Prior to Speak2Tweet in terms of media as a tool of protest or dialogue was completely non-existent. In fact, bloggers and journalists, anyone who spoke against the government were very easily and quickly detained. There was this sense of fear that people could not use media to have this dialogue about politics. However, there was a small movement of bloggers that were kind of underground and some of them were anonymously using various media, there were YouTube videos, artistic projects to address these problems and some of these issues. Those became more apparent leading up to the revolution and they played a big role in mobilizing revolutionary youth. Also artists were a big part of instigating the revolution along with activists. I did not play a role in that, but it very quickly was brought to the surface at the start of the protest in 2011.

GK: Can you speak about the Speak2Tweet Project, what it is and your involvement?

HA: Speak2Tweet was an incredibly interesting, unique platform that emerged during the initial week of the revolution when the Internet was shut down. In reaction to the masses of people who were out in the streets and because several videos went viral about police brutality, the government decided to shut down the Internet. It was the biggest Internet shutdown ever. They shut down all connection for a week. Egypt is not the only place this happened, but it has never happened on such a big scale, essentially Egypt was wiped off the world’s online map.

In reaction to this a small team of developers developed Speak2Tweet. This was maybe three or four days after the Internet was shut down. Speak2Tweet allowed people to continue the dialogue that was happening on Facebook and Twitter without Internet. It provided people with phone number they could call using a regular a land line and they could record a voice message and that recording would automatically post as a link to Twitter without a third party having to upload it or having to share it. So anyone outside of Egypt could get information from Egypt through the Internet, even though Egyptians were completely cut off from the Internet.

I am assuming that it was initially developed for the revolutionary youth who were using social media to mobilize people. But because those people were already out in the streets, it turned out to be a different demographic that used it. This is based on my own individual research. I was abroad during the initial days of the revolution and I became aware of Speak2Tweet so I listened obsessively to these voice messages as they were being recorded live. I instinctively started recording them, copying the messages because I know they were incredibly unique. I got a sense that there were a lot of people who were disconnected from the protests, people who were living in smaller cities who did not have access to the protests that were happening in Cairo. There were also a lot of elderly people calling in and also a lot of Egyptians who were living abroad.

Basically people were using it to spill their hearts out, to express emotion, pent up frustration that they had held onto for years, hope, or express their love for their country, or excitement or sadness. It was an archive of emotion. This was something that would not have been possible before.

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fig 1. Heba Amin, Speak2Tweet (2011). Video installation. Screen shot. Courtesy of the artist.

GK: Do you want to describe a couple of examples of the Speak2Tweets that you archived? Most people are familiar with the Twitter platform but it sounds like this is a different use of it.

HA: It is totally different because it’s actually a voice message. You hear the sound recording so you hear the sound of the voice which is very different from how Twitter is used. Because on Twitter you have a limit to how many characters you can use, whereas this was just a link to a file that lived on a server somewhere else. The recordings ranged from a couple of seconds to twenty minutes. There was no limit to what people could say. On top of that you could hear the voice, which is a very different experience, with the sound of the voice you can get a whole other level of information because you can hear the different tonalities, the emotion in the voice itself that is missing from text. So this is also what made it quite unique.

There were a variety of different types of messages. There were a lot of very patriotic messages. People calling in and using very revolutionary tones. A lot of people were using old revolutionary songs and using the songs in the background as they spoke over them. There were several people calling in just to cry. Several people expressed incidents that had happened. I remember one guy whose brother was killed in the protest and he called in to talk about that and was crying on the phone. Other people called in to preserve their existence eternally in the digital world. There were a lot of people calling in saying, “I am going out to the square today and I don’t know what might happen to me, so pray for me if I am gone.” So it was also a space for people to preserve themselves. There were also people calling from abroad just expressing their pride and their encouragement of those going out to the streets to protest.

GK: So the archive that you have of these tweets, how many files, how many personal perspectives are we talking about here?

HA: There are a couple of thousand. So not that many, but a lot given the fact that this platform was only functioning for a couple of days. Once it was launched, we were already halfway into the Internet shutdown. Then it was launched, but by the time word got out, keep in mind there was no Internet in Egypt for people to find out about the platform so it had to get out there through SMS messages and mostly from people abroad calling families and saying “There is this platform, use it.” So it spread via SMS messages and by the time it reached people there were maybe two or three days and then the Internet was back up and then there wasn’t this sense of urgency to use it anymore. So given the fact that it was really functioned for three or four days, a couple of thousand messages is quite a lot.

GK: So the only archive of Speak2Tweet is this personal archive that you recorded?

HA: Well, no it exists in the servers. The only problem is it is difficult to access for a couple of reasons. There is also a kind of strange dilemma on where this archive exists and who owns the program. The developers who developed the program are Google employees. So it belongs to Google, but it also exists in Twitter. So for me it was quite difficult to understand who owned this platform. I actually ended up contacting one of the developers and telling him about my project. He was trying to help me out individually, but I also found out he did not have all the information who owned the platform. It seemed like a sensitive topic.

So I found a way to download the archive from Twitter before it was too late. So in addition to recording them live, I then found with the help of a programmer a way to download them all.

GK: In your answer you said, “download them from Twitter before it was too late.” Can you extrapolate on that? What do you mean?

HA: Because it becomes more and more difficult. Basically Twitter makes their information available, but only so far back in history. Once it is past a certain amount of time, unless you have a connection or somebody who understands programming it becomes difficult to go back that far. If you do a Speak2Tweet search in the Twitter archives, you won’t be able to go back far enough to access those messages

GK: Has this project, and specifically your experience just trying to get access to what essentially was a very public forum at the time, changed how you feel about corporate-owned platforms or archives?

HA: Oh yeah, absolutely. This was something I was thinking about all along. From the beginning, starting with the Internet shutdown, the idea that we are so dependent on this so-called democratic medium which is not really democratic at all. The Internet itself is owned by corporations who can choose to eliminate the peoples’ choice and we saw this happen in a very tangible way and quite easily, actually. In the case of Egypt, Egypt has about four companies that own the Internet so it was quite easy for them to shut it down because the Internet ecosystem is not so big. From that point it got me thinking a lot and it got the international community really thinking about this idea of who owns the Internet and the control of the freedom of speech. This was unprecedented. If I remember correctly this only ever happened in Burma and one other country. It is something quite difficult in a country like the United States where there is a different ecosystem where many companies own the Internet and so it would be impossible to shut it entirely.

This platform exists within the constructs of companies like Google and Twitter, which also have a monopoly on the freedom of speech. If you look at the “Arab Spring,” particularly the revolution in Egypt, it was so dependent on social media like Facebook and Twitter to mobilize people. People commend it for that, but at the same time that is a very precarious and dangerous position because one company has so much power over the welfare of an entire people. And now if you look at the situation, we are now in a place where three plus years later, our government now which has gone back to the original regime essentially, can now go back in Facebook history and look at all the activity in Facebook history and use it against the them. We are seeing that now suddenly bloggers and activists are randomly being arrested only for their activity online from three years ago. So it is incredibly dangerous and it is a very big part of the project itself. Especially when I present it and speak about it this is a very important topic to address because it is often the case we over look this very serious problem.

GK: Part of presenting this project Speak2Tweet is also to juxtapose the archive of these voices offering very personal experiences with the footage you were shooting before the revolution of the abandoned structures representing the corrupt dictatorship, these were largely empty buildings. I wonder if you feel there is a similarity between these platforms that are essentially corporate owned and easily shut down by the state. Is there some connection you have made with the lack of democratic spaces in our cities for people? The project Speak2Tweet provided a temporary space, but we have been left with an archive that is no longer accessible which seems similar to the abandoned structures.

HA: That was something I was aware of. It was almost that the buildings themselves as spatial structures were the personification of these voices. They somehow were the same thing to me. That’s why they fit together so well for me. It almost felt like these buildings were trying to express the things that people ended up expressing in the Speak2Tweet archive. They became a means to address the same issues and the same problems that are happening in two spaces, the cyber space and the physical space. Very similar things are happening, they are physically manifesting in different ways, but addressing similar issues. So yeah, for me there is a very clear connection between those two spaces.

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fig 2. Heba Amin, Speak2Tweet (2011). Video installation. Screen shot. Courtesy of the artist.

GK: In terms of the copyright for Speak2Tweet, it seems somewhere between Google and Twitter, and you yourself are using this, but what about the people whose voices are actually there. Were they every involved in disclosing rights to Google, Twitter or yourself for using their voice, their tweet?

HA: It’s kind of funny because the copyright is already quite ambiguous. Even as I use these messages, I am unclear as to who owns the copyright. Typically stuff on Twitter and Facebook is fair game. However, a lot of people are troubled that I am using people’s voices in a way that they did not intend for them to be used. What I find interesting is that a lot of people who used the platform voluntarily gave their information. The interesting thing about Speak2Tweet was you could be using it completely anonymously unlike Facebook and Twitter where you have to have an account and a profile. With Speak2Tweet anyone could use it. What I found interesting was that a lot of people who ended up using it would state their name and also their location. This I found very peculiar and I could only attribute it to two things. One is that, at that point and time everybody wanted to state their presence and make their presence be known and be involved as much as possible. In a way, it was their way of participating in events. The other reason why people used their names was in case they disappeared or something happened to them there, as a sort of record of where they were at the time they recorded their message. Those are the reasons from my own research of why people might be using their names.

This is completely my personal analysis: I got a feeling that people were interested in letting others to know it was them using this platform, recording this particular message at this particular time.

I go back and forth with having used these messages. In a sense I feel like if people were willing to record these and the platform was created for the world to hear these voices and messages that made me feel more comfortable about using them.

GK: Did you talk with the developers about their intentions or their hopes behind creating this platform?

HA: It emerged from a platform that was already created called Say Now and I think the developer is now in California. It was intended for celebrities. Teens could call and leave messages to their idols. That was the intended use, which quickly became apparent. So when the revolution started in Egypt, they quickly adjusted it to be used for that purpose. They did it on their own, over one weekend, a day or two, and cranked this thing out.

GK: Given that you have learned a lot about copyright, but also about taking-up archives from corporate platforms like Twitter and Google, archives provided by people in moments of revolution, what have you learned as an artist and an activist looking towards the future, where something like this might have to happen again?

HA: I definitely learned a lot that I didn’t know. For me it became very important to be a proponent for right to freedom of speech as well as rights to privacy and security. So one thing it raised my awareness of was the extent that people using platforms like Facebook and Twitter potentially put themselves in danger. And so through this project, I hope to create a platform for people to talk about how dangerous these situations can be when under the wrong dictatorship. So for me that is one of the most important things that emerged from it.

To visit the Speak2Tweet Project, checkout: www.projectspeak2tweet.com

 

Bibliography

Amin, Heba. “Project Speak2Tweet.” Accessed October 21, 2014. http://www.projectspeak2tweet.com.
Ben-David, Anat. “Speak2Tweet.” In The Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics, Volume 1, edited by Kerric Harvey, 1995-6. London: SAGE Publications, 2014.
Richtel, Matt. “Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service.” NY Times.com. Last modified January 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/technology/internet/29cutoff. html?_r=0.
Sreberny, Annabelle. Social media and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Audio from Media@McGill public lecture, MP3, 01:08:04. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://media.mcgill.ca/en/annabelle_sreberny_news. 2011.
Ujjwal Singh and AbdelKarim Mardini. “Some weekend work that will (hopefully) enable more Egyptians to be heard.” Google Blog. Last modified February 1, 2011. http://googleblog.blogspot.ca/2011/01/some-weekend-work-that-will-hopefully.html
“When Egypt turned off the internet.” AlJazeera.com. Last modified January 28, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/2011128796164380.html

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