The Practical Radical

Part II of Whose Tweet Counts Anyways? A Response to Malcolm Gladwell

October 4, 2010
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“We seem to have forgotten what activism is,” writes Gladwell. If activism is defined only as taking direct action and protesting on the streets, he might be right. But if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.” Leo Mirani, The Guardian

This is excepted from the Guardian article below which expands nicely upon the point made in my post Whose Tweet Counts Anyways? A response to Malcolm Gladwell. My point in that blog was that the world-wide web is … well … world wide, and not just in the developed or western world, where Gladwell’s rant against armchair, social-media activists seems to be aimed. Many of the “revolutions” that social media has been attributed to have been undertaken by people who just recently have had mass access to platforms such as twitter and facebook through cell phones. These people have used these platforms to drive movements that are no less important and in some cases successful as the civil rights movement in the US.

The article below challenges some of the issues Gladwell brings up, such as why the tweets out of Iran were done in English, not Farsi (so as to engage the global media and raise awareness); or how the uprising of young people in Kashmir is now being picked up by the mainstream media. Neither of these and many other events would have reached a global audience pre-social media. And, as I have mentioned in my other posts, twitter and new spatial technologies are  driving web-based platforms such as Usahidi which has become one of the key tools used in disaster relief in places such as Haiti, and transparency in governance such as in the constitutional referendum in Kenya.

So, sorry Malcolm Gladwell, the revolution may well be tweeted. So says me and the Guardian. Read on.

Malcolm Gladwell is wrong about the poor revolutionary power of social networking, as the tweeters in Kashmir show

Leo Mirani, guardian.co.uk, Saturday 2 October 2010 10.00 BST


Kashmir protesters are using social media to disseminate news and views.

Kashmir protesters are using social media to disseminate news and views. Photograph: Dar Yasin/AP

For a man who has devoted a significant part of his life to documenting “how little things can make a big difference”, Malcolm Gladwell is surprisingly dismissive of the power of social networking to effect change. In the latest issue of the New Yorker, he writes that the role played by Facebook and Twitter in recent protests and revolutions has been greatly exaggerated.

Gladwell’s argument is that social networks encourage a lazy activism that will only extend as far as “liking” a cause but not actually doing anything about it. This is because social networks are built around weak ties, where real activism needs strong bonds. Citing the American example, he points out that “events in the early 1960s became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade – and it happened without email, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.”

Gladwell is right to be sceptical of social media’s rah-rah brigade. Before the famous “Facebook revolution”, Iran was regularly said to be in the middle of a blogging revolution. Protests everywhere from Iceland to Egypt are attributed to the organisational abilities afforded by social networking sites. Universities across the west offer modules on new media and social conflict. The fact that a Facebook group is only an updated version of nailing your thesis to a church door is conveniently ignored as the world hails the power of technology.

But in claiming that all social networks are good for is “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teenage girls”, Gladwell ignores the true significance of social media, which lies in their ability to rapidly spread information about alternative points of view that might otherwise never reach a large audience. Gladwell quotes Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy as asking why “no one seemed to wonder why people trying to co-ordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi”. The answer, as supplied by a friend from Tehran in June last year, is simple: “We need to be seen and heard by the world, we need all the support we can get. If the governments [of the west] refuse to accept the new government, it’s gonna be meaningful for the movement, somehow.”

A more recent example is Kashmir, where this summer’s protests gained widespread media coverage both in India and internationally. But Kashmir has been protesting for 20 years, with some of the biggest demonstrations occurring in 2008. What changed this year is that urban, middle-class India, traditionally uninterested in news from Kashmir except when we’re at war with Pakistan, was for the first time able to see and hear the other side of the story. Facebook users in India rose from 0.7 million in summer 2008, to 3 million in 2009, to 13 million today.

On Twitter, it is possible to follow journalists tweeting live from Srinagar. On Facebook, it is hard to avoid mentions of Kashmir or links to articles on websites you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of. YouTube is littered with videos of protests in Kashmir. And when clips of human rights violations are taken down, Facebook is where you find new links.

The mainstream press in India, like its middle-class readers, is nationalistic and unquestioning on the subject of Kashmir. Allegations of human rights abuses are rarely reported, let alone investigated. But this year, even the Times of India, purveyor of “sunshine news”, published a report claiming that for the first time, more civilians in Kashmir had been killed by the Indian state than by militants.

“We seem to have forgotten what activism is,” writes Gladwell. If activism is defined only as taking direct action and protesting on the streets, he might be right. But if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.


Whose Tweet Counts Anyways? A response to Malcolm Gladwell.

September 30, 2010
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Recently the twitter/facebooker/bloggers sphere has all been a-twitter about Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame’s slam of social media as a tool for advocacy. Seems Gladwell does not believe that social media creates very strong “links”, which especially effects those who would wish to use twitter as an advocacy tool. He states that the twitter revolutions that happened in Moldova or Iran were overstated; siting the fact that there are very few twitter users in these countries.He gives some detailed overviews of how REAL advocacy happens in the form of recounting key events in the civil rights movement.

I agree with him on some counts – technological advances in my mind are always overhyped – and there is nothing more hyped than facbook and twitter. Yet, I think that his analysis is flawed in one way -it is written almost solely from a developed world perspective. Yes, we in the developed world might be spoilt with our ubiquitous bandwidth, but it is not in the developed world that social media is having the biggest impact. It is the developing world, those places where millions upon millions of people are queuing to buy mobile phones, getting on the internet and social media, and using those phones for all there worth. I have written a few posts on the impact of mobile technologies which you can link to here.

So I have posted my response on the Social Capital blog (a great blog by the way). Here is a brief on the blog and my response to it.

Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Posted on September 29, 2010 by socialcapital| Leave a comment
Twitter Revolution – Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

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Mobile Phones Improve Health Services in Africa

September 9, 2010
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Having worked with youth to establish One Stop Youth Centres in Kampala, Uganda, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nairobi, Kenya, and Kigali, Rwanda, I have seen the power of mobile phones both to convene people as well as disseminate important information. What I find really exciting is to see how quickly and to what success mobile phones are being adopted in the health field, especially around the prevention of HIV/AIDS, an issue so important to youth in this region.

Here are four posts from the last 24 hours on mobile phones and health from the Urban Health blog of USAID:

  1. Mobile learning for HIV/AIDS healthcare in peri-urban clinics
  2. Mobile phone-based interventions India
  3. Mobile direct observation treatment for tuberculosis patients
  4. Uganda – Challenges in Using Mobile Phones for Data Collection

Usahidi – Mapping the world one SMS at a time

September 1, 2010
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Usahidi - Mapping the world one SMS at a time

I have been struggling to get my head around Usahidi, the Swahili for “witness” or “testimony.”

I knew it was created during the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. I had many friends who went through that terrible time, and felt equally horrified and powerless.

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What it means to “get it” – Mikel Maron on Building Digital Technology for Our Planet

August 18, 2010
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I am going to go out on a limb here and state that I think Mikel Maron and his crew of openstreetmap people are some of the leading experts globally in understanding how technology – specifically spatial technology – can be used in the developing world.

Why you ask? Why them? Well, because they aren’t at 10,000 feet, nor 5,000 feet, or even 500 feet — they are at ground zero. Yes, they passionately believes in technology, Mikel is a self-described techno nerd, but he, like many of the others involved in openstreetmaps movement, are on the ground seeing how technology ACTUALLY works, not how we would love it to, or how we report it to our funders to get more money, or how it works for just enough time for our research to be done (read about the hole-in-the-wall project in his blog post).

I wrote a management-nerdy blog post a while back on one of the projects they were involved in — mapkibera — and if you get past all the graphs my main message was that the people in the project were asking the right questions — basically — how can this project be sustainable past the initial “wow” phase. The answer to this question is quite simple, and one not often followed by aid agencies — the answer is “LIVE THERE”. Yup, be there, not in a hotel, or the UN compound, or the ex-pat enclave, but actually in the place you are working at. Find out where all the gnarly bits are, and then maybe it will be successful — or at least have a better chance. Parallel and just as important is WORK with the people that live there. Seems self explanatory … but something that is not always done.

And, that is what Mikel and his crew have done with mapkibera. They came for 6 months, and have stayed for a year+. They engaged the community in an asset based approach – a la John Mcknight’s Asset Based Community Development – and had the people map their community — and community which heretofore had no community accessible maps. The mapping was done on a platform developed in Kenya after the post-election violence  of a couple years ago called Usahidi (you can as well read my yet unpublished blog post on this).

So, this all being said, the following blog outlines the questions he and they are asking, the possibilities and the possible pitfalls. I’ll shut up and let him speak … (but read my bolded bits to see where I think he nails it bang on) .. ok .. i will really shut up now. Promise …

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Guest Blog: What happened in South Africa shouldn’t just stay in South Africa

August 18, 2010
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The following is (my first!!) guest blog from two quite cool people – Kevina Power and Ron Harris (aka Os12). I will leave it at that and let them explain the rest …

Guest Blogger: Kevina Power

It was late fall 2005 when we left Kenya for South Africa to host 2 World Urban Cafes (WUCs); one during the 1st African Hip Hop Summit, and one during the monthly Black Sunday event in Soweto. As I write this lots of memories are flooding back… WUCs, Hip Hop, Friends, Soweto… it all feels like a dream, a damn good dream.

First let me explain some background; how did we end up in Kenya? South Africa?  To many other places far far away? Well, back then, when I was considering working with Doug on the World Urban Forum project of the Environmental Youth Alliance, I remember him trying to explain his vision to me… it was on a napkin I think, sitting in some cafeteria in downtown Vancouver. If you know Doug, you know he speaks from a place where he calls ‘the bleeding edge’ and indeed this World Urban Café plan of his was certainly that. You see, UN Habitat, the UN agency charged with ‘improving the lives of slum dwellers’ was going to host their 3rd Session of the World Urban Forum in our city, VanCity, the next year.

When Doug asked to meet with me, I thought it would be just another long lunch with Doug, talking about our lives, our city, our vision for the future. Little did I know that this lunch would change me forever. Jumping forward, about 8 months later, here I am, living in Nairobi, Kenya, a place I had not even knew existed a year before, working with UN Habitat and the Environmental Youth Alliance on the World Urban Forum, specifically implementing this WUC Concept in the lead up to the 2006 Conference in Vancouver.

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From Kodak to the Mobile Phone: Urban Data and the Scientific Life

August 17, 2010
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Mobile Power

This is a repost from the Polis blog with my comments (my comments first, polis blog From Kodak to the Mobile Phone below):

Thank you for this post. I think that the mobile generation with their ever more powerful mobile technologies are changing how we view, analyze and plan our cities. I work with youth in East Africa, and i have found that through the use of mobile phones, which are now prolific throughout the region, we have been able to not only capture images, both still and in video, but use these images to tell the rarely heard story of some of the poorest of the poor. (An example of such a project is http://mobilemovement.tv/)

I have as well found that “photovoice” is an excellent way to allow people to “map” their communities. I have used this technique with youth in North America, through the Growing up in Cities project , and more recently through work with UN-HABITAT on their community mapping project (you can check out a story a wrote for them titled Bridging the Digital Divide .

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A lazy day in Istanbul

August 8, 2010
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Reflecting in a Funky café I

Istanbul, August 8, 2010

Lee-Anne and I were both lucky enough to get a few hours of wandering around Istanbul, Turkey before we began working on the conference we were invited to speak at. Though we were on about 4 hours sleep, we had a great, yet slow, time. Here are some photos.

Reflecting in a Funky Café II

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The low down on the loo

July 8, 2010
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Let all toilets be happy toilets

Though it isn’t sexy, toilets and sanitation are key to the physical and mental health of a community. This has been driven home to me countless times.

When I was working on the HABITATJam, a 2-day online preparatory forum sponsored by UN-HABITAT and IBM leading up to the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006, toilets and sanitation were a much talked about subject. The 70 Actionable Ideas follow-up report to this forum identified some best practices in this area such as the concept of Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) in slums which is a system that separates human waste, provides sanitation services at low cost to poor inhabitants, and recovers waste for reuse in agriculture.

More concretely i learned of the practicalities of toilets in Kibera with a youth group there. They were showing me some of the work they had been doing in creating a recycling centre (great CBC documentary); but they as well showed me the newly built toilet blocks that were built their. They were going to be run as a business, kept clean, and most importantly safe and open to all. (Sammy if you are reading this maybe you can give a quick update on how they are going).

I as well was lucky to be present at a presentation by David Kuria, a social entrepreneur, architect and Ashoka Fellow from Kenya. He is working to bring “toilet malls” to downtown Nairobi. He is passionate about the issue:

…the first thing you see, beautiful thing, is a toilet. When you come to the city of Nairobi, you’ll be shocked. And the next thing you’ll be asking is what is this? It’s a public toilet. We are putting toilet monuments just to try and bring back the importance to our people of public convenience and public toilets.

You can hear an interview with Kuria, or read the transcript.

Lastly, an article came out recently through the USAID Urban Health Updates blog regarding the social side of public toilets, specifically as places where violence is perpetrated on women. Horrific stuff. With slums now being one of the fastest growing forms of human settlements globally, all efforts must be made to provide these basic needs to people. For humanity sake.

Kenya’s slum women risk health to avoid violence

Kenya's slum women risk health to avoid violence NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya’s poorest women risk the deadly diseases related to poor sanitation because “endemic” sexual violence in the capital’s sprawling slums keeps them away from its communal toilets, a rights group said on Wednesday. About 60 percent of Nairobi residents, or some 2 million people, live in shantytowns with limited access to water, sanitation and other vital services. Sewage runs though ditches and pathways are littered with ga … Read More

via Urban Health Updates


K’naan – The Dusty Foot Philosopher Steps up

July 5, 2010
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Most rappers would be considered a sell out if they let their song be used by Coke. Not K’naan.

“I have a lot of friends who are from either side, Mos Def and those guys who are in the conscious lane. I know other friends who are in the make-money lane. But for me, I see myself as someone who can speak to both audiences,” he said. “That to me is important, to never claim a position too smart for the listener. I think it’s important to reach everybody.” (read the complete CNN article Somali rapper bucks hip-hop code of violence). His interview with CNN as well demonstrates the basic humbleness of the guy.

I first got to know of K’naan when i was organizing the youth program for the World Urban Forum in 2006. What I learned was that he was both a principled artist and a pretty good businessman. He never did play at the WUF (unfortunate, as we had a great lineup and over 5000 people attending), but one of the EYAers organizing the WUF, Kevina Power, and a EYAer turned Hip Hop blogger/writer Tara Henley helped out on an amazing concert tour in Joburg and Soweto. (I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not attending this was one of them).

K'naan in Soweto, June 2005

I later was able to briefly connect with him at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (of all places) as part of my volunteer work on the media committee. Again, blown away by the guy and his amazing music and poetry.  This is a photo I took of him playing on the mainstage (with the mountains in background … surreal).

K'naan in Vancouver

What moved me about his Wavin Flag was the strong shout out (like my hip hop lingo?) to youth in Africa:

So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
It’s not far away, so for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag
And then it goes back, and then it goes back
And then it goes back

So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
I heard them say, love is the way
Love is the answer, that’s what they say,
But look how they treat us, make us believers
We fight their battles, then they deceive us
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers

I love the in your face realism of his message – yes, we are proud; yes, we will move forward to a promised future; but damn the struggle is hard. Funny enough, this verse is not repeated in the official Coke song. I guess Coke isn’t THAT radical.

He has an earlier song (In the Beginning) that speaks to this message of the struggle – it is really beautiful and quite moving spoken word:

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark
In the eyes of the youth there are question marks
Like freedom
Freedom for the mind and soul
We don’t see them
See them for their worth at all
That’s why we lead them
Lead them to these wars and what is it we feed them
Feed them our impurities and who it is we treat them
Treat them like the enemy humanity will need them
Need them like the blood we spill and where freedom

Freedom for the hearts we fill
Mislead them
They hunger for the love we give
But we cheat them

The cops beat them when all he wants is his freedom
So they defeat them
Whatever spirit he’s got
Beat them

And they teach them that the rest of the world don’t need him
And he believes it’s a disease that he’s heathen
Put up your fists if all you want is freedom

You really have to listen to the song to get the full impact.

It is amazing to see that someone from such a background as his can hit it out of the park the way he has. Gives me some hope for the future.

ps. for those die-hards, here is Wavin Flag … one more time.


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    Practical things that make me radical

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