… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

May 18, 2007

Never thought of using it that way…

Filed under: Africa,Blogs and bloggers,Human Rights — Ethan @ 10:37 am

My friends at Sokwanele – an activist organization in Zimbabwe – sent me a card:

The card commemorates the second anniversary of Operation Murambatsvina – which translates in Shona to “Operation Drive Out Trash”. The campaign, officially known as “Operation Restore Order” was designed to “reclaim” slum areas throughout Zimbabwe. The operations may have forced the relocation of as many as 2.4 million people, and were harshly condemned by the Zimbabwean opposition and the international community. Many people believe that the clearances were designed to punish slum dwellers from voting against Mugabe in the March 2005 parliamentary elections; others argue that they were designed to weaken the MDC opposition party, which had widespread support in these communities.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about Murambatsvina today had I not gotten the card – unlike my friends at Sokwanele, I don’t have this week marked on my calendar. So in that narrow sense, the e-card was effective. And it’s got me thinking that eCards are an excellent, simple tool that campaigns – like the Free Monem or Free Kareem campaigns, for instance – might consider using to spread their messages. I expect eCards to be saccharine, sweet and sent by relatives I rarely hear from – there’s something a little surprising about receiving one that’s jarring, disturbing and uncomfortable.

I’m interested in the ways that activists are finding to repurpose online tools, like my friend Sami ben Gharbia’s Tunisian Prisons map. My guess is that the folks who made it possible to mash up Google Maps hadn’t thought about their use as a human rights advocacy tool. My favorite example of repurposing recently is my friend Alaa’s use of Twitter to coordinate activities of activists in Egypt.

When I saw Alaa a few weeks ago in Doha, the first thing he did was grab my computer, log into Twitter and, as he put it, “let everyone know I’m still alive.” This is a good thing to do when you’re an activist who routinely gets detained or arrested. Alaa’s Twitter feed includes updates for his compatriots every time he goes to the police or to a demonstration so he can let people know where he is… and if they don’t hear from him, perhaps they need to reopen the FreeAlaa blog.

Twitter is also potentially useful for activists organizing a demonstration, as it’s a lightweight mass-SMS sending system, which lets you warn your fellow activists where the police are and what path they should take. Probably not the purpose the designers had, but an excellent use nevertheless.

Would love your thoughts on great examples – especially developing world examples – of people repurposing tech for activism for a workshop I’m giving in South Africa in a few weeks…


Talking with some friends here in Oxford, someone mentioned the Great Firewall Image builder as a great tool for putting banned words into images – check it out here.

13 Comments

  1. Twitter can also be used to feed mini-posts from your phone directly into your blog. Still need to test this with a language that uses something other than Roman script. I would love to see Twitter making it possible to text certain people tags: so I can mass-SMS “journalists”, “activists”, “friends”, or “family”

    Comment by Amr Gharbeia — May 20, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Another application which I think can be quite useful is Monitwitter, which uses Twitter to send you an SMS when your web-site goes down (Mashable covered it here http://mashable.com/2007/05/13/monitwitter/ ). I think it may be particularly handy to coordinate a good response to event-based filtering.

    Comment by Evgeny — May 20, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  3. […] …My heart’s in Accra » Never thought of using it that way… Ethan Zuckerman: “My favorite example of repurposing recently is my friend Alaa’s use of Twitter to coordinate activities of activists in Egypt.” (tags: twitter press_freedom egypt bloggers) […]

    Pingback by Martin Stabe » links for 2007-05-21 — May 21, 2007 @ 8:27 am

  4. […] Active e-skirmishes Ethan Zuckerman describes how activists are using new networked tools to circumvent the authorities’ restrictions. These include: […]

    Pingback by Active e-skirmishes « world war E — May 21, 2007 @ 4:19 pm

  5. […] From Ethan Zuckerman When I saw Alaa a few weeks ago in Doha, the first thing he did was grab my computer, log into Twitter and, as he put it, “let everyone know I’m still alive.” This is a good thing to do when you’re an activist who routinely gets detained or arrested. Alaa’s Twitter feed includes updates for his compatriots every time he goes to the police or to a demonstration so he can let people know where he is… and if they don’t here from him, perhaps they need to reopen the FreeAlaa blog. […]

    Pingback by Memex 1.1 » Blog Archive » Another use for Twitter — May 23, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  6. […] Twitter gets serious Ethan Zuckerman on how human rights activists are finding Twitter to be a highly useful and efficient communication platform. (tags: human rights twitter communications mass technology sms) […]

    Pingback by Flickertracks » Blog Archive » links for 2007-05-24 — May 24, 2007 @ 2:52 pm

  7. […] How human rights activists use Twitter “My favorite example of repurposing recently is my friend Alaa’s use of Twitter to coordinate activities of activists in Egypt.” […]

    Pingback by Does Twitter make sense? : crisscrossed blog — August 19, 2007 @ 9:44 am

  8. […] I’m a big fan of Twitter even though I tend to use it much less these days than I once did. But it’s the potential of what we’ll be able to do with twitter in the future once we all start using it from our geo-located cell phones that really amazes me. (Check out Soyapi Mumba’s “The Potential of Twitter in Africa“, Andy Carvin’s “Can Twitter Save Lives?“, and Ethan Zuckerman’s “Never thought of using it that way…“.) […]

    Pingback by El Oso (Pecoso) » Blog Archive » [Translation] Reports of Stolen Cars on Twitter — December 24, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

  9. […] I think this may be pretty useful for some activists who have relied on Twitter to broadcast their location/status (in an unrelated note, gee, who knew that Ethan was on Twitter!). The deer-system somewhat easier, […]

    Pingback by Broadcasting one’s status/location has become much easier | Daily EM — March 20, 2008 @ 6:14 am

  10. […] used by Egyptian activists to let the community know their whereabouts, esp. whether they have been arrested. Shirky pointed […]

    Pingback by Parkhill Venture Counsel » Blog Archive » Just When I’d Concluded that Twitter is Utterly Banal (Not that there is anything wrong with that) — March 31, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  11. […] Twitter for similar types of work (see Andy Carvin’s Can Twitter Save Lives?, Ethan Zuckerman’s Never thought of using it that way…, and the KM4Dev’s community’s Twitter knowledgebase). Let me know if you come across […]

    Pingback by Blogging for Good Governance | Facilitating Change — June 27, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  12. Never thought of using it that way… Ethan Zuckerman: “My favorite example of repurposing recently is my friend Alaa’s use of Twitter to coordinate activities of activists in Egypt

    Comment by egyptfan — December 20, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  13. […] können für verschiedenste AktivistInnen auch ein Schutz sein. Ein gutes Beispiel hierfür ist der bekannt gewordene Fall des ägyptischen Aktivisten Alaa. Er informiert seine AbonnentInnen auf seinem Mikroblog während […]

    Pingback by Mikroblogging und soziale Bewegungen | blog.mensch.coop — February 3, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

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