Nermin Elsherif: Facebook as an Archive of Popularity: The Multiple Co-productions of al-zaman al-gamil in Egypt Post-2011
With its extensive expansion in Egypt after 2011, Facebook is becoming a memoryscape; a terrain where cultural memory is produced and negotiated through a set of digital actions like posting, liking, sharing, and following. While the official memory institutes remain inaccessible and inattentive to the public, maintaining the hierarchical structure that has always characterized Egyptian institutions, Facebook claims to be a ‘participatory’ platform where users can actively engage in the production of communities and content. Elusive concepts like “al-zaman al-gamil” or “the good olden days” became more and more viral with the increase of political and economic hardships in Egypt. This regression to the images of the lost past appears in hashtags like #Egypt_that_my_eyes_never_saw, in the growth of pages like Ahl Masr Zaman, and in the wide circulation of archival imagery. In this paper, Elsherif argues that these spaces are archives of popularity, documentations of how a certain frame of the past is produced in the present, and digital traces co-produced by the users and the platform. Since social media is still contributing to the formation of public opinion in Egypt, I argue that the daily interactions between users, images, hashtags, and posts constitute an archive of digital actions worth exploration. She employs the analytical concept of socio-technical imaginaries (Jasanoff 2015) from STS scholarship to analyze three vignettes of remembering al-zaman al-gamil to understand how individuals who lack, yet strive for epistemic authority, appropriate social media technologies to mobilize their social order and imaginaries of the past. Through online/offline ethnography and digital methods (of scraping APIs and visualizing networks), Elsherif analyzes how al-zaman al-gamil was represented through the images of the past and the comments and hashtags related to them in a Facebook group over two years (2012 and 2017), to understand the evolution of this notion in relation to the social and political context. She concludes that as al-zaman al-gamil is in constant re-production and negotiation, and the affordances of Facebook (under the current update) allow for extracting a record of the multiple co-productions of the past. This record, if investigated critically, presents an archive of popularity.
Nermin Elsherif is an urbanist from Cairo (Egypt) who ended up researching the internet as a space in Amsterdam. Her research project on the Other Maps of Egypt, exploring techniques and technologies of mapping social history between analogue and digital media, was awarded the DAAD-GERSS research grant in 2016. Her interest in following the counter narratives of the past and exploring its invisible archives led her to explore social media as exhibitions of online-personas, who can co-produce a specific event through a set of digital affordances. Elsherif is currently a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture (University of Amsterdam), and part of the CHEurope project, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) project of the ERC. Her current research project “Sociotechnical Imaginaries of a Modern Past” investigates how Egyptian middle-class subjects negotiate their online identities through mobilizing “the image” of the past as a resource over Facebook. It aims to map the online imaginaries of the past in post-2013 Egypt.