Depuis deux mois, journalistes, blogueurs, écrivains et internautes livrent une campagne satirique contre l’État Islamique (EI) sur le web, l’endroit où le groupe jihadiste mène sa propagande et recrute. Le détournement d’ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) en hashtag #ISISmovies #ISISTv a généré des tweets parodiant les titres de blockbusters hollywoodiens, dont la plupart sont illustrés des montages du contenu publié par l’EI.
En plus du détournement des formats publicitaire et éditorial, certains médias officiels mènent aussi cette campagne, tel le site web libanais Now News qui a choisi d’illustrer son article avec un montage s’inscrivant dans le format visuel des mèmes.
Même si cette campagne peut s’avérer excessive pour ceux qui porte la profession de foi musulmane, les protagonistes de cette satire l’estiment un moyen indispensable pour combattre l’e-jihad.
Ce recours à la dérision et à l’usage explicitement caricatural des photos de propagande ou/et de presse, surtout par la presse en ligne, indique sa préférence pour les mèmes que le dessin satirique traditionnel. Ce changement éditorial ne se limite pas à la presse en ligne occidentale et/ou celle du moyen orient. Suite à l’instabilité politique dans la République Islamique de Pakistan, le journaliste/blogueur Nadeem F.Piracha a publié une série de montages sur son blog officiel hébergé sur le site web anglais du quotidien Dawn.
Si l’EI et le gouvernement Pakistanais mobilisent la photo pour sa valeur documentaire, le détournement de ce format visuel par les activistes et les journalistes sur les blogs et Twitter affirme la puissance ludique des mèmes, un moyen décalé pour prendre du recul et mettre à distance la triste actualité.
Après le partage du calcul de son temps perdu sur Facebook1, les clips Look back emplissent ma timeline depuis hier matin. Lancée pour marquer les 10 ans de Facebook, Look back2est une application qui génère automatiquement un clip de 62 secondes, créé à partir des contenus les mieux préférés sur le compte des utilisateurs. Ce montage constitué des statuts et des photos partagés est accompagné d’une musique sympathique et se déroule en trois parties. La reconstitution chronologique débute par vos premiers pas, la date d’inscription (approximative) et les premières photos qui s’enchaînent sur vos publications préférées et se termine par les photos que vous avez partagées. Chaque montage publié par un ami de son réseau invite à ses récepteurs à consulter leur propre clip (fig.1).
Autant impressionnée par les premiers clips de mes contacts, j’étais vite déçue par le mien. L’absence des statuts, des commentaires et des photos que j’aurais voulu voir défilées a rendu cette expérience passive et fade, au point qu’au bout de 4 consultations des clips leur itération était devenue pénible. D’ailleurs, une réception mitigée de ces montages s’est manifestée rapidement sous forme de mèmes, commentaires et parodies.
Si certains de mes amis Facebook apprécient la mélodie du clip, les autres (la majorité) trouvent le montage puéril (fig.3) et critiquent sa viralité intrusive.
Certain contacts ont même renoncé à l’idée de consulter et de partager leur clip de peur d’être déçu du contenu (fig.4). De manière générale, la déception des utilisateurs semble provenir moins du contenu de la proposition visuelle déjà vue, que d’un manque de contrôle sur leur contenu et sa visibilité.
De toute façon, 24 heures après le lancement du service l’équipe technique Facebook rassure ceux qui se sont plaints d’avoir revu trop de photos de leur ex, d’un éventuel rajout de l’option “éditer”.
Mais que pouvons-nous retenir de cette réception mitigée du service Look back? Et encore, qu’est-ce qu’elle peut nous renseigner sur les usages des images sur le réseau?
De point de vue technologique, le projet Look back mérite d’être apprécié aussi bien pour la qualité et la rapidité des clips que pour l’envergure du service disponible sur un clique aux 1,23 milliards utilisateurs. Par rapport à la rétrospective statique (voir fig.5) offerte en 2013, à l’occasion de 9 ans de Facebook, ce montage visuel est dynamique. Il faut rappeler qu’il s’agit bien d’un diaporama et non pas d’une vidéo, ce qui laisse se demander pourquoi les vidéos ne font pas parties de Look back?
Même si le nombre de vidéos personnelles publiées sur Facebook reste faible par rapport aux photos (250 milliards de photos en 20133 ), la vidéo devient une forme signifiante de voeux4 surtout avec des applications comme Flipagram5.
Néanmoins, de point de vue des usages, la conception de Look back pose certains problèmes.
L’absence de l’option éditer le clip révèle encore le non-respect de la privacy des utilisateurs. Certes, au nom de la standardisation, l’algorithme derrière le service ne peut pas prendre en compte les aléas de la vie personnelle. La mort, la rupture, la divorce, ce sont bien des événements qui se concrétisent sous forme des publications qui bousculent ponctuellement la timeline des utilisateurs Facebook. L’entassement du contenu partagé et l’éventuel enterrement des contextes sensibles peut procurer un sentiment de quasi invisibilité et une maîtrise de ces informations. Or, Look back s’avère être un rappel amer de l’étendue de la visibilité qui peut être conférée à ces contextes douleurs.
Ensuite, la réalisation de ce montage est un parfait exemple de décontextualisation des photos. L’effacement des commentaires et du contexte de partage, deux facteurs essentiels à la réception des images, l’absence de ces facteurs participe d’une part à l’énervement. D’autre part, la réinsertion des photographies personnelles dans un nouveau contexte général, dans ce cas anniversaire de Facebook, contribue à l’indifférence à ces clips. Ce désintérêt renforce l’hypothèse d’une pratique utilitaire des images par les utilisateurs Facebook.
De plus, la conception du clip, musique sentimentale ajoutée au défilé chronologique des photos relève bien des occasions de grandes transitions dans la vie, par exemple ce type de diaporama est susceptible d’être visionné au pot d’adieu du lycée, aux réunions des classes ou bien aux services commémoratifs (voir l’appel d’un père adressé à Facebook pour accéder au clip de son fils décédé).
Avec l’effacement du contexte d’interprétation et la dépersonnalisation du contenu visuel, comment peut-on réagir au Look back, de soi ou celui de ses amis, si ce n’est qu’avec insensibilité.
Rituals are an important part of social interaction. According to Erving Goffman, all social interaction takes place as a small ceremony consisting of rituals and parades which have their own specific grammar. This paper explores the rituals which constitute online interaction in specific contexts on social network sites (sns). The study questions the influence of sns technical materiality on users’ experience of culture and sociality. This research is based on two case studies.
The first case explores how a group of unacquainted Facebook users collectively express support for a cricket team during the 2011 international cricket cup tournament. Sports events are usually watched or attended with friends or family where viewers and enthusiasts interact in accordance with a set of symbolic rituals to display support, anger or joy. In the digital context fans can interact with larger audiences. However, online audiences are invisible and unknown and necessitate mediation through sns tools. The first case then analyses fan interaction and rituals mediated on Facebook.
The second study investigates Twitter activism. The case examines a protest against Nicolas Sarkozy’s censorship of satirical Twitter accounts during his election campaign in 2012. Unlike street demonstrations, online activism must be mediated asyncronously. However, in both online and offline protests, particpiants fighting for the same cause don’t share the same vision. To organize collective action, the framingoperations of participants and their frames must align. The second case then analyzes how collective action is aligned on sns. The research methodology for both cases draws on Goffman’s frame analysis theory .
I. Playing the profile avatar
Sports and sports events, throughtout history have not only provided casual and organised physical competition for atheletes but also occasions of festivity. Similarly to festivals, sports events are cyclical, recurrent and celebratory, standing out as extraordinary moments from the daily routine. Moreover, the proliferation of sports merchandising and the technological advancement in broadcasting have transformed these events into spectacles. The audience at sports venues acts as spectators and also as performers. Fans perform through various acts such as the mexican wave, chanting, singing, hooting, displaying flags, banners, dressing up in costumes and with national symbols painted on their faces. Such performances involve carnivalesque behaviour but also constitute rituals of solidarity as these generate a festive atmosphere at venues. Some carnivalesque rituals are even extended to community spaces where audiences will dress up in costumes and hoot at public screens or infront of their television set. If, at sports venues audiences perform for the broadcasting cameras then at home spectators act out rituals of solidarity for themselves and their immediate audience.
Rituals constitute therefore, an important aspect of any participatory event as they sustain social solidarity and inculcate the idea of society into the minds of its members. But how can these rituals of solidarity be carried out online?
Sns can be considered as mediated community spaces where users can express themselves and interact with an even larger audience with similar tastes. However, unlike sports venue, sns users interact with traces of other online members.
Our first case study began by observing traces of interaction between Pakistani members of my Facebook network during the 2011 International Cricket Cup (ICC). The ICC is 45 day tournament which lasts over two and a half months, a sufficient time period to observe changes in the selection of interaction rituals of Facebook users.
The avatar: a strategic choice for display
At the beginginng of the tournament, in February 2011, a few members uploaded images of the Pakistani cricket team and the national flag on their Facebook profile page. No slogans, no videos of previous victories, neither any articles accompanied these images which had been copied and pasted from either sports or news websites. Moreover, these visuals were displayed as profile pictures and not as wall posts. Wall posts which appear in the news feed of the profile and home pages have momentary visibility as these are replaced by other published content. In comparison to wall posts, the profile picture or avatar then occupies a prominent and permenant place, as it is displayed on the upper, left side of the page. Moreover, the avatar and username are repeated every time users publish content and comment it. In this sense the avatar acts as a signature and as a visual landmark to guide navigation on the site which contribute to its increased visibility.
At the start of the ICC tournament, the interaction of Facebook users showed individual bursts of expressions manifested visually rather than audiovisually or textually. These visual expressions of solidarity for the cricket team were displayed strategically through the profile avatar because of its vantage location and its enhanced visibility. However, through the lense of frame analysis, the selection of the avatar indicates another important process of social interaction – playfulness. Playful activities are not meant literally and happen when the act in itself is physically impossible. For exemple, making faces at a stranger, but through a glass window. The absense of physical encounter can encourage plyafulness online, but it also the flexibility of the digital environement which favors this type of experimentation.
Facebook is one of the first sns to allow limitless uploads of images to be displayed as the profile picture. All images uploaded are automatically archived in an album from which visuals can be selected and displayed as the avatar any time. This technological flexibility has encouraged not only more image uploads, but also led users to experiment with the idea of identity performance through the profile portrait. This experimentation becomes most visible when users transform the prescribed activity of uploading a ressembling portrait into a make-believe activity in which any image can substitute the ressembling portrait as the avatar. In social interaction theory this process of transforming an activity item by item for another is termed keying.
Keying is one of the framing operations, an attempt to organize experience particularly through play which involves mutual accord and understanding of partcipants involved. Although online interaction is asynchronous and provides traces of sns users, the technical affordances of sns facilitate keying. Facebook users can experiment with the contents of their profile avatar because other profile elements remain relatively stable. Changing Facebook username is a less frequent practice. Moreover, the publically articulated friend network acts as a strong indicator of a user’s identity in comparison to other profile elements. Therefore, with relatively constant profile elements the Facebook avatar can be keyed without jeopardising a user’s identification within her network.
The visuals selected by Facebook users in the beginning of the ICC tournament to key their profile avatar were mostly individual choices which extended the display of offline nationalist symbols of solidarity such as the flag or preferences for a favourite sportsman. Although photo applications for flag painting on portraits are available since 2010 (fig.1), these products target primarily football fans. In 2010 (fig.2), the American beverage brand Budweiser launched a Facebook application ‘Show your colors’ for the 2010 Football championship (fig3).
However, for the 2011 ICC tournament no commercial brand nor official sponsors launched any sns application for cricket fans. Neither any photo software was used by these audiences. Yet, in mid March 2011, towards the semifinal matches, two images started occupying the profile avatar of the Pakistani Facebook users.
Memes: a means to key the avatar
The images spreading across as avatars were of two famous Pakistani cricket players, one of the previous captain who had led the team to victory in 1992 and the second of the current team captain (fig.4). Both visuals present similar colour palettes, typography and initials. Although the green color scheme refers to the cricket team’s sports kit and the national flag, the catch phrase slogans bear no reference to the sport. Moreover, the discretely watermarked initials ‘hn’ do not lead to any particular designer. The users displaying these visuals couldn’t either ascertain the source of the images as they had been copied from Facebook friends’ profiles. This uncontrollable and unintended spread of these two images in the ICC context from profile to profile avatar then qualifies these pictures as meme. Although memes do not necessarily constitute the offline rituals of sports solidarity, on internet, memes are an important aspect of the web culture.
Memes on the internet are as diverse in content and form as the events or products they parody. Irrespective of memes’ diversity their common characteristics constitute a catchphrase or a punch line, humour in reference to a common cultural referent (Nigel, 2011; Burgess, 2008), element of creativity, remix (Gunthert, 2011) and a high potential of spreadibility (Jenkins, 2007). As mentioned earlier, the catchy slogans of the cricket visuals refer to popular street language slang used online to highlight play. The images bear clear signs of a remix of the sportsmen’s photographs. A Google image search for the two cricketers indicates the original photographs taken in 2009 and 1992 (figs.5 a & b; figs.6.a & b.) And lastly, apart from the creative aesthetics of these images it is their uncontrolable spread as Facebook avatars which qualify these as meme.
Towards end of March similar cricket memes emerged as Facebook avatars. This time one of the Facebook members divulged their source, a Facebook page named ‘Go Green Team Images’. The page was created on 24th March, 2011 (the eve of Pakistani teams qualification for the semi-final match) and displayed a series of forty-eight images created in similar style, but with different slogans and visuals (fig.7). These images are not a remake of the two memes, but a series. The creator of the ‘Go Green Team Images’ page, Haroon Noon, disclosed himself as also the designer of the images.
According to Noon, an architect student, an experienced photoshop user and an ardent supporter of the Pakistani cricket team, the remix of the two team captain’s images was not intended for use on Facebook. The two initial images were used by Noon as his BlackBerry Messanger (BBM) avatar. A contact on his cellular network copied Noon’s avatar and posted it on Facebook.
Two levels of cultural appropriation can be distinguished in this case of cricket memes which can best be explained as a difference between creating and simply sharing. To distinguish between these levels, André Gunthert proposes the terms: symbolic and material approriations. While Noon participates in the solidarity ritual through material appropriation of the event and remixes cricket player’s photographs into humourous fan posters, his network contacts partake in a symbolic practice by collecting and sharing these images as their avatar.
This short analysis of user interaction during the ICC indictes that online rituals of solidarity tend to extend offline behaviour during sports events. However internet users adapt these rituals to the digital environement and its affordances. Key elements of offline carnivalesque behaviour constitute spectators performing as supporters and subverting societal norms of public behaviuor by acting out and dressing up. Online, sns users also display their solidarity in a playful manner but strategically. The avatar updating activity is subverted into a playful act in which expected identity norms are broken. The keying of the avatar indicates its strength as a powerful visual tool but also its weakeness as an identity sign vulnerable to playful transformation.
But can only the avatar be subverted to display solidarity or collective action in the diverse digital ecology of sns?
II. Operation Sarko Red Nose or the revenge via the avatar
On 15th February 2012, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy officially announced his re-election and for his web campaign Twitter immediately suspended all satirical user accounts which parodied the presidential candidate ‘s identity.
Satirical accounts and fake celebrity profiles have existed on Twitter since its launch in 2007. Unlike Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, Twitter profiles are less grounded in social, geographical and professional parameters. A Twitter profile page displays minimum identifying elements provided by the user: full name, a chosen user name, a short biography and an avatar. Moreover, with Twitter’s flexible networking parameters a user’s social network cannot be used as an identity filter as it can be on Facebook. In this sense, since a Twitter account requires less input and involves fewer networking risks, an entire profile rather than a particular element of it, can be keyed. In view of its technical plasticity and celebrity account hacking Twitter introduced its verified account service in June 2009. To distinguish fake from authentified profiles a blue certification badge appears next to an account holder’s full name, indicating that the name corresponds to the profile owner.
When Nicolas Sarkozy’s Twitter campaign profile was launched it was clearly distinguishable with its verified account badge displayed next to his name, (fig.8) then why were satirical profiles censored?
According to one of the censored account holder, @kabul.fr, (satirical profile name : @_nicolasarkozy), the explanation provided by Twitter on its parody rules stipulates that the user name of the parody account cannot replicate the name of the person parodied. The name should include either fake or fan as a preffix or suffix. Secondly, the biography must explicity mention a disclamer and the tweets must not be confusing or misleading. According to Twitter, @kabul.fr and eight other censored french Twitter accounts had not respected these rules and usurpated the presdiential candidate’s Twitter identity. However the censored accounts, some active since 2010, defended by displaying screen shots of their profiles before suspension (fig.9)
Avatar: neither an image, nor a portrait, then what?
Twitter’s parody rules highlight the weakness of its profile elements suceptible to transformation. Interestingly, these rules however, only apply to the user name and to the biographical description, elements which if tampered can confuse identification of a Twitter user. But then what is the role of the avatar on Twitter? The censored satirical accounts also displayed Sarkozy’s presidential campaign portrait and other photographs as their fake profile avatar. However, no action was taken by the site against this practice. This raises various questions about the statuts of the avatar as a profile element.
Is the avatar considered an image online which can lead to profile censorship? Or is the avatar so insignificant as an identity signal that it is not worth serving as an authentification tool? Or better still, is the avatar beyond online authetification which inturn qualifies it as the ultimate tool for subversion?
In response to Twitter’s censorship, Internet Sans Frontières, some french blogging sites and a left wing newspaper criticised Sarkozy’s web campaign strategy. The hashtag #sarkocensure became a trending topic of french tweets following the censorship. Olivier Laurelli, a french blogger and hacktivist called on Twitter users to participate in an online operation named ‘Sark’o Nez rouge’, Sarkozy Red Nose. To participate in this movement Twitter users had to replace their profile avatar with Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign portrait on to which a red nose was added. A special application Sarklown-o-matic was launched to facilitate the avatar replacement (fig.10). Most French Twitter users, especially those actively involved in the French websphere participated in this act of protest by switching their Twitter profile avatars with the Sarkozy Red Nose remix, yet another meme in the ever increasing gallery of memes generated by the ex-president’s actions.
It would be reductionist view to take these remixes as a simple expression of political disenchantement of the French public. The Sarklown-o-matic memes (figs.10,11 & 12) are not only a question of remix. Neither Twitter nor Sarkozy’s web campaign team censored the red nose Sarkozy clones on the site.
Twitter’s laissez-faire approach towards the profile avatar proves that the profile picture it not considered as a reliable identifier. Although in sns’s visual design the avatar appears first on the page, its prescribed function is purely decorative. But as the reaction of users suggest, they have attributed other roles to the profile avatar. In this case a two step subversion can be observed.
First, the remixed image of Sarkozy’s campaign portrait acts as an active expression of the French online community’s disgust. A shift in the role of visuals in online activism can be observed, as these are no longer used as a reference but as a means of expression to reinforces discourse. André Gunthert argues that the presence of the satirical image generated by conversation is a measure of a greater degree of reactivity than a simple tweet, as the image reinforces its documentary value.
In this case the image doesn’t only recycle conversation as Gunthert suggests, but it also becomes a tool of retaliation.
Secondly, apart from this visual retaliation, it is the place of display which is also strategic. All elements of Twitter profile can be easily keyed into another activity, but according to the site’s conception of user identity only the username can be authetified and therefore must be protected from satire. In this situation the paradox around the role of the avatar is further highlighted. The site cannot control the avatar, it was never meant to or rather it is not technologically possible to authenticate the profile portrait as it is left upto the user’s goodwill to display a ressembling picture. But Twitter and Facebook users are finding interesting uses for this tiny yet, powerful image display tool.
If the name cannot be parodied on Twitter, the image can and what better place than the profile avatar which is a part of all the profiles and moreover replicated at each tweet.
Rituals of solidarity in the digital ecology are influenced by the technical affordances of sns. Users negotiate limitations by keying online tools to adapt these to their offline or online contexts. Interaction on sns can be expressed textually, visually, audio visually, but since the visual does not carry any authentification value online, it can neither be controlled nor checked and therefore presents itself as an instantaneous tool and expression for collective action and activism.
The Facebook profile avatar is diverted from its conventional role of identity display to perform solidarity because the avatar is the most visible and flexible profile element. On the other hand, on Twitter an entire profile can be keyed. However, in cases of censorship entire Twitter profiles can also be suspended. The exclusion of the Twitter avatar as a profile authentification tool highlights the paradox of this profile element. In this case, Twitter’s conception of the avatar is revealed to be as a decorative ornament, accompanying the username on the network. Whereas for the users the choice of the avatar as a tool for online play and activism is more than evident due to the undefined status of this visual profile element.
The first case study of this paper was presented at Cultural Studies conference, Crossroads Paris, 3-6 July 2012.
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Erving GOFFMAN, Interaction ritual: essays on face-to-face behavior, London: Allen Lane, the Penguin press, 1972, chapter 2, Deference and Demeanor.
Daniel CEFAI, Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on?: les théories de l’action collective, Paris, La Découverte, MAUSS, 2007, p.572.
 Erving Goffman introduced the idea in 1974, of frames as an organization of social experience. “Whatever the degree of organization (..) frameworks allow its users to locate, perceive, identify and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms.” E.GOFFMAN, Frame Analysis: an essay on the organization of experience, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, p.21. According to Goffman, framing operations can be categorized into keying (a way in which a strip of activity can be transformed, that is, serve as an item-by-item model for something else, p. 83) and fabrication (.. intentional effort of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what is going on,p.83)
Frame alignment occurs when individual frames become linked in congruency and complementariness. David. A, SNOW et al, ‘Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation’. American Sociological Review, 51,1986, p.464.
 John HORNE & Garry WHANNEL, Understanding the Olympics, London, Routledge, 2012, p.149.
 “A way in which a strip of activity can be transformed, that is, serve as an item-by-item model for something else”, Erving GOFFMAN, Frame Analysis: an essay on the organization of experience, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, p.86.
Danah BOYD, Judith DONATH, “Public displays of connection”, BT Technology Journal, vol 22, n°4, october 2004.