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.


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


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