Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Now representing @Sweden…

Last year, Sweden took on an experiment in social media as a form of nation branding by turning over its national Twitter account, @sweden, to a different citizen each week. Citizens are nominated and evaluated by a panel, but their tweets aren’t reviewed or edited, which led some observers to predict the experiment would be a social media disaster.

Those predictions came true, more or less, with the week Sonja Abrahamsson took over the account. She spent the week offending as many people as possible, with offhand observations about Jews, people with AIDS, and the suggestion that her life would be easier if she had Down’s syndrome. In other words, she used @sweden to troll anyone who was paying attention. (Trolls, of course, hail from Scandinavian folklore and may be native to Sweden, so perhaps this behavior is simply part of the national character.)

It was a happy surprise to see this week’s curator, an Iraqi-Swede named Naseer Alkhouri who normally tweets as @naseeral, using the account to discuss complex ideas about nationality and identity.


Let us talk a bit about something we in Sweden call “inbetweenhood”. I came to Sweden from Iraq as a refugee at the age of 10.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Being placed at a small village (Bjärnum: population 1500, hollar!) I quickly got hold of the language and made swedish friends.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Reaching the age of puberty, we were all making an identity for ourselves. Patriotism was on the agenda, and I loved Sweden, so I joined in.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


There were fights starting between “rasists” and “anti-rasists” at school. I had never seen my friends as rasists so I sided with them.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Problem was the fights were radicalizing my friends, no longer about loving your country they started hating anyone not like them.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


We had entered the nationalism stage. With hate music, southern crosses and swastikas. Not against me of course, I was a “good guy”.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


I wasn’t feeling too comfortable as you could imagine, in one fight where I was defending my friends I was called a “half racist pig”.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


That was a blow to my stomache. They were right! I was defending racism, nationalism. I stepped away from my friends, had an ID crisis.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Who was I? Neither a swede nor an iraqi really. I isolated myself. How do you make friends if you don’t know who you are?
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Puberty passed. I got more self-confident. Met new people. It took me surprisingly long to realize that I was both, an inbetweener.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


Nowadays I try to cherry pick the best parts of my two identities. Combining something that makes sense in who I want to be.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


I am all the better for it and finally in peace. An inbetweener.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer

Nasser has continued on this theme, reacting to some comments from readers and provoking responses from others, like the exchange below.


Rasicts are a funny bunch. When new to the country and on welfare, you’re stealing tax money. When you start working, you’re stealing jobs.
@sweden
@sweden / Naseer


@ Don’t forget that they are stealing our girlfriends!! (never boyfriends tho? )
@kinkymal
maloki

At the first Global Voices summit, eight years ago, Hossein Derakhshan offered a model for understanding the role social media could play in helping people understand life in another part of the world. Blogs could act as windows, bridges and as cafés, offering us a glimpse into life in another corner of the world, a connection to some place different than where we already are, and, maybe, a space to gather and have a conversation.

Sweden’s experiment proposes to use Twitter as a window. Inviting “ordinary” Swedes to tweet about everyday life promises a picture of life in Sweden that’s likely to be different from impressions we get of the nation through news, through entertainment media or through our interaction with Swedes in our social networks. Ideally, it gives the sort of multifaceted picture we might have of the nation if we had lots of Swedish friends in our social network, including “inbetweeners” like Naseer and trolls like Sonja.

But the Swedish experiment is an attempt at building bridges as well. For one thing, the experiment asks participants to tweet in English rather than Swedish so the conversation is accessible to a wider audience. Nasser’s decision to start his stint representing @sweden by telling his story is a form of bridging as well – by understanding his personal story, we’ve got a better chance of paying attention to the trivia of his everyday existence. And it’s possible that the comments on some of his posts will open a café of sorts, a conversation about what it means to be Swedish, bicultural, racist or nationalist.

I’m interested to see that my neighbors to the north, in Vermont, are trying a similar model, hoping that showing tweets from Vermont will help portray the state as younger and more tech savvy than we might otherwise assume. I’ll be interested to see whether more Swedes or Vermonters use Twitter to tell their personal story and build a relationship while they’re opening a window into their lives.

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