It’s hard to explain just how much Myanmar has changed. It’s at least as hard to know whether to believe in all the changes Myanmar has made.
Thankfully, there are few truly despotic societies in the world, but Myanmar was one of them from 1962 until quite recently, ruled by a military junta with a horrific record on human rights. The nation’s media was heavily state controlled, with a policy of pre-publication censorship that turned domestic media into an organ for state propaganda. It was difficult or impossible for international media to report critically on the country, and events in the nation were often wholly invisible to the rest of the world. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, killing over 200,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta, the military government released no information on the crisis for days afterwards and is reported to have obstructed UN relief efforts out of fears relief workers would act as spies. If there were an Olympics for closed societies, Myanmar would have been a steady contender for the silver, behind perennial champion North Korea, but duking it out with Eritrea, Turkmenistan and heavyweight Iran.
That’s all changing, and rapidly. In late 2010, the government released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and in 2012, she and her party, the National League for Democracy stood for election and won the vast majority of vacant seats – Daw Suu now represents the constituency of Kawhmu in the lower house of parliament. Pre-press censorship has been eliminated, and strict internet controls were lifted in 2011. Long-banned dissident organizations now operate within the country, lead to a surreal situation where formerly banned publications now fight state-controlled publications for ad revenue. According to Reporters without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, the Myanmar press is a dismal 145th… but that’s up from 171 of 175 in 2009… and its current score is better than Singapore, Malaysia, China and Vietnam.
This helps explain why the East West Center decided to hold its biannual conference on media in Yangon this March, and why I jumped at the chance to speak at the event. I’d looked for excuses to travel to Myanmar before the 2007 Saffron revolution, hoping to investigate internet censorship and look for ways around the country’s firewall. (After the revolution and the crackdown that followed, I decided it was too dangerous to come to the country, not for me, but for anyone I ended up working with there.) The changes to Myanmar seemed miraculous, and I wanted to see for myself what the country was really like.
I was lucky to be able to come to Yangon for a few days before the conference to get a read on the press and telecommunications situation. I was doubly blessed that colleagues from Open Society Foundation, which has had a Burma-focused project for two decades, were around and helped introduce me to lots of interesting folks. I met tech entrepreneurs, newspaper editors, foreign correspondents and others navigating the local media environment, all of whom are trying to figure out just how open contemporary Myanmar is and what the future has in store.
The opening of the East West conference included a reminder of just how closed Myanmar’s media environment had been. One speaker showed a page from a 2010 edition of government newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which included an ad urging citizens, “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles”. (The “killer broadcasts” in question were from VOA, BBC, RFA and other media organizations attending the conference.) Another speaker introduced a source he’d interviewed decades before… inadvertently leading him to spend over sixteen years in prison.
East West Center is clearly aware that Myanmar’s press today is far from free, but has chosen to celebrate the remarkable progress made. Open Society Foundation (where I serve as a member of the global board) is doing much the same – we continue to support independent news organizations like The Irrawaddy and have supported their decisions to operate within the country, despite restrictions and threats to their freedom to publish.
Here’s some of what I learned from meeting with Myanmar journalists, activists and entrepreneurs:
- The media scene is crowded, probably too crowded. Prior to the 2012 censorship reforms, it wasn’t possible to publish a daily newspaper in Myanmar, as all stories needed to be pre-approved by the Ministry of Information. But a large ecosystem of weekly and monthly journals has been growing for years, and now there are more than 200 periodicals published. And now there are 14 licensed daily newspapers in Burmese and about half a dozen in English.
The rush to start daily newspapers has been economically disastrous for many of those involved. There’s simply not enough ad revenue to go around, and more than one publisher has already gone out of business. Referring to the press situation in her remarks on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi joked that her party wasn’t wealthy enough to start a newspaper, implying both that all papers are losing money and that papers are as much political tool as source of news.
- The internet is growing in Myanmar, but for now, it’s Facebook. About 1 million of the country’s 60 million people are online. That number is likely to change sharply as two new mobile phone operators, Telenor and Ooredoo, come into the market later this year and offer data services. People who are online are on Facebook – as an Australian entrepreneur put it, “The internet here is America Online – everyone’s on through Facebook, and they rarely leave that walled compound.” Indeed, I saw ads featuring corporate URLs and those URLs were rarely .mm sites, but more often Facebook pages. The publishers I talked to rarely had accurate traffic statistics for their websites – the unit of measurement is Facebook likes.
This situation is potentially disastrous for online media. They’ve got to put their content on Facebook to find an audience, but they get no benefit from the ads it generates, and it’s hard to lure audiences onto their sites to generate pageviews. The situation is likely to get worse when the mobile phone operators join the market – it’s quite possible that Facebook will negotiate for their site to be accessible without data charges, as they’ve done in other developing markets, which will badly tilt the playing field against independent website operators. This isn’t Facebook’s fault – they’re competing for dominance in a new market, as we’d expect them to. But it’s going to be a real challenge to build a web ecosystem that can support independent media, and Myanmar needs help with webhosting, design, online ad sales, etc. to get there.
- Despite exciting changes, there are serious threats to press freedom aside from economic challenges. Given the chance to question the deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut at the conference, two foreign correspondents complained that they were receiving very brief visas to report within the country, and wondered whether their reporting had led to briefer visas. While the deputy minister assured us that the government was simply putting into place a more consistent visa policy, I conducted my own informal survey with journalists I spoke to that contradicts this. Journalists who were writing about Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority reported receiving two week visas, while the friendly television journalist who spent half our interview demanding I confirm that Myanmar was more open than other nations in the region received a 70 day business visa instead.
- Visas aren’t the problem for domestic journalists – prison is. Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Journal were arrested when the paper reported on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the center of the country and are still being held, despite international pressure. The reporters and publisher now face a trial for revealing state secrets. (The government denies that the facility is a chemical weapons factory… which leaves open the question of what state secret was revealed.)
- Media professionals report that they fear legal repercussions of their reports, including defamation lawsuits. Bertil Lintner, legendary historian and correspondent on Burma, noted that the country seemed to be moving from a model of explicit censorship to “the Singapore model”, where censorship happens through a system of economic and legal pressures.
- People are understandably terrified about hate speech. Virtually every conversation I had about the internet in Myanmar centered on hate speech. The fear, specifically, is of speech that will incite ethnic tensions, especially tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, including the Rohingya. This is understandable – the history of post-colonial Myanmar has been one of constant conflict between the army and ethnic minority groups. According to friends in the country, Burmese Facebook is filled with images designed to provoke these tensions, sometimes featuring the images of people raped or killed and text blaming the violence on minority groups.
As a result, virtually everyone I spoke to believed that either the government or Facebook needed to control online speech, including people who’d served substantial prison sentences for their online writings.
- People really don’t want to talk about the Rohingya. Most local media won’t use the term “Rohingya”. Instead, they refer to “Bangladeshis”, which implies that the people in question are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh with no rights of citizenship. One of the more careful local outlets uses the term “Muslims of Bangladeshi descent, some of whom are Myanmar citizens”, which seems absurdly convoluted, until you understand that terming someone “Rohingya” is equivalent to taking sides in a very unpopular political debate over whether these 3 million people are citizens. That there have been Rohingya in Myanmar for centuries, that the country once had Rohingya members of parliament doesn’t do much to sway most people in the country, who seem largely untroubled by a decision not to allow Rohingya to identify their ethnicity on an upcoming census. When I raised this issue with local journalists, I got a great deal of pushback, including speculation that “Rohingya” was a term popularized by international media and not native to the country.
All these conversations left me with an interesting challenge as a keynote speaker. I wanted to acknowledge the complexities of Myanmar’s media environment, while also acknowledging how far the country had come. Below, I offer my notes for the speech – what I ended up delivering was somewhat different, as I ended up shortening to fit into the time allotted. The organizers gave me a title I wouldn’t have chosen – “Civic Media’s Challenges and Opportunities”. It’s fairly far from what I would normally talk about, but I wanted to open conversations about how Myanmar might approach the opportunities offered by participatory media and how the country might protect the openings it has made for online speech.
Students from the University of Missouri covered my talk here.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be with you today. This is an incredibly exciting moment for Myanmar. Your country has experienced so many exciting developments in a very short period of time. This conference on the Challenges of a Free Press is a timely one given changes made in August 2012 to allow reporters to publish stories without ministry review. That development followed very encouraging changes to internet policy in September 2011, which made previously inaccessible international news sites and social media platforms available to the people of Myanmar. We have seen a wave of young people in Myanmar joining Facebook, leading to stronger connections between people in Myanmar and Burmese people in the diaspora.
We know that the future of the internet is tightly connected to phones and mobile devices, and Myanmar is moving to make mobile phones affordable and accessible to all people through sharply reducing the price of SIM cards and now through issuing licenses to Oreedoo and Telenor, which are promising inexpensive mobile service in the country’s major cities this year.
We can see the incredible interest in being on the internet every time there is a conference on the internet in Yangon or Mandalay, like BarCamp Yangon, which has been widely attended every time it has been held. This is an exciting moment and I’m honored by the opportunity to visit Myanmar as these changes are taking place.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the Myanmar press on Sunday and characterized the press in Myanmar as somewhat open. That’s correct. It’s laudable that Myanmar has taken steps to open the internet and end pre-publication censorship, but concerning that other forms of censorship are taking place. As has been raised today, restrictions on visas for journalists are concerning, as are the arrests of reporters at the Unity Journal. And in speaking to people about the rise of the internet, I hear a great deal of enthusiasm to put some controls on the internet back in place to cope with a troubling trend of extreme speech.
It’s understandable that Myanmar is wrestling with these challenges about openness. Myanmar is experiencing changes associated with the internet in a matter of months rather than a matter of years. My country has had twenty years to get used to the internet and the changes it brings about. Over those two decades, my country and others have had heated debates about the benefits and costs of the internet. Given how easy it is to copy and share music, books and movies with the internet, what are the rights and protections for artists, authors and filmmakers, and for readers and viewers? Is the internet dangerous because it puts us in contact with strangers from all over the world or is a powerfully positive force for peace and understanding, for exactly the same reason? Will the internet create new businesses like Google or Amazon that lead to opportunity and wealth, or will it destroy old businesses like stores and newspapers?
I’m interested in all these debates – and very interested to see how they play out in Myanmar – but I am most interested in the question of how the internet may change what it means to be a citizen. There have been great hopes for the internet and democracy, the idea that governments can listen to people’s wants and needs more directly, that citizens might vote directly on legislation or help draft new laws, that we might have robust debates in a digital pubic sphere where it’s possible for everyone to express their opinions. There are also great fears: that the internet gives us distraction instead of dialog, that we are more likely to use this new technology to entertain ourselves than to engage in debate and discourse. It’s possible that the internet may make it easy to surround yourself only with opinions you agree with and to ignore other important voices, or may provide a platform for hate speech. Some worry that the internet may make it easier for people to take to the streets and protest against a government – others argue that this is a good thing, not a bad thing – and yet others argue that it’s a mistake to either blame or credit the internet for protests we’ve seen in Ukraine, Egypt, Tunisia, or in Europe and the United States.
The center I direct at MIT studies these questions through the lens of “civic media”. Civic media is digital media used for public purposes, like participating in political conversations or social movements. It uses many of the same tools as social media, like Facebook or Twitter, but the aims are different. Social media is mostly about staying in touch with your friends. Civic media is about trying to improve your community or work for social change, and while it often starts by talking about ideas with friends, it’s also about influencing governments or large groups of people.
Civic media is participatory media – even newspapers and television stations are discovering that they cannot simply deliver information to their audiences. The audience expects to be able to talk back, to share news stories they want to see covered, to offer their interpretation and opinions. Media that doesn’t enable participation is likely to be criticized or ignored – when CNN in Turkey did not cover protests happening in Gezi Square, millions of ordinary Turks, not just protesters, turned to Twitter to talk about events in the square and to mock CNN and other stations for failing to cover the story. News organizations are learning how to use social media well and are turning into civic media outlets – newspapers like The Guardian in the UK and television channels like Al Jazeera work hard to invite public participation and blur the lines between old media and new.
Because civic media uses the tools of social media, it is both personalized and personal. I get some of my news each day from a newspaper, but much of my news from the thousand people I follow on Twitter. You’ll hear tomorrow from Jillian York, an internet freedom activist and an expert on the internet in the Middle East and North Africa – I follow her on Twitter so that I get her recommendations on what I should read to understand social movements in Tunisia. This means I get news personalized to my interests – I am interested in Tunisia and what Jillian thinks about Tunisia – and personal, in the sense that I pay more attention to news my friends think is important.
This has an important consequence – my picture of the world is going to be different than yours, because we are each seeing a personalized picture of the world. This has some complicated implications for democracy. If I am only reading about Tunisia, and you are only reading about Ukraine, how do we have a conversation about important issues? It is possible we may be facing a future where it is difficult to have conversations about important public issues because we don’t have the same knowledge. We are slowly learning how to navigate this new world, to seek out opinions and perspectives we may not agree with so that we have a broader view of the world, but it’s difficult, both in terms of time and temperament. There is so much information available online, and so much that we agree with politically that it can be very hard work to pay attention to ideas we disagree with.
I study civic media because media is one of the most powerful forces in an open society. Even when media doesn’t tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about, what issues are most important for us to discuss and debate as a society. It monitors powerful institutions – governments and businesses – and can draw attention to corruption and wrongdoing. And civic media can help us come together and do remarkable things. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of volunteers work together to build a free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that’s vastly more comprehensive than any previous book and accessible to people even in very poor nations. Tools like Kickstarter are making it possible to “crowdfund” projects, raising money to that people in a city like Detroit can convert a vacant lot into a public garden, or colleagues of mine in Kenya can build a new device that provides internet connectivity when you’re hundreds of kilometers from a city.
I hope that the internet is opening a space for debate and participation that is more open, more fair and more inclusive than offline spaces. I hope that people who have been excluded from civic conversations in the past due to their gender, race, background or economic status will be able to participate in this new space and that their contributions will be embraced. I hope that civic media will be a space where groups that sometimes do not talk in person, like the Rohingya and the Baman, can interact. But I am deeply conscious of the challenges we face in the space of civic media, challenges of verifying information online, of coping with extreme speech and with finding common ground for civic conversations between people who have very different points of view.
Here are some lessons that have been learned about civic media, both in my lab and by researchers around the world, which I share in hopes that they may inform debates and conversations in Myanmar over the next few exciting years:
- Everyone can speak online, but it’s very hard to be heard.
Social media invites us to speak all the time – when we post an update to Facebook or Twitter, we are speaking to our circles of friends, and potentially to anyone else online. And while we’re likely to be heard by people who already are interested in hearing what we have to say, there’s no guarantee we will be heard by a broader audience. Because everyone can speak, media is an ongoing competition for attention: if we want our concerns to be heard, we are competing against everyone else, including professional news organizations, celebrities, politicians, other citizens.
This leads to a phenomenon people call “the long tail” – a small number of people have very large audiences, while most of us have small audiences most of the time. What’s so surprising and unpredictable is that this circumstance can change very quickly – a comment you made to friends could be amplified and spread to a huge audience if it was particularly insightful, funny or controversial. That experience can be very disconcerting, as if you were having a conversation with friends and you suddenly found yourself on this stage, with a microphone, speaking to a large audience. Surprising, but also very powerful, which is why people work to understand how social media works and how they might get their ideas heard by a wide audience.
- The internet is powerful for mobilization, but most mobilizations fail.
We’ve all heard how protesters in Tunisia used Facebook to document their frustrations with the Ben Ali government and let international media know about their protests, how Turks used Twitter to call people into Gezi Park. We know about these uses of media for mobilization because they were successful. We don’t hear about the thousands of efforts that fail. The US government has invited people to petition the government, circulating questions or demands online that the government is required to respond to if sufficient numbers of people sign the petition. (The number was 25,000 and has risen – it now takes 100,000 to be guaranteed a response.) Early last year, the number of petitions submitted was over 150,000. Only 162 had received a response. That’s because the average petition received 65 signatures. Over 100,000 people tried to start a political conversation, and well over 99% failed. Just because people use the internet doesn’t mean they will find an audience for their ideas.
- Mobilization works when an idea is popular and when people use the right techniques
I have been deeply interested in the campaigns for a 5000 kyat SIM card for Myanmar – we have seen evidence of this campaign all over Facebook and it’s been well documented in US and European media as evidence of the deep interest people in Myanmar have to connect with one another and with the wider world. I think the campaign was so successful because it expressed a concern that many people in Myanmar had, that it invited other people to participate in the campaign and personalize it for their audiences, and because it used humor more than anger to make its point.
We are writing a case study on the campaign at MIT and reviewing some of the cartoons involved: I remember a cartoon of an elderly man on his deathbed. The nurse asked if he was waiting for his family to visit before he died, and the man explained that he was waiting for a 5000 kyat SIM card. It’s likely that many people posted that cartoon to Facebook and forwarded it to friends both because they agreed with the cause and because they found it funny. Because civic media is all about reaching an audience, campaigns that figure out how to make themselves replicable are the ones that are the most powerful.
- It’s hard to get heard online, but being censored almost guarantees an audience.
Trying to silence speech online tends to make it louder. This is something we call “the Streisand Effect”. It’s named after the singer Barbara Streisand, because she made a very foolish error in trying to remove content from the internet. A photographer posted images of every house on the coastline of the state of California to document the condition of beaches and the dangers of erosion. One of those houses belonged to Streisand and she sued the photographer to have the photo of her house removed. Very few people had looked at the photo of Streisand’s house, but once people heard about the lawsuit, everyone wanted to see the pictures. There’s nothing as appealing as a secret.
In the Soviet Union, when the press was heavily controlled, there was an incredible market for underground publications – samizdat. And old joke holds that a mother tried to get her son to do his schoolwork by having an underground printer print his textbooks as samizdat. Social media makes the internet incredibly hard to censor, because the tools of social media are optimized for sharing media – censor it in one place and people will share it in other places. Nations like China have put hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to censor social media and, ultimately, they have failed. When major news events like the train crash in Wenzhou take place, people use social media to spread the information and even with tens of thousands of online monitors, information that was embarrassing to the government was released. This is very disconcerting and uncomfortable for governments, but it is simply the reality of how these new systems work.
It’s true that censorship and democracy are incompatible, as some in the Myanmar government have wisely observed. But civic media and censorship are also incompatible, and the spread of social media tools are starting to make it difficult for governments to censor, even if they wanted to.
- Censorship is the wrong way to deal with hate speech
I know that people in this audience are legitimately concerned with extreme and hateful speech online. This is a problem in many nations – China is facing problems with hate speech against a Uighir minority after a recent terror attack. My country faced terrible problems of hate speech against our Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks, and I know Myanmar is facing problems with hate speech aimed at the Rohingya population. I want to share a story from Kenya that illustrates the problem and offers a possible solution.
Kenya had a badly disputed election on 2007 and experienced a wave of political violence in its wake. I was involved with forming an internet company called Ushahidi that tried to document that violence – my colleagues built a tool that let people send a message from a mobile phone and have it appear on a map so we could understand what parts of the country were violent and which were peaceful, and where people needed aid and assistance. This idea of building a map through the participation of thousands of people has become popular and is now called “crowdmapping”. We used crowdmapping to document Kenya’s elections in 2013, hoping that this election cycle would be peaceful, but resolving to document any evidence we found of intimidation, hate or violence.
Part of this was a project called “Umati”, which is the Swahili word for “crowd”. Umati volunteers monitored Kenyan social media – blogs, Twitter and Facebook – and reported cases of hate speech leading up to and following the election. These instances were posted for the public on a highly visible map – in other words, rather than silencing the speech, the project sought to shame those engaged in hate speech. It worked. Those operating the project quickly discovered a pattern called “cutting” – when someone posted hateful speech, their friends would react negatively and cut off contact with them. This was especially common on Twitter, where everyone can read what you write. Hate speech persisted much longer on Facebook, because speech was often only visible to a small number of people and there wasn’t as much shaming. Exposure and shaming worked, and we also learned something very surprising – there was no strong correlation between hate speech and acts of violence in the 2013 Kenyan elections. Hate speech is ugly and offensive, and some speech may be dangerous. But speech is less powerful than we often believe, and pressure from our friends and family through making speech visible is more powerful than we generally think.
- You can’t legislate truthful speech.
It’s reasonable to worry that misinformation can and will spread online. A year ago, a few kilometers from my lab, two terrorists set of bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon, injuring and killing dozens of people. Later, 100 meters from my office, the two attackers shot an MIT police officer, Sean Collier. I was in Dakar, Senegal at the time and I was following events online to understand whether my friends, family and students were safe. There were floods of information online, and most of that information was wrong. It wasn’t just amateurs who got the story wrong – one of New York City’s largest newspapers, the Post, falsely accused two men of the murder on the front page of their paper.
Participatory media isn’t the cause of misinformation online – speed is. When news happens, everyone wants to know, and wants to know now. News organizations compete to be the first to report a story. The result is that people report speculation and theory as well as truth. This isn’t because they have malicious intentions – it’s because people have conversations about what’s going on in the world, and these days, these conversations are hard to distinguish from news. It’s a very fine line between writing “I saw the attackers on the MIT campus” and “I heard that the attackers were on the MIT campus”, and both can and will be said online.
The solution is not to force everyone to slow down – it’s to learn how to read differently. When the internet was introduced, there was a tendency to believe that if someone was online, it must be true, because someone had reviewed and verified it. We all understand now that there’s no guarantee that something is true just because it is online. We are slowly learning to be skeptical about reports from people who are anonymous, to take reports more seriously if someone has been writing online for a long time, to understand that reports made immediately after an event are likely to be wrong and to be revised later. It takes a long time to learn how to read differently, but this is a valuable skill not just for the internet, but for all writing – I teach my students to ask who is writing a story, how they’ve obtained their information and what agenda they are supporting, and those are critical questions to ask of all media, whether it is produced by professional reporters or by amateur bloggers.
I realize that the picture I am painting of Civic Media is a complicated one – it’s a space that is both promising and challenging at the same time. I want to leave you with two ideas, one which I find promising, and one which I find challenging, in the hopes that you might help me become wiser about these questions.
The first idea is that the internet is helping citizens become monitors. In Kenya, citizens now monitor elections, reporting irregularities at poling stations or stolen ballots by using their mobile phones. In Brazil, I am working with citizens in Sao Paulo who are monitoring the mayor’s office, reporting whether he is keeping the promises he made when he was elected, documenting where streets aren’t paved or streetlights haven’t been installed. The rise of citizens as monitors is going to change the balance of power between citizens and their leaders, and I predict it’s going to be a change for the better. But I also predict it’s going to be very unsettling and disconcerting for many years to come. Whistleblowing is an extreme example of monitorial citizenship – what Edward Snowden did in revealing that the US National Security Agency was spying on Americans and non-Americans and lying to our lawmakers about it, is a very important form of monitoring, and I believe Snowden should be celebrated, not prosecuted. But I think monitoring will be just as important when millions of citizens are monitoring everyday government actions in cooperation with governments, not only in opposition. The big lesson we’re learning in Sao Paulo is that citizens often don’t know the good things their governments are doing until they monitor the government.
The second idea is that we need to work hard to ensure that our conversations online aren’t always local ones. It’s damaging for a democracy if we only listen to people we agree with – we need to hear a diverse range of opinions to have a healthy debate about the future of our communities, locally and at a national level. But some of the most important conversations we need to have today on subjects like climate change have to take place at a global level. It’s deeply exciting to me that Myanmar is entering into this global conversation online, but we will need to work hard to make sure the world listens to Myanmar and to help Myanmar listen to the rest of the world. People who can act as bridges between Myanmar and the rest of the world, particularly people who’ve worked and studied abroad, will be key figures in ensuring that Myanmar uses the internet to engage globally, not just locally. And people around the world want to help start this conversation – please take a look at a project called Global Voices that I’ve been lucky to be involved with for ten years. 1600 people, mostly volunteers, work to share stories from all over the world in more than 30 languages. We have some excellent reporting from Myanmar – that’s how I know about all the exciting changes happening on the local internet – but we could use more help.
Thanks so much for listening to me and I look forward to a conversation about these ideas, today and in the days to come.
danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a fellow at the Berkman Center, and director of the Data and Society Institute. danah has been working on the issues associated with “It’s Complicated” for many years. 10 years ago, Ethan and danah were two of the youngest people at a conference. danah told him, “I only have one secret to get through these events. I tell them what their children are doing.” Telling people what their children are doing online is incredibly valuable, either because we’re parents who care about our children, or because we care about the future of the Internet. danah has been relentless over the last decade in trying to make it clear that simple snap answers about the Internet (good, bad, dangerous, amazing) are utterly and totally inadequate. What we need to do is to take a long, careful look at the context that underlies people’s behaviours online. We’re in a moment where the easiest thing to do is to say “it’s simple.” danah has put forward a book that says “it’s complicated.”
Today is the official publication of the book and danah tells us that she wanted to spend the day with friends. (Her day began, mediawise, with a celebratory story on NPR, ”Online, Researcher Says, Teens Do What They’ve Always Done”) She’s been affiliated with the Berkman Center, in one context or another, for fifteen years. Rather than lecture about the book, she wants to provide some context on her thinking, then take questions.
danah explains that she was part of the first generation to grow up online, and that the internet was her “saving grace”. Her brother tied up the phone lines with strange modem squeals, and he showed her that the internet was made of people. Once she’d made that discovery, the phone line wasn’t safe after her mother went to bed. The first $700 phone bill ended that, but introduced danah to the wider world of phone phreaking and misbehavior to ensure she had access to outline spaces.
She went to school in computer science to explore the space, but didn’t really find her direction until she came to grad school and was able to study social media. She began a blog in 1998, and has been participating in and working on social media since then. Working with Judith Donath in 2002, she was invited to join Friendster a year before the network became prominent and widely used (see this paper on Friendster).
The early adopters of Friendster were geeks, freaks and queers, danah tells us, and those groups are the early adopters of most new technology platforms. As someone who identifies with all those groups, danah tells us that she had a front-row seat for Friendster’s successes and missteps, and was often able to interrogate the platform’s founder about his decisions. She moved to studying MySpace, and benefitted from the shift of youth to that platform, allowing her to watch the rise and fall of two major social media platforms (see danah’s research on Friendster and MySpace and this paper on Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites)
danah tells us that MySpace was based on Cold Fusion, a now-antiquated database programming language, and that the vulnerabilities of the site led her to novel research methods. User IDs were assigned sequentially, and she was able to sample users by choosing a random subset of IDs. But as her research developed, it became less easy to randomly approach youth online, so danah shifted her research methods to working offline, traveling around the United States to meet the young users of these platforms. (The major problem with interviewing 166 teenagers was dietary – it involved a lot of cafeteria lunches and a lot of McDonalds.)
Her research on teens informed her doctoral dissertation, and once she’d completed it, she felt a need to discuss the same issues with a broader audience. The book is organized around myths associated with youth and online media: the idea that youth are digital natives, that online spaces are heavily sexualized, and that online spaces are dangerous to youth.
Her overall takeaway from this research: we have spent thirty years restricting the ability of youth to get together face to face in the physical world. These technologies give youth access to public life once again and to make meaning of the world around them. Youth want to gather and socialize with their friends and become part of public life. Many youth would rather get together in real life, but turn to online spaces because those are the only spaces where young people can interact with one another in public life.
“There’s so much learning, so much opportunity through being part of public life”, says danah. We need to accept the idea that these online spaces are the key public spaces for young people.
Dorothy Zinberg asks about cycles – the decline of Friendster and MySpace – is Facebook now declining? And how do we expect these youth to change over the next decade?
danah notes that ten years ago, email was something people were excited about – “You’ve got mail” was a popular ringtone. Now, we open email with apprehension and worry. And that’s how teens are now approaching Facebook. Teens are not running from it, but it’s no longer the “passion play” – instead, it’s a place to connect with adults in your life. Who wants to spend their time hanging out with adults? The idea of a single platform to rule them all will look like a historical anomaly. It’s more natural to see fragmentation, a wealth of platforms that people use for different reasons and in different contexts. There are messaging, photo and videosharing services, all of which have emerged as new spaces for youth. We’re also seeing the emergence of interest-driven spaces like Tumblr or Twitter, which make it possible to geek out on fashion or music. There are also media for different communities – people obsessed with media are fascinated with Secret, which looks more like ChatRoulette in terms of speed. Young people, depending on their interests and passions, are moving across different services with texting as the single common denominator. danah notes that texting behavior in the US is anomalous, as we are one of the few countries where you pay to send and receive texts – there’s nothing more socially awkward than sending someone a message and making them pay for it.
As far as where youth usage is going: it’s moving to mobile. Mobile is an intimacy device. In response to discussions over safety, computers are now used in shared spaces, like the living room. The mobile device is a way of maintaining privacy. But the world of aps is a very different world than the world of websites. It’s surprising that we don’t yet have powerful geographically-linked apps – it may be that since youth are restricted to a world of home and school, geolocation doesn’t yet have a youth audience, and people love to experiment on young users. She notes that the old is new again, pointing to the rise of the aniGIF.
David LaRochelle wonders whether issues of Facebook’s collapsed context is a technical problem – could something like Google Plus solve those technical problems? danah explains that the key feature of new platforms is that Mom doesn’t know about them yet – once Mom knows you have an account, she can watch over your shoulder or demand you friend her. She asks us to think back to high school: not everyone in your class are friends with one another. When you plan a party, you don’t want to invite everyone. That same drama plays out online – you can move to a different platform as a way of connecting with a subset of friends.
Judith Donath asks what we’ve learned longitudinally from studying social media over the course of years. What happens when a generation that grew up on one set of applications is now 23? danah explains that the book is really about high school. She’s tracked some of these teens through college or the military and into the real world. Something that becomes clear is that certain behaviors are tightly associated with a life stage. The constraints of high school dynamics seem to force people to work through status, peer relationships and early sexual relationships, all of which play into online media environments, and then, in turn, influence those school dynamics. Once people are no longer constrained by school dynamics, you see a more mature set of dynamics: more dating, more efforts to appear cool, and lots of discussion about employment. The use of social media changes sharply for 20-somethings who want to go into social media marketing, or government, where that behavior ends up changing their online behavior.
A visiting scholar from Valencia asks about gender differences in teen behavior online, especially around experimentation. danah notes that it’s challenging to differentiate between gendered behavior online and offline: online behavior mirrors the offline. Status dynamics come into focus for girls earlier than for boys, while boys have more gameplay relationships (pranking, punking) with their peers, both offline and online. One of her book chapters is on “drama”, a predominantly female behavior online and off. What’s more challenging in studying gender online is watching gendered pressures, especially around sexuality, playing online. Young girls see a Miley Cyrus video and feel pressure to dress and behave certain ways. Young boys feel social pressure to talk to girls in certain ways. Online environments make very clear how powerful these pressures are.
Tim asks about policy and practice responses to youth behavior online. danah explains that she never expected to engage in policy through this research. She takes us back to a lawsuit mounted by 49 states attorneys general against MySpace, accusing the platform of enabling sexual predation. One of the outcomes of the suit was appointing a Internet Safety Task Force, consisting of danah, John Palfrey, and Dena Sacco, to help MySpace regulate behavior. The attorneys general expected a tension between the three, but the three worked closely together to consider actual data around contact, conduct and content online. Their research found far less evidence for dangerous behavior online than the attorneys general had expected to find, and came to the counterintuitive finding that the laws designed to prevent bullying had often had negative effects. danah hopes that one thing this book can do is help prevent ridiculous, counterproductive laws from being written.
danah also explains that it’s been very hard to work with practitioners, like teachers. In the early days of social media, teachers often came into these spaces and explored how to interact with students. It’s now become an article of faith that teachers should not engage with students in these spaces, and that’s a shame, as it’s important to have non-custodial guides online. Don’t friend a student, but if a student reaches out to you, reciprocate. “Don’t flip out” when students misbehave, but make clear that you’re present in the space. She notes that Jane Jacobs explained the importance of eyes of the street in urban spaces – we might think of the same dynamic happening online.
Kate Darling notes that Sherry Turkle speculates that online communication in the place of face to face communication is dangerous and detrimental. danah explains that she loves Sherry as a person, but strongly disagrees with her as a researcher. Sherry starts conversations by noting how uncomfortable teens are interacting with adults – when, asks danah, have teens ever been comfortable interacting with adults?! Teens are comfortable socializing with each other face to face, but retreat to devices around adults. Teens want to spend more time face to face with friends and generally are prevented from doing so. “Every aspect of sociality is a learning process and you strengthen different muscles through different interactions.” Teens may be more sophisticated in interacting online than in interacting face to face simply through where they have the most practice. But it’s absurd to suggest that teens are somehow stunted by online interaction.
“The political activist in me got entertained by the idea that a generation learned to use proxies to escape restrictions put in place by adults.” When we talk about teenagers, we’re usually dealing with our own anxieties, danah says. Lawmakers became obsessed with teen sexting before Anthony Weiner came on the scene and reminded everyone that lawmakers can misbehave as well.
Deb Chachra refers to a Sumerian clay tablet in which a father complains about his slacker son. How do we overcome the “kids these days” narrative that shapes so much of discussion around kids and social media. danah notes that the downside of Deb’s example is that we appear to be predestined to repeat these behaviors. The key is to get adults to listen to young people. Young people are telling their stories – the positive and the negative – to an unprecedented degree. Instead of complaining, there’s an amazing opportunity to listen to youth writ large. danah hopes the book will spark conversations about how we listen, rather than answering specific questions. That said, she worries that protectionism of young people leads to young adults who are not well socialized to deal with the choices of college or adult life.
A questioner asks about kids moving to different platforms to escape their parents. She notes that there’s a spectrum of risk from paranoia to actual risk. If kids are escaping to these narrow, parent-free spaces, who are the people on the streets who can provide eyes on online behavior? The providers of these applications are not teenage kids and may not have the best interests of teens in mind. danah suggests that we think about what adults are in the lives of kids beyond their parents. We want kids to have multiple adults – the cool aunt, the teacher they like – in their lives, and they are likely to invite these adults into online spaces. This is why age segregation is a dangerous direction for online platforms – we want adults and youth interacting in the same spaces. But danah doesn’t believe this will necessarily happen automatically – we may need to consciously create eyes on the streets, as community activists do by putting college students on the streets to work with at-risk youth. We need people to be involved in online spaces in a way that they are available, but non-judgemental.
danah notes her involvement with Crisis Textline, an NGO she helped start, that uses texting to connect teens to crisis hotlines. The worst thing we can do, she suggests, is put these decisions in the hands of engineers. We need to look at the people who understand these social systems and build on their best practices.
Rob Faris notes that part of being a kid is surviving your own mistakes and being able to hit the reset button. How does that work in online spaces? Could platforms and online spaces improve on this score? danah notes that one of the challenges online is that things go on your permanent record – she notes that her teenage Usenet posts are still online. We don’t know the longitudinal answer, danah notes – she’s part of a cohort that really did grow online, but it’s not clear how that information may affect life going forward. People assumed that bullying would be worse online, but it’s actually turned out that having a record of bullying is helping people find support. Documenting self-harm seems to lead youth to interventions that happen more quickly, but perhaps that accelerated progress is a good thing. Perhaps we are able to acknowledge the past through some sort of online transparency, putting information online before someone else does. She notes that we’ve moved into a culture of forgiveness for US presidents – from I didn’t inhale, to I did drugs, but I was a kid from Clinton to Obama – that we may simply be making it easier to escape your past. The question is whether this will be true for underprivileged youth in the same way that it is for the most privileged.
A questioner asks about youth’s relationships with free services. danah notes that this generation has very little access to financial capital. Babysitting and newspaper routes no longer produce revenue for kids, and kids now compete with fifty-year olds for fast food jobs. Without capital, there’s enormous pressure for kids in poorer families to get a phone and a pay as you go data plan. As a result, she saw a lot of kids engaged in illegal activities to obtain devices. Once kids are online, it’s all about free. They don’t particularly like ads, but they don’t see an alternative. The response is a form of gameplaying: can you send content to your friends that make them get absurd ads? Young people understand the ecosystem, but their relationship is one of hacking and playing. Their goal is socializing with their friends, and they understand that free services make that possible.
Tim Mallay notes that he recently revisited danah’s discussions of gentrification in MySpace. In 2006-7, danah explains, she saw a split between youth moving to MySpace and Facebook. Facebook appeared safe and high-status, while MySpace seemed dangerous, poor and used by people of color. danah wrote an essay she now regrets discussing this dynamic, and woke up to a media storm that resulted from her observations. Teens often told danah that she was right, though insufficiently nuanced. These race and class dynamics are still critical to understanding social media, danah tells us, but there’s no longer as start a division between sites. Instead, it plays out in different behavior on the different platforms. Because social media plays out around the race and class networks of your social circle, it’s impossible to understand online behavior without considering these issues. danah guesses that we’ll see this again once we’re fragmenting between different services like messaging aps – adoption of the different platforms tends to be based on race and class. This matters, because in 2006-7 colleges were recruiting online – we need to make sure that we don’t reproduce privilege online by favoring some platforms over others.
A question from a Berkman staffer begins by noting that he coaches high school atheletes, and he’s observed that they are less broadly skilled than they were years ago. He believe this is because students only engage in physical behavior in structured ways. Is it possible that we may finally be reaching a point where we will be able to tell youth that it’s okay to go outside again? danah notes that, especially within privileged environments, it’s hard to get a network of parents to change behavior. It’s a collective action problem – if you allow your children to be “free range” kids, other parents will force their children to shun your child. Because it doesn’t work to go parent to parent, danah feels it’s important to bring these messages of the importance of giving youth space to roam online and offline to media and other public fora. Oddly, she’s more successful making this case for urban families than to suburban ones, if only because public transportation makes it possible for children to roam.
danah will be speaking tonight (February 25) at the Harvard Bookstore. Come and hear hear her talk about “It’s Complicated” and bring your own questions.
My students Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck and I have a new paper in First Monday, titled “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy On- and Offline”. In it, we examine how the shooting of Trayvon Martin turned into a dominant story in the news media by examining blogs, newspapers, Twitter, television broadcasts, online petition signatures and other media. The paper is here, but Erhardt’s summary of the paper may be a helpful introduction (as the paper itself is pretty long.)
We had three goals in writing the paper: to understand how the tragic, but initially unheralded death of Trayvon Martin became a national debate on race; to document how different actors frame and reframe stories when they receive media attention; and to show the value of analyzing a single news story in a variety of different mediums. It follows on Benkler et. al.’s paper analyzing online conversations about SOPA/PIPA, using many of the same tools, but adding some new data sources, like Archive.org’s collection of closed captions of broadcast television.
This paper is an outgrowth of the work we’ve been doing on Media Cloud for several years, supported by the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and the Knight Foundation. There’s a pile of Media Cloud-related research coming out soon. The SOPA/PIPA and Trayvon papers show the utility of the tools we call “Controversy Mapper” for analyzing a specific issue or set of stories, while another set of tools (related to the Mapping the Globe and World According To projects from Catherine d’Ignazio and Rahul Bhargava) are launching later this spring. We owe huge thanks to Hal Roberts, David LaRochelle and the team at Harvard and MIT that has been building the infrastructure to make this work possible.
It’s really been a pleasure working with students who’ve been willing to put hundreds of hours into untangling a complex and important story. Hope what we’ve learned is useful to you.
Hugo Barra is a long-time veteran of the technology industry. Raised in Brazil, he came to MIT in 1996 and completed B.S. and M.Eng. degrees in computer science and electrical engineering before joining wireless software company Lobby7. From there, he joined Nuance Communications and later, Google, working on the Android team, where he rose to Vice President of Android Product Management, becoming one of the public faces of the company, introducing new phones and software to audiences at trade shows.
Most people, even those who follow tech closely, didn’t know who Barra was until he announced in August of last year that he was leaving Google for Xiaomi, a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones. The departure of a non-Chinese Google executive for a Chinese company was surprising enough to merit coverage throughout the tech press and in the Guardian, where Charles Arthur saw the move as a coup for Xiaomi and reason to ask questions about Google’s strategic leadership around Android.
Stories about Barra’s job change took on a tabloid quality when writers began speculating that his real reason for leaving Google was a romantic rivalry. Business Insider reported that Barra had been involved with a Google Glass product manager, Amanda Rosenberg, who was now dating Sergey Brin, and Sydney’s Morning Herald reported that Barra’s departure from Google was a “collateral casualty” of the complicated love life of Google’s founder.
After all, a star executive at America’s most-admired company would never leave for a Chinese phone company because he saw opportunity there. Putting the Pacific between you and a vengeful software billionaire is one of the few logical explanations for an American to want to work in China.
Barra patiently explained to reporters that he’d come to Xiaomei to work with Bin Lin, the head of Xiaomi, who had been the head of Google’s mobile engineering unit in China. While he was at Google, Barra was impressed with the ways Lin’s team had extended and modified Android, and frequently brought Xiaomi products to the Android team to show off their functionality.
Barra re-entered the tech press limelight in December when he spoke at Le Web in Paris. His speech was, unsurprisingly, a celebration of the new corporation he joined. But it was, more broadly, a education for European and US techies on the wonders of the Chinese technology industry. Business Insider’s crib of his talk makes Barra sound like a latter-day Marco Polo, returning to Venice with tales of 600 million internet users, 15% annual growth rates and billion dollar IPOs.
Hugo Barra at his favorite dumpling joint in Beijing
On the rare occasions American geeks think about the internet in China, they tend to think about the Great Firewall and the 50 Cent Party. This focus on censorship – which is an important fact of life on the Chinese internet – tends to blind Americans to the creativity and vitality of the Chinese internet. (This 2010 article by David Talbot for Technology Review, China’s Internet Paradox, explores this idea in depth.) As a result, we are surprised to learn that China’s most popular social networking site, QZone, has over 600 million users. That Jingdong, an Amazon-like online store offers three hour delivery in major Chinese cities. That tools like WeChat and MoMo offer functionality that’s surprisingly different from social networking models offered by most American and European social networking tools.
I used the story of Barra and his reports from China to open a recent talk on Rewire at Harvard’s Coop. Our surprise that there’s a thriving and interesting tech industry in China strikes me as a symptom of a larger phenomenon, the ways in which we are insulated from information from places that are culturally distant, even if we’re tightly tied to those nations in terms of migration and trade.
I give dozens of examples in Rewire of ways in which barriers of language, culture and interest keep us from learning about what’s happening in other parts of the world. But the lack of knowledge of Chinese internet tools is a wonderful example I wish I’d included. QZone, with over 600 million users, is represented in the English-language Wikipedia with a 3k stub, while Twitter, with a slightly smaller userbase, has a massive, 140kb article whose table of contents is longer than the QZone entry.
When I speak about Rewire, I try to explain why I think it’s important that increased internet connectivity doesn’t inevitably lead to increased interest in or understanding of other cultures. I talk about the challenge of solving massive international problems like global warming without international cooperation, or the missed opportunities to think creatively by maximizing cognitive diversity and approaching problems from different points of view.
But Hugo Barra’s story offers a much more straightforward motivation: there’s a ton of opportunity in China’s tech industry and Americans and Europeans will be shut out of that opportunity if they’re not aware of what’s going on. Americans may not be especially interested in building tools for Chinese users, but Chinese companies are looking aggressively at overseas markets. Xiaomi recruited Barra precisely because they are excited about expanding beyond manufacturing phones for Chinese markets.
There’s a massive information asymmetry because the US and China right now. Teams of volunteer translators work to render US and European political and tech media into Chinese – one community, Yeeyan, features more than 100,000 registered translators. Other teams work to subtitle US television programming in Chinese within 12 hours of broadcast. Information in the other direction is brokered by small, underfunded, hardworking projects like Tea Leaf Nation, which provide great translation and contextualization of Chinese stories for the small audiences interested in them.
Perhaps Barra’s celebration of Chinese internet culture will inspire others to follow his lead and work with Chinese technology companies. Perhaps others will learn what’s exciting about the tech industry in Brazil or Kenya. At the very least, Barra’s story might remind us that there’s a huge world out there we don’t hear enough about and that it takes work on our part to learn more.
A Guinness ad featuring a group of splendidly-dressed men from Congo-Brazzaville, called Le Sapeurs, is making a splash online. The men in the ad (below) are members of Le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, a group of middle class Congolese in both Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who collect, assemble and model sharp, colorful suits that evoke Parisian fashions of decades ago. The message of the Guinness ad comes in the opening line of the voiceover: “In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.” You may carry bricks or paint car parts for a living, but you can choose a life where, for some hours of the week, you are a fashion icon and a hero to your neighborhood.
AdWeek featured the ad, and an accompanying documentary, as their ad of the day, noting “When global marketers portray Africa, the goal is usually humor or pity. Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models.” The BBC, Slate and The Guardian have all commented on the video, most noting that it’s surprising to see an affirmative, inspirational African narratives that actually features Africans as the main subject (as opposed to, say, GoToMeeting’s “Kenya Water Project”, in which hip, wired young people across the world – none in Africa – get together to “save” a distant other.)
This ad follows another striking Guinness ad, in which a spirited game of wheelchair basketball is revealed to include one wheelchair-bound player and five players without disability, who are learning to play wheelchair basketball as a way of spending time with their friend. The video has drawn praise for being heartwarming and compelling, and critique for being patronizing to the disabled and for not correcting a more general problem, the invisibility of the disabled in advertising except as props to demonstrate the moral courage of others. I found the ad more moving than manipulative, but then again, I spend far more time thinking about media portrayals of Africans than I do about media portrayals of the wheelchair-bound, so I’m far less attuned to the critiques the commenters raise.
I’ve been thinking about possible critiques of the Guinness Sapeurs ad and have come up with three thus far. One is that Guinness is pretty late to the game in featuring Les Sapeurs. Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla released a striking set of photos of Sapeurs in Brazzaville in 2003 (see also this collection), and Daniele Tamagni published a beautiful photo book of Sapeurs in 2009. Sapeurs came to mainstream attention last year when Solange Knowles featured several Congolese sapeurs in the video for her song “Losing You”. And news outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and others have examined sape from the perspectives of dandyism, the sapeur disapora in France, the cost of being a sapeur, and the contrast between the flair of the sapeurs and the stark nature of their surroundings.
Solange Knowles, “Losing You”
These last points – the cost of being a sapeur in an extremely poor country – is the core of another critique of the Guinness ad, and of sape more generally. At its heart, sape is a consumerist movement, where the creativity involved is in the hustle to assemble expensive outfits by having them sent from family abroad, or by borrowing clothes from other sapeurs. Stephanie McCrummen’s feature on sape in Kinshasa focuses heavily on an apparent obsession with the authenticity of the clothes and their expense. Is sape just a more elegant obsession with bling, a form of posturing that focuses primarily on the cost and inaccessibility of objects rather than a deeper form of creativity? Is there something perverse about wearing a pair of alligator shoes that cost half the per capita income of a nation?
A third critique would note that Africans often get credit for style and fashion, but rarely for weightier pursuits. It’s not especially radical to acknowledge the color and creativity of African music, art, and fashion, but would be far more exciting to see Guinness celebrating the startup culture of the iHub or the new model of African universities emerging at Ashesi University.
All that said, I think Guinness is trying to do the right thing in trying to offer a surprising and different picture of central Africa to viewers who likely associate the region with conflict, if with anything at all. The opening shot of the Guinness ad shows a field on fire, which immediately made me brace myself for an all-too-typical narrative of Africa in conflict. The ad pivots within the first second, showing us the burning of a sugarcane field as an example of the quotidian labor the sapeurs engage in, a set up for their transformation from laborers to fashion plates. It works – for me, at least – because it acknowledges what we expect to see about Brazzaville, then shows us something unexpected, surprising and inspiring.
Trailer for Michael Power ad, “Critical Assignment”
It’s worth contrasting this ad from Guinness with a previous campaign, which centered on an African superhero, Michael Power. Power – played by a Jamaican who was raised in Britain – was a James Bond figure, always righting wrongs committed by corrupt politicians and their foreign backers, and relaxing at the end of a hard campaign with the damsel he rescued and a bottle of Guinness. The campaign was enormously successful on the continent, but virtually impossible to imagine running in other global markets. By contrast, the Sapeurs ad was intended for the UK market, but could easily run on the continent, and features a form of actual African superheroes, not an imaginary one.
In “Rewire“, I talk about the importance of culture as a pathway towards understanding the history, politics and challenges of unfamiliar people and places. My student, Catherine d’Ignazio, is exploring this idea in her project Terra Incognita, which allows you to monitor where in the world you encounter through your web browser and get introductions to unfamiliar countries. Catherine talks about the importance of “seducing” a reader to pay attention to a topic she’s not already interested in, offering images, video, maps and compelling narrative to capture attention to the unfamiliar.
I found myself seduced by Guinness’s ad into spending a chunk of my day learning about the political and cultural significance of sape, which included a dive into the history of Congo-Brazzaville’s civil war, and into Mobutu Sese Seko’s drive for “Authenticité“, or the Zairianization of the current Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As As Joshua Keating notes in his piece for Slate, sape is, in part, a reaction to Mobutu’s attempts to cleanse Congo of colonial influence. Authenticité involved replacing colonial names with indigenous ones, and banning western suits and ties in favor of the abacost (short for “à bas le costume”, French for “down with the suit”), a local variant of the Mao suit. As Mobutu and his corrupt cronies lost popularity, wearing western fashion became a form of rebellion. Soukous musician Papa Wemba became the leader of this rebel faction, proudly wearing French fashions purchased on his international travels and advertising the labels in interviews and in his songs. The contrast between Mobutu’s ban on western fashion and the embrace of the sapeur movement by the nation’s most popular musician helped expose the dissatisfaction of ordinary Zairians with Mobutu’s one man rule. (I’m thankful to wikipedia Skomorokh, whose contribution to the Sapeur article has somehow not been incorporated to the main article, which is, unfortunately, pretty weak. Skomorokh points to sapeur as a form of rebellion, linking to James Brooke’s 1988 article on sapeurs in the New York Times.)
I’d not expected to spend today thinking about cultural rebellion against autocrats, but then again, I’d also not expected a global beverage company to promote Congolese culture to UK beer drinkers. Perhaps the admen and women at BBDO took their own script seriously: In life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are. I’m glad Guinness has chosen to be a brand that’s trying to feature what’s unique, wonderful and positive about Africa.