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.


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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Nairobi Notebook 2: The Sustainability of Good Works

June 14, 2010
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Nairobi Notebook

NOTE: I had a wonderful lunch when i was in Nairobi with some of the people from the Map Kibera project (you can read my previous blog on this here, or go to their website mapkibera.org). What fascinated me was the stage they were at in regards to the growth of their project and their concern about assuring that the project was sustainable. This  got me thinking about sustainability and NGOs. Here are my musings on the subject …

Just as the coin for business is, well, coins, the coin for NGOs is change. Positive change. It is what every NGO assumes it will be able to achieve when they start, and what many fail to do. The challenge often for NGOs as with for-profit companies is achieving and sustaining their success.

To achieve success an agency agency needs to plan, to plan they must have a  “business model” – guidelines to better understand where they stand in relation to their own development.

One traditional for-profit model is that of the “business cycle” or “S curve”.

aides1.jpg (11156 bytes)

This model  is used to understand the growth  of industries and organizations. However, the S curve does not recognize key components of a healthy system – specifically the phases of destruction and renewal. A healthy forest is one that has trees grow older, die, and then become the fertilizer for the new growth. The S curve is silent on these phases of destruction and renewal. Ironically, it is the paradox of having things dies that assures the longterm sustainability of a healthy system.

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