Sheenagh Pietrobruno, Associate Professor, School of Social Communication, Saint Paul University

Digital Heritage and Community Expressions: The Case of YouTube’s Women Whirling Dervishes

YouTube provides a means of distributing videos of intangible cultural heritage from UNESCO, other heritage institutions, communities and users. Heritage is stored and transmitted on a platform whose fundamental goal is not the distribution of digital heritage but rather the monetizing of the labour of YouTube users through algorithms and business models. In light of the paradox of disseminating culture through a commercial venue, the transmission of heritage videos can both hinder and advance the dissemination of community expressions of intangible heritage. Although communities produce intangible heritage within the boundaries of nation states, the practices of given communities may be included or excluded from the national heritage narratives promoted by their respective governments. YouTube disseminates heritage narratives that are safeguarded by nations states as well as those that are not officially recognized. The narratives discussed are those of the Sufi performance of the Mevlevi Sema ceremony [Sema], a practice that is internationally known for its whirling dance. The Sema is safeguarded by the Turkish nation state through UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003). The Turkish government through this UNESCO convention only recognizes public Sema ceremonies performed exclusively by men. Yet there are communities who integrate women dervishes in public performances in Turkey and videos featuring these performances circulate on YouTube. This digital heritage research is approached from an interdisciplinary perspective, which draws from international communication, critical heritage studies, digital media studies and historical and contemporary research on the Mevlevi Sema ceremony and its whirling dance, including ethnographic research of a Mevlevi community in Istanbul.

Sheenagh Pietrobruno (PhD, McGill University) is an Associate Professor of Social Communication at Saint Paul University, which is federated with the University of Ottawa and a Visiting Professor (2018) at the Department for the Studies of Social Change and Culture (ISAK) at Linköping University. She has been awarded previous research fellowships at the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths/University of London, the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS)/ Linköping University and at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). Pietrobruno was also awarded the Muriel Gold Visiting Professor Position at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies (IGSF) at McGill University and the Scientist-in-Residence position at the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Salzburg. Her work is published in leading journals including Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, New Media and Society; International Journal of Heritage Studies; Performing Islam; Intermédialités; International Journal of Cultural Studies; and Early Popular Visual Culture. She is the author of Salsa and Its Transnational Moves (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). Her next book is Digital Legacies: The Global Archiving of Intangible Heritage.

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