Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Never thought of using it that way…

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.

3 Responses to “Never thought of using it that way…”

  1. Amr Gharbeia says:

    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”

  2. Evgeny says:

    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.

  3. egyptfan says:

    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

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Martin Stabe » links for 2007-05-21 - [...] …My heart’s in Accra » Never thought of using it that way… Ethan Zuckerman: “My favorite example of repurposing …
  2. Active e-skirmishes « world war E - [...] Active e-skirmishes Ethan Zuckerman describes how activists are using new networked tools to circumvent the authorities’ restrictions. These include: …
  3. Memex 1.1 » Blog Archive » Another use for Twitter - [...] From Ethan Zuckerman When I saw Alaa a few weeks ago in Doha, the first thing he did was …
  4. Flickertracks » Blog Archive » links for 2007-05-24 - [...] Twitter gets serious Ethan Zuckerman on how human rights activists are finding Twitter to be a highly useful and …
  5. Does Twitter make sense? : crisscrossed blog - [...] How human rights activists use Twitter “My favorite example of repurposing recently is my friend Alaa’s use of …
  6. El Oso (Pecoso) » Blog Archive » [Translation] Reports of Stolen Cars on Twitter - [...] I’m a big fan of Twitter even though I tend to use it much less these days than I …
  7. Broadcasting one’s status/location has become much easier | Daily EM - [...] I think this may be pretty useful for some activists who have relied on Twitter to broadcast their location/status …
  8. Parkhill Venture Counsel » Blog Archive » Just When I’d Concluded that Twitter is Utterly Banal (Not that there is anything wrong with that) - [...] used by Egyptian activists to let the community know their whereabouts, esp. whether they have been arrested. Shirky pointed …
  9. Blogging for Good Governance | Facilitating Change - [...] Twitter for similar types of work (see Andy Carvin’s Can Twitter Save Lives?, Ethan Zuckerman’s Never thought of using …
  10. Mikroblogging und soziale Bewegungen | blog.mensch.coop - [...] können für verschiedenste AktivistInnen auch ein Schutz sein. Ein gutes Beispiel hierfür ist der bekannt gewordene Fall des ägyptischen …

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