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

December 7, 2011

Book review: Improvisational economies and a globalized building

Filed under: Developing world,ideas — Ethan @ 10:14 pm

Robert Neuwirth is bringing new insights to familiar (for him, unfamiliar for most of us) territory in his book, “Stealth of Nations“. His previous work, “Shadow Cities” was a plea to take squatter cities and informal settlements seriously, rather than dismissing them as slums. (My review of Shadow Cities is here.) His mission in this new book is for us to reconsider the “informal economy”, which he rebrands “System D”.

“System D” is an abbreviation for “l’economie de la débrouillardise”, a tern coined in French-speaking Africa to refer to a system of “resourceful and ingenious” people who make their livings outside the formal, taxed and regulated economy. Neuwirth rejects the term “informal” because the coiner of that phrase, British anthropologist Keith Hart, included the criminal underground in his term, “the informal economy”. Neuwirth wants to celebrate the energy and ingenuity of people who make their living outside formal economic structure, but distinguish those he celebrates from those who are selling drugs or running prostitution rings. The heroes of System D may avoid taxes, smuggle goods or operate without permits, but Neuwirth sees them not as criminals but as hardworking people trying to make a living in systems that are broken and corrupt.

Neuwirth’s great strength is as a traveler and storyteller. Like “Shadow Cities”, “Stealth of Nation” is packed chock full with stories from the communities he’s visited in Brazil, Paraguay, Nigeria, China and the United States. We meet street merchants selling pens and cakes in São Paolo, a handbag manufacturer in Guangzhou and the baker of high-end (if unlicensed) olive oil cake in New York City. He takes a particularly deep dive in Lagos, a megalopolis he describes as “a System D city”, where virtually no infrastructures are provided by the state, and where basic services like power, drinking water and public transit are provided by private industry and workers’ collectives, who build systems that function with limited licensing, taxation or oversight.

This wealth of narratives helps make the case that System D is massive and pervasive. Working from numbers from the World Bank and using the insights of Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider, Neuwirth offers an estimate that System D is responsible for roughly $10 trillion in goods and services bought and sold annually. That makes “Bazaristan” the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States. He further argues that System D provides employment for a majority of adults in many developing nations. Whether or not we approve of the activities of System D, Neuwirth argues, we need to take it seriously because of the large number of individuals it impacts.

Neuwirth’s inquiry is extremely broad in scope, both in terms of the subjects he considers and the timescale he examines. Chapters look at phenomena like piracy and counterfeit goods, and smuggling across international borders, which Neuwirth examines primarily via Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, a urban center that exists primarily so Brazilian citizens – and merchants – can avoid paying taxes. To provide a historical context for these sorts of trade, Neuwirth calls on classical economists, including Adam Smith, as well as histories from the 18th century to demonstrate the ongoing demonization and dismissal of System D merchants. For me, these excursions into the past are less enjoyable that the wealth of contemporary examples he provides, though they’re helpful in establishing that System D is a very old system as well as a new one.

The danger in both of Neuwirth’s books is that he loves his subject so much, he occasionally celebrates it uncritically. “Shadow Cities” occasionally read to me as a marketing brochure for Brazilian favelas, suggesting we abandon traditional urban planning and invite urban entrepreneurs to rewire the electrical grid to meet their needs. “Stealth of Nations” is more careful, and Neuwirth engages with the ways in which Lagos can be a nightmare for the people who live there, not just a creative laboratory for urban innovation. At the same time, he urges us to take seriously the miracle that Lagos works at all, a miracle that can be hard to see underneath the diesel smog, caught in an hours-long go-slow.

This appreciation for the complex systems that compose System D can push Neuwirth towards a sort of conservatism that’s familiar to readers of Jane Jacobs. Neuwirth’s Robert Moses is Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola, who Neuwirth lambasts for clearing street merchants from busy intersections and setting up formalized markets in inconveniently located parts of the city. Neuwirth is right to point out that Fashola, and other urban planners, have a tendency to undervalue the contributions of street merchants, and tend to propose unworkable alternatives to current systems. But celebrating contemporary Lagos in the ways that Jacobs celebrated the Lower East Side seems to miss two critical points. First, to the extent that Lagos works right now, it just barely works – Neuwirth acknowledges as much when he points out that some of Lagos’s most impenetrable traffic jams are caused by the tendency of merchants to turn roadways into markets. Second, Lagos is growing at a ferocious pace, and Fashola seems to be taking seriously the challenge of allowing the city to continue functioning as a megalopolis, likely to soon be one of the world’s largest cities. One possible response to Neuwirth’s criticism is to point out that Fashola was just re-elected with 81% of the vote in a poll most observers saw as free and fair.

Neuwirth is a journalist and documentarian, not an economist or an urban planner, and it may be unreasonable to ask him to solve the thorny problem of bringing System D and the formal economy into closer partnership. Neuwirth examines Hernando de Soto’s work on formalizing System D through property rights. De Soto’s most helpful intervention is the observation that the poor have wealth – homes, businesses, assets – but few ways to access them. By creating a paper trail, establishing ownership over houses and other real estate, de Soto argues that the poor can access their wealth, borrowing against their homes and using the loans to start new businesses. Neuwirth looks at de Soto’s native Peru and concludes that formalization hasn’t done much to help System D. The problem is the banks, who are perfectly willing to accept deposits from System D entrepreneurs, but unwilling to lend to them. Neuwirth’s anger is rightly placed, and his solution – that communities and governments need to demand that banks serve the communities they are located in, not just their shareholders – is timely and correct, even if difficult to implement.

The solutions Neuwirth offers for strengthening and legitimating System D are, by his own admission, modest in scope. Merchants should work together to regulate their activities, settling disputes within mediation mechanisms. They should take responsibility for the physical spaces they inhabit and work to make them clean and safe. They should consider systems that review product safety and ensure the quality of goods sold. Neuwirth isn’t opposed to regulatory involvement in this space – he looks closely at the “pure water” industry in Nigeria, where entrepreneurs drill wells, pump water and purify it under government standards before selling it in single-use sachets to thirsty customers. The system could be a health nightmare if minimum health standards are not enforced. The Lagos government can’t provide clean drinking water to its citizens, so it has found a way to work with System D to ensure that people have water and the water doesn’t kill them – for System D advocates, there’s potential in that story and a model other governments might follow.

But the pure water story also reveals the apparent limits of System D. “Pure water” usually won’t kill you, but it’s an environmental nightmare, as millions of nylon bags clog the Lagos sewers. It’s a wonderful thing that Lagosians can drink safe water, but a system where thousands of school-age girls sell sachets of water because you can’t drink the water out of the pipes isn’t a system any sane planner would advocate for. System D can get Lagos’s citizens to work, but it’s never going to build affordable and environmentally sound public transportation. If merchants follow Neuwirth’s advice, they may collectively buy bigger diesel generators, but they’re unlikely to fix Nigeria’s laughably inadequate power grid.

The people Neuwirth celebrates are – rightly – frustrated by their governments. They avoid paying taxes both because those taxes can be arbitrary and unaffordable, and because they see very few government services in exchange bought with those revenues. But governments need revenues to build infrastructures. And, as economist Paul Collier argues, they need taxes – and need to put those taxes to use in productive ways – in order to have legitimacy. System D seems like a local maximum in an equation – when it works well, it’s amazing what entrepreneurial people can accomplish against impossible odds. But the solutions created are convoluted and incomplete, and it’s reasonable to worry that System D may prevent more formal systems from providing more complete solutions to societal problems.

I don’t actually disagree with Neuwirth on this point – I wrote an essay some years back about incremental infrastructure, an idea I’d had from studying African mobile phone markets, that suggested that systems like power grids and roadways might be built by the cooperation of entrepreneurs when governments failed. My proposal suffers from the same weaknesses I’m criticizing Neuwirth for: it’s hard to see how a collective of merchants builds a railroad, and sometimes a railroad is what’s really needed for economic development.

But that’s an awfully big problem to demand that Neuwirth tackle – if you want to understand precisely how complicated that problem is, try this thought piece from Collier, proposing a possible solution to railroad construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Neuwirth’s job isn’t to solve the problems of System D. What he does – compellingly, readably, engagingly, and frequently, brilliantly – is give the reader a picture of how the world’s economies actually work, and a convincing argument that we need to respect and understand these economic systems. It’s a good read and an important book.


When you pick up Neuwirth’s new book, also consider grabbing a copy of Gordon Mathews’s “Ghetto at the Center of the World”, a remarkable ethnography of a single building in Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions. Chungking Mansions is a nondescript and somewhat run-down tower block in one of the more crowded corners of Kowloon. Inside is a remarkable market, where Chinese, Pakistani and sub-Saharan African merchants interact with one another in a microcosm of global trade. Mathews refers to this economic phenomenon as “low-end globalization”, and his book unpacks the history, mechanics, personalities and motivations in a way that is absolutely fascinating.

Chungking Mansions exists because of a peculiarity of Hong Kong’s visa policies. Tourist visas to Hong Kong are easily obtained by citizens of many nations – residents of countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya often have difficulty obtaining visas to Europe, the US or China, but are able to travel to Hong Kong for anywhere between 7 and 90 days, depending on the discretion of the immigration officer. As China became a major manufacturing power, Chungking Mansions became a critical interface between Chinese factories and developing world markets. The upper floors of the building feature low-cost guesthouses that cater primarily to traveling merchants, and restaurants that offer home cooking for the African and South Asian migrants who work out of the building.

On the ground floor, dozens of stalls feature Pakistani merchants selling Chinese-made mobile phones to African middlemen. Mathews documents the trade in intimate detail, explaining the ownership of the individual stalls (they are generally rented from Chinese owners who are rarely present in the building, but have a powerful owner’s association that governs the working on the market), the provenance of the phones sold (including the difference between original phones, 14-day phones – original phones returned to the vendor by dissatisfied customers, good fakes and bad fakes) and the economics of importing phones into sub-Saharan Africa. Mathews posits (without much data to back this claim) that up to half the mobile phones in Africa come through Chungking Market and enter African markets through the luggage of entrepreneurs.

I found Mathews’s account so compelling that Chungking Mansions was my first stop when visiting Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Based on his explanation of Chinese perceptions of the building (as a dangerous place filled with drug addicts and criminals), I expected a much shadier place than I actually found. Chungking Mansions is immediately familiar to anyone who’s bought electronics in the developing world – it’s cleaner and better organized than markets I’ve been to in Nairobi and New Delhi, but in some ways, functionally the same place. Walking through the stalls, I experienced a tesseract, a folding of space that let me move between Hong Kong, Pakistan and West Africa over the course of a few meters. I dropped into one of the few non-phone stores, a clothing store featuring street fashions, including a wide array of Yankee caps. I gave the merchant grief about not stocking Red Sox hats, quickly figured out that he was Ghanaian, greeted him in Twi, and was warmly embraced and invited upstairs for fufu and groundnut soup. It wasn’t at all hard to figure out why Mathews had fallen in love with the place – if you’re interested in how globalization is transforming economies, Chungking Mansions really is one of the centers of the world.

I had the chance to meet Mathews when we lectured together at the University of Hong Kong a few days later. He’s as wonderfully crazy as you’d imagine him to be, and told me that he’d written the book in a bar across the street from his research site. “The key is that the bar has roasted peanuts in the shell. I’d shell a peanut and think, then write a sentence, then sip my beer. That writing pace is just perfect as long as you remain under three beers.” Rarely have I learned so much from a single ethnographer – how to smuggle phones into Ghana in my luggage, the best strategies for overstaying my Hong Kong tourist visa, how to befriend Nepali heroin addicts, and how to pace my writing.

I’ve been pushing Mathews’s book on the ethnographers I know because it’s an amazing example of the power of the deep dive. It’s possible that no one on the planet understands Chungking Mansions as thoroughly as Mathews does based on his decade of research. But his insights are profoundly helpful not just for understanding this one wonderful and strange building, but for understanding globalization as it is actually practiced. Where Neuwirth takes a broad view, considering economies on four different continents, Mathews rarely leaves the confines of a single building and still manages to tell a story that’s global in scope and impact.

May 27, 2011

Who freed Eynulla Fatullayev? And what does his release mean for Twitter activism?

Azerbaijan is far from an easy place to be an independent journalist – the nation ranks 152nd in Reporters Without Borders 2010 survey on press freedom. Even given a hostile press environment, Eynulla Fatullayev has had a particularly rough experience as editor of Russian language weekly Realny Azerbaijan and Azeri language daily Gündəlik Azərbaycan, two of the nation’s most critical and outspoken newspapers. In 2004, he was beaten on the streets of Baku in an apparent response to his criticism of the government. He faced a number of defamation suits filed by government officials, and in 2006, he was forced to suspend publication of his papers when his father was kidnapped. His abductors threatened to the man and the rest of Fatullayev’s family unless he stopped criticizing Azerbaijan’s interior minister.

Fatullayev moved to publishing online, but continued to face scrutiny of the Azeri government and supporters. In 2007, he was accused of slandering the Army in an interview about the Khojaly massacre, a tragic episode in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. He was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, and an additional 2 1/2 years when prison officials allegedly found a small amount of heroin in his cell. Numerous press freedom organizations have condemned his arrest, and in 2009, Committee to Project Journalists awarded him the International Press Freedom Award to recognize his efforts to open the press environment in Azerbaijan.


Eynulla Fatullayev at home after his release from Azeri prison

On Tuesday, Amnesty UK – which has been advocating on Fatullayev’s behalf since his arrest – launched a campaign to demand the editor’s release from prison. Represented by Jon Snow of Channel 4 and John Mulholland of The Observer, the campaign urged Twitter users to take a picture of themselves holding signs asking “@presidentaz” to release Fatullayev from prison.

By one metric, the campaign wasn’t much of a success – despite the presence of such high profile British journalists, only 800 or so people sent messages or retweets to the Azeri president. (We did our part to promote the campaign, with an article on Global Voices by Onnik Krikorian, our remarkable Caucuses editor.) Most participants didn’t take photos – they retweeted messages sent by Amnesty, Snow or Mulholland.

But those messages clearly attracted attention within Azerbaijan. A few Azeri nationalists, including some affiliated with the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, responded angrily to the tweets. Some responded by photoshopping images of British journalist Ian Hislop holding a sign demanding Fatullayev’s release, edited to criticize Amnesty’s campaign. One modified sign read “Azerbaijan is not USSR! No double standards!” This tweet from @Vetenim illustrates some of the hostility towards Amnesty: “@amnesty This campaign was enough for Azeri Twitter users to see the real face of @AmnestyUK behind the mask. #Amnesty #Eynulla #Azerbaijan”

Krikorian reports that the İRƏLİ Public Youth Union, and particularly Secretary General Rauf Mardiyev have been posting heavily to Twitter tags used by progressive activists in Azerbaijan, potentially to silence or hide dissident voices in the country over the past few months. We’re seeing this phenomenon in different corners of the Twittersphere. Oiwan Lam reports that the #aiww (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, now in custody) tag is heavily used by pro-government spammers, with two particularly prolific spammers responsible for 45% of all recent messages on the tag. Anas Qtiesh investigated a set of Twitter accounts that been flooding the #Syria tag with old sports scores, links to Syrian television programs, and random photos on Flickr tagged #Syria, making the tag dramatically less useful for activists. Qtiesh linked the abuse of Twitter to the Bahraini company Eghna Developement and Support, which advertises their work on behalf of Syria on their site. Eghna has denied that they are abusing Twitter in any way, but the tweets associated with these accounts no longer appear in searches for the #Syria tag, suggesting that Twitter may disagree. (Neal Ungerleider has a good overview of the Syria story on Fast Company.)

While these examples are a good illustration of the ways in which social media is becoming a contested space during political conflicts, this use of each other’s hashtags is nothing new to American political activists – activists on the left and right routinely use each other’s preferred tags to insert their views into the other side’s dialogs. What’s been interesting is the volume of these actions – traffic on tags like #Syria or #aiww is lots lower than on popular US political tags, which makes heavy use of the tags to provoke the other side far more visible than in US examples. The utility of hashtags as an easy way to share information with those who share your political perspectives is counterbalanced by the fact that these tags are open channels, and may be as useful to those opposed to your views.

So the Twitter action focused on the Azeri government generated less than a thousand tweets and some of those messages were from government supporters seeking to subvert the campaign. Remarkably, two days after Amnesty launched the campaign, Fatullayev was released from prison under a presidential pardon.


Azerbaijan’s winning entry in Eurovision 2011. Warning: video includes the sort of song that wins Eurovision contests.

Amnesty, understandably, is celebrating their campaign’s role in Fatullayev’s release, and the journalist has thanked Amnesty for their advocacy throughout his detention. As Azeri social media users digest the news of his release, there’s speculation that another factor may be at work as well: Azerbaijan’s recent victory in the Eurovision song contest. Azeri singers Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Camal won the prize, which is both coveted and ridiculed within Europe, but always widely watched. The victory drew attention to a corner of Eurasia many Europeans pay little attention to, and it’s possible that the Azeri government didn’t want to spoil their moment in the sun with Amnesty’s critical campaign.

So is Amnesty responsible for Fatullayev’s release? Is Twitter? Eurovision? And if social media can claim partial responsibility for the release of a prisoner of conscience, will we see this campaign technique used again? Will it be as successful the next time around?

Mary Joyce of the Meta Activism project has warned that a key factor in successful online activism appear to be novelty – it’s hard to articulate “best practices” because one of the best practices is to be the first to try a particular technique. If we take the lesson from Fatullayev’s release that Twitter campaigns, focused on individual public figures who use Twitter, leveraging offline media attention are a useful strategy, it seems likely that campaign organizations will adopt the technique and use it to the point where future implementations aren’t worth an article or a blog post.

Or perhaps directly addressing people in positions of power via Twitter has a directness and immediacy that other forms of media lack. See this recent confrontation between journalist Ian Birell and Rwandan President Paul Kagame via Twitter over Kagame’s statement that the international media has no moral right to criticize the repressive political climate in Rwanda given their silence about the 1994 genocide. As this report on the exchange points out, it’s hard to imagine this exchange taking place in an era before microblogging. Perhaps the sort of unvarnished dialog that Kagame, his supporters and Birell engage in here motivated Azeri president Ilham Aliyev to reconsider the arrest of journalists in his country. My guess – I don’t think it’s that simple, and I think we’re going to have to try a lot more online activism before we know what works, what doesn’t and how new capabilities lead to new dialogs.

May 6, 2011

Civic Disobedience and the Arab Spring

I spent the past two days in Cambridge, primarily around MIT, and almost exclusively talking about the “Arab Spring” and what we’ve learned about social media and protest in authoritarian states. Early Wednesday morning, the MIT Museum hosted a “soapbox” session, which put Dr. Marlyn Tadros and me in dialog with Egyptian protesters and bloggers, including Mahmoud “Sandmonkey” Salem, who I was thrilled to meet virtually. Events via video are tricky, and there were some issues with sound quality for the folks watching in Cambridge, but the resulting video of the event is excellent.

The highlight of the two days in Cambridge was an event I hosted at the MIT Media Lab yesterday afternoon, a conversation called “Civic Disobedience“, which featured three of my favorite people, who also happen to be three folks extremely knowledgeable about social media and the Arab Spring.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor of sociology at UMaryland Baltimore County, where she studies social networks on and offline. Her blog, Technosociology, has become required reading with very insightful essays on Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and other recent intersections between online and offline social networks.

Clay Shirky has been doing some of the most interesting writing and thinking about the internet and human relationships, since 1996. He teaches at NYU in both the journalism department and in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, writes extensively online and has published two key books about the internet, participation, groups and social change.

Sami ben Gharbia is the director of Global Voices Advocacy, the free speech arm of Global Voices Online. He’s the co-founder of Nawaat.org, one of the central actors in the Tunisian dissident media space. He was exiled from Tunisia 13 years ago and returned home for the first time a few weeks ago, in the wake of Tunisia’s successful revolution. He is also one of the smartest critical thinkers about the limitations of our current understandings of internet and social change – his essay, The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital activism, should be required reading for anyone expressing an opinion about “internet freedom”.

With these three folks on stage, I had virtually nothing to do as moderator. So I took notes, which I’ll share here, to tide you over until the session video is posted.

Sami opened the conversation by giving his view of how social media had helped enable protests in Tunisia. He offers three-part model that treats social media as part of a more complex ecosystem, involving Facebook as a publishing platform, multiple curation platforms (Nawaat, Global Voices, Twitter, Posterous) and broadcast platforms (AlJazeera and France24).

Facebook became central to the Tunisian media ecosystem because all other sites that allowed video sharing – YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo and others – were blocked by the Tunisian government, along with hundreds of blogs and dozens of key twitter accounts. This censorship, Sami argues, drove Tunisian users towards Facebook, and made it hard for the government to block it. The government tried in 2008, but the outcry was so huge, they reversed course. The main reason – usage of Facebook more than doubled during the 10 days of blockage as Tunisians found ways around the national firewall and onto the service.

Censorship, in general, because a unifying force in the Tunisian online sphere. Reacting to censorship taught Tunisians how to disseminate information through alternative paths and helped them use social media for advocacy in a time of crisis. For all the disagreements Tunisians have with one another, they can agree on censorship as a common enemy. This is why, when Ben Ali offered a final set of concessions to his people on January 13th in a desperate bid to hold onto power, one concession was the elimination of online censorship.

Facebook was an important platform for Tunisians for publishing, mobilizing and organizing, Sami tells us. But it’s a very limited platform. It’s closed, both technically and socially, which can make it extremely difficult for journalists to find people to interview about stories. And Tunisia can be linguistically closed, even to other Arabs – the Tunisian dialect is a mix of French, Berber, Italian and Arabic that can be very hard to penetrate. While Facebook was used to share videos, it also made it very hard to figure out the origins of those videos – when were they originally published and by whom? For Facebook to be useful for a wider audience than Tunisians, you needed Tunisian users to identify key pages and profiles and bring them out of Facebook’s closed system and into the open web.

That’s what curators did. Sites like Nawaat were critical in identifying content posted on Facebook, tagging, timestamping and categorizing it and making it accessible to other media organizations. Both Nawaat and Global Voices translated key pieces of content, and Nawaat used a Posterous blog to identify over 400 videos, many of which were used by Al Jazeera.

Once content made it onto Al Jazeera, it began filtering back into Tunisia, letting Tunisians who weren’t looking for content online understand what was unfolding. Jazeera has a huge audience in Tunisia, though it’s never been allowed to report there. (I’d been telling people that Jazeera had been forced to stop operating in Tunisia by Ben Ali – Sami tells me Ben Ali never let them in at all…) Jazeera, Sami argues, became an extension of the internet, publishing user-generated content and using it to educate Tunisian citizens about what was going on in their own country, and eventually the whole region. Tunisians knew how important Jazeera was once police officers began heading into cafes and begging owners to switch their TVs to another channel.

This three part model created an information cascade that Sami believes directly led to the revolution. He cites some key events that gave the media disproportionate power. One was the Tunileaks/Wikileaks cables. Tunileaks received cables about Tunisia sent from a dissident within Wikileaks who was upset that the group was cooperating only with mainstream media and not citizen media. Tunileaks released these cables well before Wikileaks released their archive of cables. (I asked Sami, “You’re involved with Tunileaks, right?” His response: “I am Tunileaks.” :-) Sami and friends used Google Appspot to publish the cables, knowing that the service rested on a set of IP addresses used by several other key Google services. This meant that, in blocking the cables, the Tunisian government was forced to block other key services, raising attention to the cables and encouraging more people to use firewall circumvention tools to access them.

Sami also cites the Anonymous attacks on Tunisia as another key turning point. They weren’t especially effective, but the story was so sexy, American media had to start paying attention.

Expanding on Sami’s analysis of the ecosystem, Zeynep offers the idea of analyzing social media and revolutions in terms of “meso-level causal mechanisms”. (After offering that phrase, Zeynep gives a disclaimer that she’s early in her analysis and just “thinking out loud”. That her thinking out loud includes phrases like “meso-level causal mechanisms” gives you a sense for why she’s so worth reading.) There’s a temptation, she says, to view social media as like other media, just faster. But that fails to see some of the key nuances.

There are network effects that come from social media. The shape of connectivity networks changes – people are more directly connected to one another, rather than being clustered into separate groups, linked by bridge figures. Tunisia, in particular, has an online social network “with one giant component, one big, heavily linked space, probably related to the anti-censorship campaigns Sami spoke about.” This network is big, tightly connected and fast, and information passes through it much more quickly than it passes through offline social networks.

There are field effects as well. When media reaches a broad audience, either through social media or through broadcast, it’s possible to affect the mood of the country all at once. And we see network to field effects: information cascades. The experience of Tunileaks was, in part, the revealing of hidden preferences. Tunisians knew they weren’t fond of Ben Ali, but discovering that no one liked him, including the US, had an important effect. When Egyptians looked at Tunisia and said, “We can do this, too!”, that’s also a network to field effect.

The meso-level mechanisms include increased participation. We don’t always like what we get when we see increased participation. Increases simply accelerate and strengthen dynamics that are already in place. In a polarized situation, increased participation often means increased polarization, which is what we may be seeing in Bahrain. That makes it hard for participation to lead towards coordinated action. In Egypt, near the end, “Mubarak’s dog didn’t like him. Much as we wish it was, that’s not the case in Iran or Bahrain…”

Another meso-level effect is faster information diffusion. This can mean the ways audiences are segmented change as well. Information that might have been accessible only to a literate class is not accessible to non-literate people as well. In much of the Middle East, there’s a big divide between the literate and non-literate public spheres – when those distinctions collapse, there’s the possibility of coordination between those two groups. On the other hand, the Habermasean pubic sphere (which may never have been as calm and reasoned as Habermas wished it was) can get downright emotional. The emergence of Mohamed Bouazizi as a rallying point helps show the emotional nature of the narrative in Tunisia.

One way to understand how big these changes are is to watch the shift in “coup etiquette”. In her native Turkey, Zeynep tell us, you can tell a coup based on what song is playing on the radio. “If you hear this one specific patriotic song, you know it’s time to go buy bread.” That’s because coup planners traditionally seized the radio and television stations first. In Egypt, there was a debate amongst Tahrir protesters about seizing a television station – in the end, they decided not to bother. The emergence of social media makes broadcast less relevant, though probably not irrelevant.

Authoritarian states are very experienced at trying to silence dissent, Zeynep reminds us. They are very good at playing whack a protest, and most of the time, they’re successful, using a “quarantine” model to separate protesters from the rest of the state. She cites a protest in Tunisia in 2008 in the mining town of Gafsa, which the Tunisian government successfully defeated, by surrounding and isolating the protesters. In Sidi Bouzid in 2010, enabled in part by social media, a very similar crackdown failed to stop the spread of the protest “virus”.

Sami added a key note to Zeynep’s model, pointing out that the Sidi Bouzid protesters appealed to the rest of the nation for support with their demands. The protesters in Gafsa focused their grievances on a local mining company, which made it very hard for the rest of the nation to join in supporting them. “They quarantined themselves, in a way.”

Given Clay’s extensive writings about social media and protest, I asked him to evaluate what he got right and wrong, in light of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Warning us that four months isn’t long enough to understand what’s actually gone on with these protests, Clay explains that he feels recent events have confirmed his thoughts about the importance of synchronizing groups. “Governments aren’t afraid of informed individuals – they’re afraid of synchronized groups.” In particular, they’re afraid of groups that have shared awareness.

With authoritarian states, there are three possible states. In the first, everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the second, everyone knows that everyone knows the government is corrupt. In the final stages, the ones where governments collapse, everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. Clay argues that autocratic regimes can survive the first and second phases for years – that third stage, where shared awareness leads to synchronization, is more dangerous for autocrats.

What he got wrong, he says, was overemphasizing the use of tools for coordination for protest. “I concentrated too much on using tools to get people out into the streets. It turns out that bringing people out into the streets only works if it’s the end of a long process. It’s not a replacement for that process.” This, he believes, is why Egyptian protests were successful – they leveraged long-standing networks like Kefayah. But without those networks, going into the streets can be very dangerous. He cites an example worthy of Evgeny Morozov – when Sudan feared a revolution, “they used Facebook to call a revolution againt itself, then arrested everyone who came out, as they were the people most likely to make trouble.”

Referring to Zeynep’s mechanisms for action, Clay says he believes that social media “synchronizes opinion, coordinates action, and documents results.” The medium is less relevant than these processes – it’s not about mobiles versus Facebook versus Jazeera. If you want to know how seriously to take these effects, Clay suggests you look at the fact that both insurgents and autocrats believe these tools matter, and take risks to act on these beliefs. He offers the example of Libyan officials searching people fleeing across the Tunisian border for digital cameras and USB sticks. “Even Qaddafi doesn’t like letting documentation of murder reach the rest of the world.”

Clay shifts the conversation to the issue of “internet freedom”. Noting how influential Sami’s essay was on his thinking, Clay suggests that the US overestimates the value of access to information and underestimates the value of access to each other. If we wanted to promote internet freedom, we need to think more about synchronization and less about information in considering these tools.

I asked Sami if he’d softened his stance on US involvement with internet freedom from his earlier writings. He points out that US support for the Iranian protests helped Ahmedinejad make the argument that protests were instigated by outside agitators, when they were actually a legitimate domestic movement. “In Tunisia, we fought very hard to keep our movement independent from foreign interference, including avoiding those who were collaborating with the government.” That said, Sami acknowledges that there’s a big difference between public statements by the US State Department and actions behind the scenes, which is often very productive and positive. What Sami would like to see the US doing publicly is controlling the sale of censorware, not advocating for freedom while allowing some of the key filtering technologies to be sold to repressive governments. He notes that individuals are also capable of taking effective steps in solidarity with dissidents – hosting video archives and mirroring key content to help make it visible in Tunisia, smuggling communications hardware into Egypt and Yemen, even calling attention to protests through actions like those of Anonymous.

Zeynep suggests that we not dismiss the Iranian green revolution as a failure. Much as the failed Dean campaign helped elect Obama, the Iranian protests helped us understand how to use social media for revolutionary change. While she supports efforts to get the US to be more consistent on internet policy, she suggests the larger problem is getting US foreign policy to shift from supporting dictators. “I’m betting most, if not all, will be gone by the end of the decade.”

Clay suggests that watching other country’s revolutions matters enormously, in terms of bearing witness, moral support, and in the case of US citizens, influencing the policy of a superpower. He’s happy to admit an normative bias for democracy and free speech and to support a foreign policy that respects this. But this demands we push for consistency.

“I urge my students not to try to pay attention to the whole world, but to start by picking a country to care about. Mine is Bahrain, and I believe we need to make visible the tension between our politices and our current support for Bahrainm which is becoming an apartheid state run by Saudi Arabia.”

Clay doesn’t believe the US should stay out of fields like internet freedom. “We can’t. We need bilateral relationships with everyone.” But we need to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to speak in three separate voices – one directly to other states, one to the public and one to the cognoscenti. Twitter and Wikileaks have collapsed these channels, and as a result, the US may need to speak a lot less, at least in public.

As the discussion moved into question and answer, it became significantly more free-flowing, and I had to moderate rather than taking notes. I will mention a couple of exchanges that stuck in my memory:

– A questioner asked whether we’ll see social media playing an important role in governance as well as in revolution, suggesting that the social media revolutions that elected Deval Patrick and Barack Obama have been disappointing in terms of participatory governance. Sami made the point that Tunisians need to rebuild a vast range of institutions – an independent media, NGOs, transparency organizations, political parties, and that all were being rebuilt using new media and social media tools.

– A good deal of our discussion involved analogies to previous revolutions. Sami made a key point – the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were not trying to overturn existing systems of government – both states have been constitutional democracies. The revolution wasn’t to change the form of government, but to get it to be respected.

– Professor Ian Condry suggested that, if these revolutions took ten years to unfold, we need to think through what ten-year changes might be underway now. Clay pointed to Paul Ford’s essay “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” and suggests that the assumption of participation may be a key ten-year change.

– Nitin Sawhney pointed the audience to three examples that appear to contradict the relationship between communications technology and democratic revolution. The Islamic Revolution used a new technology – cassette tapes – to lead to non-democratic change. The Palestinian first and second intifadas were organized with virtually no technology and were effective forms of resistance. And in Bahrain, being heavily wired hasn’t led to a successful revolution. In each case, American foreign policy seems to have mattered more than communication technology. The panel responded by acknowledging that none think that communications was the key or sole factor in the changes in Tunisia and Egypt – however, Clay argued that states try to keep an equilibrium state between the utility of new tools and the inability of citizens to syncronize protest, and that new technologies may destabilize that equilibrium and offer an opportunity for change.


We should have video for this session soon – I will post it once it becomes available. Sincere thanks to my three friends for their wonderful talks and to the audience for a great conversation.

April 13, 2011

Morozov vs.(?) Tufekci at the US Naval Academy

Filed under: Developing world,Human Rights,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 12:47 pm

I was at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD yesterday, at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, a remarkable institution that I confess I knew nothing about before accepting an invitation to speak here. For 51 years, the Academy has opened its doors to students from the other service academies, political science students from non-military institutions, and to military cadets from other countries for annual discussions about foreign policy and international affairs. The conference is organized primarily by the naval midshipmen and it’s one of the best-run academic conferences I’ve attended. I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote for the conference Tuesday morning – I’ll try to post those notes later this week – and these notes reflect my liveblogging from the audience of a very interesting conversation.


Evgeny Morozov has emerged as one of the leading critics of the idea that the internet is a useful tool for social change, suggesting in his provocative book “The Net Delusion” that the internet can be more useful for dictators than for activists. He’s found himself answering some sharp questions in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, which appear to have used social media quite productively in changing governments in Tunisia and Egypt. One of the leading commentators who’s tried to unpack what effect the internet has and hasn’t had in the Arab Spring is Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She’s been doing some of the most important work in unpacking theory around social networks and examining those theories about network effects in connection to events in Egypt and Tunisia.

Their conversation is moderated by technology journalist Brendan Greeley. Brendan now writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, and formerly wrote on technology for the Economist, the New York Times and pretty much an all-star list of US journalism outlets. Brendan suggests that theorists about political change are no longer looking to Clausewitz, but to Star Trek for their inspiration. We’re in an age of algorithmic culture – we want to know specifically how something, like the Arab Spring protests, transpired and we care about the details of which tools, which actors and which legal jurisdictions, because these details have consequences for those who’d try to use the same methods in different circumstances. He suggests that it’s not insignificant that Zeynep and Evgeny are from outside the US (he’s from Belarus, she from Turkey), because we’re seeing a shift in media from questions about what the world thinks of America to questions about what the world thinks about itself.

Evgeny opens his remarks noting that the question, “How does the Internet affect democracy?” leads to answers that are very abstract. It’s difficult to quantify democracy. The internet is bound to have different impacts on democracy in the US, versus Thailand or Kyrgyzstan.

He notes that his views on the internet and democracy are informed by his perspective as a Belarussian – calling his home nation “the last tyranny in Europe” is an understatement. His exposure to issues surrounding the internet came through the frame of democratization. He suggests that the internet is only one of many tools available to policymakers who would like to spread democratization – they could train journalists, develop political parties, nurture civil society. “I’m not trying to bash the internet for being evil or bad… I’m focused on opportunity costs.” This leads him to ask “what we can do better, but also what are ways in which the internet could make our job of promoting democracy more challenging.”

Evgeny rejects deterministic explanations, assertions that the internet will lead to a particular outcome based on a rigid, theoretical understand of design and architecture. There’s an assumption, he argues, that because the internet runs on decentralized networks and protocols, it will lead to a decentralized political culture. This argument disregards the context, the political environments, which can differ radically country to country. Russian nationalists are taking advantage of the internet to promote their views, more than the liberals. It’s the opposite in Belarus, despite the fact that the nations share a border. The political and social effects of the internet are rooted in political and social environments. Notions like internet freedom tend to disregard the specifics of local political situation and culture.

He warns that we have a tendency to disregard adaptability of authoritarian states. We’ve tended to assume that they would either need to shut down the internet and experience severe economic consequences, or open it up: the dictator’s dilemma. This model fails to consider the ways dictators can use the internet for their own ends. They won’t use it successfully in every single situation, but we need to be open to the idea that certain features of the contemporary internet make it easier for authoritarian governments to increase control of cyberspace through surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Governments can use DDoS as a tool for censorship. They can surveil traffic via social networks, and use the information users reveal to make maps of connections between activists. This isn’t to say that the dictators are bound to win – instead, his goal is to make policymakers alert to the ways in which the internet is used to surpress democracy.

Who wins – the activists or the dictators – won’t be clear for decades to come, he asserts. It’s a mistake to argue that you can’t achieve anything useful towards a democracy agenda on Facebook. There are useful things the Internet can deliver. But if we take the long-term view, we need to ask what services like Facebook are doing to our political culture. The solution to the problem of dictatorship in Belarus is not to create an online opposition that’s separate from the existing opposition. Online activists deface pictures of the president and publish them online – it can be funny, and maybe it’s building a culture of resistance. But these developments seem to be separate from the offline, mainstream political organizations working for change in Belarus. And ultimately, he believe change will come from the streets, not from online.

In the Middle East, we’re lucky that people weren’t just turning their Twitter avatars green or joining Facebook groups. We don’t need to give credit to Facebook for bringing people into the streets. Online activism can be effective, he argues, but we need to find ways to ensure it happens in conjunction with offline politics. We don’t want to turn the internet into a ghetto where the youth blow off steam, which makes the government happy, as it’s not leading to real change. Our challenge is to design policies that connect the internet to more substantive political change, bridging between these two worlds.

Brendan points out that Evgeny was one of the first thinkers to challenge the idea that the most important controls to online speech were technical. What does it mean that key blocks to discourse are social as well as technical?

Evgeny suggests that, in the Middle East, there’s very little tolerance from governments for alternative opinions expressed online. In China and Russia, there’s more of an attempt to defend and shape positions online. Bloggers in China paid by the government try to legitimate the government’s positions. In some countries, the government is trying to limit the utility of tools like Facebook by infiltrating groups used by the opposition. One tactic is to join those groups, upload pornographic content then report the group and get it banned. Attacks that make a website unavailable, even for a few days at a time, will over time break down the communities that would develop around those tools.

Brendan mentions that Evgeny considers himself a reformed cyberutopian. What was his conversion experience?

Earlier in his career, Evgeny explains, he worked for an eastern European NGO that worked for political change through the internet. His work as an internet evangelist helped him understand how well-intentioned projects can cause more harm than good. US government projects come into countries like Belarus, hired the local talent, distorted the economy and had little impact on real political change. He began systematically doubting the NGO mindset. So much attention was being paid to the Chinese firewall, and not enough attention to how governments were controlling online space through creating entertainment content to distract from political content.

Zeynep introduces herself as a former software developer, “a lifetime ago”. She paid her way through college taking care of legacy technical systems. In the 1990s in Turkey, there were a lot of technology managers who didn’t understand how these things worked. She tells the story of a boss who came to her and asked “Can it tell if I’m lying?”, pointing to the computer in the corner. She gave him the irresistible answer: “Yes.” People who look inside the black box, she explains, don’t ask these questions – people who don’t understand them do.

As a careful academic, Zeynep explains, she’s reluctant to make broad generalizations about what kind of world we might be living in one or two decades from now. But she promises to put some of that nuance aside and offer more forceful predictions than she might in a peer-reviewed paper.

The first of these predictions is that we’re now likely looking at a world where promiting other people’s democracy is no longer on the agenda – they’re promoting their own agenda. She references a tweet a friend posted from Cairo: “The people in Tahrir Square greet themselves as liberators.” The question of how best to promote democracy may be an archaic question. Instead, we may need to focus on understanding the changing media ecology and the ways in which it’s changing social relationships.

Zeynep mentions that she was reviewing a pre-released copy of Evgeny’s book in November, when Wikileaks became a dominant news story. The argument in the first half of his book about the US State Department’s enthusiasm for the internet looked less germane now that the State Department seemed to be having second thoughts about the utility of the internet when used by leakers of government documents. The second half of the book is about dictators using the internet, and then Tunisia and Egypt dominated the news agenda. She wonders whether this was the best timing an author’s ever experienced.

Responding to the core argument in Evgeny’s book, Zeynep wonders whether the analogy of the printing press is a helpful one. The first two major uses for the printing press were printing bibles and dispensations and indulgences. One might have assumed that the new technology would empower the Catholic church. But a technology that threatened the monopoly on the written word threatened those monopolists, in the long term.

She suggests that we’re seeing two major changes brought about by internet adoption. First, the shape of our connectivity networks is changing. There are two major types of networks in modern, mass-media societies. There’s a person to person social network, and the one to many network of broadcast media. What’s emerging now is many to many connectivity, which lets people talk to each other in ways that didn’t exist previously. There were some ways in the past that individuals could spread ideas to a mass of people, but they were much more difficult and much smaller in scale than the tools we’re exploring now.

Second, the speed of information diffusion has implications for the efficacy of protest movements. The recent Koran burning in Florida led, as we all know, to riots in Afghanistan. But it took four days from the burning to the riots. In part, this is because fewer than 1% of all Afghans are online. The protests didn’t break out until President Karzai condemned the Florida pastor’s actions on television.

Zeynep tells us that there’s reason to think that the rapid spread of information via social media could be changing political outcomes in the Middle East. In Tunisia in 2008, corruption around an exam designed to hire mining engineers led to a massive trade union protest. The Ben Ali government engaged in one of their favorite tactics: “Whack-A-Protest”. They surrounded the town, kicked out the journalists and arrested the trade unionists. Some women and children remained protesting, but it’s very hard to sustain a protest without attention, support or a sense that your actions could lead to change. The protest fizzled out, just as the Ben Ali regime had planned.

At that time, Zeynep reminds us, fewer that 28,000 Tunisians were on Facebook. Two years later, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi triggered protests in Sidi Bouzid and a near-identical response from the Ben Ali government. But Tunisia had 2 million Facebook users by January of 2011, and cellphone video cameras were pervasive. While no journalists were allowed into Sidi Bouzid, citizen media was able to document the protests, and disseminate their reporting to activist networks that had been working to challenge the regime. Those networks were able to disseminate the information before Whack-A-Protest was successful. States are resource-constrained actors, Zeynep continues. When protests spread rapidly through social media, they may not be able to react in time.

The effectiveness of a government crackdown has a great deal to do with whether a regime can rely on any support from citizens, or whether they are universally despised. By the end of his reign, Mubaak was so unpopular, he couldn’t even pay people to say positive things about him. It’s different in Bahrain or Syria, she posits, where regimes have more indigenous support. In a situation where there is unity against a dictator, social media may sweep away a dictator. In a polarized society, social media might lead to increased tensions. Social media doesn’t lead inexorably to democracy – it does lead to participation, which can be divisive in an already divided society.

She ends her opening remarks with a direct critique of Evgeny’s analysis, which she sees as making an unhelpful contrast between online and offline activism. “Talk to anyone who’s engaged in activism and they see one, integrated online and offline world, not separate spaces.”

Brendan acknowledges that a particular media narrative has emerged around Evgeny’s book: “It was cyberutopians versus Evgeny. Several revolutions later, Evgeny is wrong.” It’s rare that academics get a test case like the Arab Spring – what have we learned and what’s been a surprise since January 1?

Evgeny tells us that he wasn’t surprised that the internet was used by social movements. He argues that Zeynep is misinterpreting his distinction between online and offline activism. “In certain cases, we do see isolated groups of young kids who are acting online only, with no integration into social movements. This doesn’t mean social movements shouldn’t use online media.” But celebration of online media may give too much hope to people who believe change can come purely through the internet, and that would be a sad thing to do. Returning to Brendan’s question, he notes that the revolutions were surprising geopolitically, not technologically. “It’s an overly deterministic mindset to conclude that the internet favors dictators or activists.”

Brendan pushes further, asking whether Evgeny was surprised that Tunisia, which has displayed high levels of technical sophistication in censoring the internet, was unwilling or unable to control the internet in the face of protests. Evgeny argues that technological sophistication doesn’t determine political outcomes. He explains that he was surprised that Egypt’s government didn’t attack the Khaled Said Facebook group, noting that Chinese or Russian authorities might have. But his general argument is that technology is a less effective sphere of analysis than analyzing politics and economics.

Zeynep notes that she had just offered an example where similar protests in Tunisia were crushed in 2008 and succeeded in 2010. That example doesn’t deny that the revolution was a people’s movement, but it does suggest that technology was a factor. Evgeny retorts that it’s unreasonable to pick an anecdote and make the broader argument that technology was a key factor. Zeynep clarifies: she’s not arguing that technology is sufficient to lead to change, but it is a significant factor. In Egypt, activists have been developing online skills since 2005. Tunisian activists have developed great unity around the topic of anti-censorship. In both cases, we’ve seen the development of a digital public sphere that’s had an influence in recent events.

She explains that her surprise in 2011 is that people continue to refer to Iran’s Green Revolution as a failure. For people in the middle east, she argues, the Green Revolution was an “aha” moment. People could portray their dissent to the rest of the world. The movement was crushed, but it continues to be an inspiration.

Brendan suggests that the debate has shifted from whether the internet can have an effect on democracy to whether we can generalize those effects or whether we have to consider each country as a separate case. Are there generalizations that are safe to make?

Evgeny argues that we can generalize that there’s a reduced cost of access to information and reduced coordination costs. But this doesn’t inherently lead to democratization. States are getting better at creating “a semi-governed digital public sphere.” In these states, the “independent media” is state controlled, NGOs are really GONGOs (Government-owned NGOs). It’s not unreasonable to believe that they’ll be able to extend the concept of a “sovereign managed democracy”, a phrase used in Russia, using a variety of techniques, some borrowed from western advertising agencies, “to control the post-Habermas public sphere.”

Zeynep suggests that we can generalize that the internet increases participation, but not necessarily democracy. The values people bring to the table govern whether that participation is democratic or not. She suggests that control of democratic institutions via advertising and media doesn’t just happen in China – it happens in the US as well. China is able to get away with controlling a public sphere because it can stand on amazing economic growth and on passionate nationalism. “If those faltered, I think they will find level of censorship is not sustainable in the face of collective action.”

The dictator’s dilemma, she argues, is about the intensity and the unity of dissent. In a divided society with some legitimacy to a government, you can get away with some silencing of dissent, even if it causes damage to some commercial interests. In an autocracy that’s almost in complete opposition to the populus, it’s much harder to get away with. The era of the autocrat who is almost universally despised is over, she says, perhaps not today but in the near future. This has real implications for US foreign policy. The US has had a corrupt bargain with autocrats. It’s brought us neither democracy or stability, and we won’t be able to return to that bargain/

Evgeny suggests that Zeynep’s view is internet-centric. He agrees that the era of the dictator is over, but suggests that this isn’t due to technology, but due to discourses of human rights, the rise of globalization and other factors. He suggests her example of the printing press – talking about the printing press and not about Martin Luther – was technocentric.

“There were two workshops to train bloggers in Cairo in 2009, one supported by the US government.” Perhaps they deserve some of the credit for the Egyptian revolution. We need to pay attention to these training efforts, not just to the technology. And we need to recognize activists who don’t use technology. He offers the story of Alaa Abdel Fatteh, a celebrated young activist who’s active both online and offline. Evgeny notes that his parents are seasoned Egyptian dissidents. “Alaa spent five weeks in jail, his father spent five years,” but Alaa got more attention because he’s a blogger. “This doesn’t mean that cyberactivism is not important, but that we tend to fetishize it.”


At this point, I had to duck out and join a conference call – I’m sorry to have missed questions from the audience.

I was grateful for the chance to hear these two thinkers engage in a debate, though I feel like the points of disagreement in this discussion were harder to identify than in Zeynep’s review of Evgeny’s book. I think Evgeny’s presentation of his arguments has become softer and more careful in the wake of recent events than it was in his book. While I don’t think the Arab Spring invalidates all of Evgeny’s points – I agree strongly with his critique of technocentrism – I think it’s harder to make the case that technology is likely to favor dictators over activists. Evgeny has wisely shifted and now argues that technology doesn’t necessarily favor dictators or democrats and that we need to consider both options. That’s a wiser stance, in my opinion, but perhaps one less likely to draw the widespread attention some of his more confident assertions have garnered.

I thought Zeynep’s analysis regarding participation was extremely helpful. In a case like Egypt, where there was little support (at least in online circles) for Mubarak, a participatory space quickly became an activist space. In Bahrain, where there’s support and opposition to the government online, participation may be increasing polarization and conflict. I’ll be fascinated to see whether her argument that “speed is different” holds up – will governments be able to catch up and play Whack-a-Mole against new, network enabled protests? The Arab Spring may give us one set of test cases, and recent Chinese crackdowns on online dissent, another set.

One way or another, it was great to see three smart folks onstage trying to work through these issues. Thanks to NAFAC for making it happen.

February 19, 2011

A world roundup

Filed under: Developing world,Human Rights,long bookmark,Media — Ethan @ 1:35 pm

Some other stories I’m trying to follow, in addition to the news from Bahrain:

There’s very little news from Libya, as protesters take to the streets, especially in the eastern city of Benghazi. Libya tightly restricts press coverage, and the New York Times observes that while Libya hasn’t been able to prevent news from Tunisia and Egypt from inspiring protesters to take to the streets, it has been pretty effective at restricting news from Libya from reaching the global press. There are reports that Libya began blocking access to social media sites, and last evening, Libya disconnected from the internet.

libyapullsplug

This graphic from Arbor Networks showing two sharp drops in Libyan internet traffic during the day, and a thorough shutoff at night. Heading forward, we’re likely to see reporting via land line phones, and perhaps some computer users dialing into modem banks in Joran and elsewhere, but the shutdown is likely to make what little reporting from the ground we’ve had even harder to get.

I argued previously that there’s great danger for protesters who are inspired to take to the streets in countries where the media isn’t paying attention – Libya is a special case of this scenario, as it’s extremely difficult for anyone to report, via traditional or social media. As Twitter user @EnoughGaddafi puts it, “For all those frustrated by reporting on #libya understand this. There is Zero indpt media on the ground. Nothing at all.” In the absence of coverage, it sounds like suppression of the protests has been quite brutal, with a death toll of at least two dozen, perhaps as high as 70.


My friend and former colleague Dewitt Clinton offers a decidedly geeky perspective on the Libyan unrest – a reminder that the bit.ly URL shortener (which I’ve been trying out the past few weeks) is located on a Libyan domain name:

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m still not a fan of URL shorteners. They’re a bug, not a feature.

And then things like this happen: http://goo.gl/fx3iA. Bye bye bit.ly? That’d be a lot of dead links.

I felt a great disturbance in the Web, as if millions of URLs suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

As far as I can tell, Libya Telecom (http://goo.gl/SsMAi) runs .ly. Willing to bet that they’d shut it down plenty fast if Gaddafi said to.

He’s not the first to observe that bit.ly’s domain is connected to a country that’s not exactly amenable to free speech. is.gd advertises itself as an “ethical URL shortener“, in part because they’re not vulnerable to shutdown by the Libyan government, which has previously shut down vb.ly, a “sex-positive” URL shortener. I suspect that if bit.ly has trouble, they’ll rapidly move everyone over to j.mp, which uses a domain name from the Northern Mariana Islands, which as of yet don’t appear to be experiencing street protests.

Despite the Libyan internet shutdown, bit.ly is still working. The site’s not hosted in Libya, and according to the CEO of the company that runs bit.ly, only two of the five root servers that control .ly are in the country. So while we should worry about people being massacred outside of the eyes of the media, at least we don’t have to change URL shorteners.


Given the dramatic developments in Tunisia, Egypt and now throughout the Arab world, it can be hard to remember the extent to which Wikileaks dominated online conversation late last year. While there was an interesting conversation about whether Wikileaks could be blamed or credited for protests in Tunisia, Wikileaks appears to be releasing documents in reaction to protests these days. Today’s dump of cables includes a wealth of dispatches from the US Embassy in Manama. It’s helpful, as it gives reporters another possible angle in analyzing the situation on the ground, and an extremely media-savvy way to keep Wikileaks in the news, even if the releases in the cables are following, not moving, the news.


While Gabon and Sudan may be the first sub-Saharan African nations to hold protests inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, the implications of those successful revolts are being felt across the continent. Trevor Ncube, publisher of South Africa’s exemplary Mail and Guardian, and publisher of two opposition newspapers in his native Zimbabwe, has been reflecting on the possibility of a popular revolt against the Mugabe regime. In an interview two weeks back, Ncube argued that it was unlikely that Zimbabweans would follow in Egyptians footsteps, in part because the army was so closely identified with the ruling party, and not with the country as a whole. Today, Ncube continued along these lines, arguing that the long history of state-sanctioned violence against the general populus makes it harder for Zimbabweans to decide to take to the streets in protest. While he wasn’t directly addressing Bahrain or Libya, I can’t but help read these comments in that light – when does evidence that a government will use deadly force against dissent convince people to stay at home, rather than taking to the streets?

Committee to Protect Journalists points out that Zimbabwe’s state controlled media has been scrupulous about avoiding mention of protests in Egypt and Tunisia… except to criticize the US’s role in “interfering” with those protests…! The protests are a sensitive matter in Ethiopia as well, where a prominent government critic was taken in for questioning after writing about matters in Egypt and Tunisia.


If so much of the world weren’t on fire, Uganda’s elections would likely be a more high-profile affair. Yoweri Museveni, who came to power as a rebel leader in 1986, is seeking a fourth presidential term, challenged by his former physician, Kizza Besigye. Polling went relatively smoothly today, though controversy is possible when the results are announced this weekend. (No one expects Museveni to lose – the question is whether protests about the fairness of the elections will erupt into a serious challenge to his re-appointment.)

Again, if we weren’t all watching North Africa and the Gulf, I suspect this story about Uganda blocking certain keywords in SMS messages would have gotten more attention:

The Uganda Communications Commission Friday released 18 words and names that it has instructed mobile phone short message service (SMS) to flag if they are contained in any text message. They are then supposed to read the rest of the content of the message and if it is deemed to be “controversial or advanced to incite the public”, will be blocked.

The words are ‘Tunisia’, ‘Egypt’, ‘Ben Ali’, ‘Mubarak’, ‘dictator’, ‘teargas’, ‘kafu’ (it is dead), ‘yakabbadda’ (he/she cried long time ago), ’emuudu/emundu’ (gun), ‘gasiya’ (rubbish), ‘army/ police/UPDF’, ‘people power’, and ‘gun/bullet’.

I got a fascinating tweet from a Ugandan friend, who reported that SMS was also being used in a viral campaign to support the President. “Another Rap. Vote Museveni. Send this 2 7 pple 2 receive 7000 worth of airtime” If the “another rap” part of that message is obscure to you, I point you to this wonderfully absurd video:

Museveni is reciting a pair of traditional Kinyankole rhymes – between the two, he announces, “You want another rap?” It’s been remixed into a catchy song that now serves as his campaign anthem. I suspect that his “re-election” will have more to do with crackdowns on the press and intimidation of the opposition than his musical skills.


And, in matters of a world on fire, let’s not forget the Ivory Coast, still locked in a battle between an elected president and one who won’t let go. Desperate to continue paying the soldiers who are keeping him in power, Laurent Gbagbo has nationalized the banks, many of which were in the process of shutting down or pulling out of the country. Not a good sign, but it might point to the beginning of the end for a standoff that’s seemed intractable up until now.

January 14, 2011

Brock’s insights on the Tunisia media attention disparity

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 1:15 pm

George Brock (Professor and Head of Journalism at City University London, long time writer and editor for the Times of London) has a thoughtful and helpful response to my previous post on the protests in Tunisia and my perception that they’re getting far less media attention than the “green revolution” protests in Iran. Before addressing his helpful intervention, a quick update:

Protests are continuing throughout Tunisia. President Ben Ali is looking increasingly desperate. In a speech yesterday, he promised to cut prices on some major foodstuffs, remove restrictions on the press and the Internet and to step down in 2014, rather than standing for re-election. Today, he’s dismissed his entire government and called for elections in six months. It’s unclear that these concessions will be accepted by protesters, who appear to have unified around calls for his removal.

While media attention is rising on the story – especially from responsible outlets like The Guardian, Al Jazeera, PRI’s The World, Foreign Policy and others who’ve been covering it throughout – it still hasn’t captured public attention (at least in the US) the way the Iran protests did last year. To explain attention disparities regarding Tunisia, Brock offers several useful explanations for the disparity in attention:

– The disparity is greater in the US than elsewhere – Tunisia is big news in the French and Arabic media
– Tunisia’s always going to be a smaller story in the English-speaking world – it’s historically and culturally aligned with France
– The story hit the news dead zone between Christmas and New Years
– There’s less geopolitical significance for Tunisia than for Iran, and long-term American involvement in Iran (and guilt over proping up the Shah) contributes to interest.

I’ll push back against one of Brock’s explanations, that being a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is a dangerous job. While that’s true, Iran made it virtually impossible for foreign correspondents to cover the protests – in an essay last year, I argued that the difficulty in covering the protests directly led to the heavily reliance on social media.

But I’ll agree with Brock’s other points, for the most part. There’s more attention in French-language media than in English – this graph compares searches and news coverage for “Tunisia” and “Tunisie” to offer a rough English/French comparison. The bottom graph, which measures news attention, shows a lockstep rise between French and English terms, suggesting that both English and French outlets are taking interest in the protests. Search volume shows a sharp difference – there’s a pretty clear rise for “Tunisie” and a much more gradual rise for “Tunisia” – to me this suggests either lots more Francophones interested in the story, or perhaps more Tunisians searching in French (which we’d expect) for news and coverage. It does help illustrate the point I offered in my previous piece – for whatever reasons, the Tunisia story hasn’t captured the imagination of Anglophones in the way the Iran story did.

This graph is helpful for understanding the intensity of interest in Iran during the election, recount and protests – while Iran routinely gets roughly 4x the attention of Tunisia, during the Green movement protests, attention spiked to roughly four times the normal intensity. The green movement was one of the rare international news stories to register as a top story on Project for Excellence in Journalism’s news coverage index – I’ll be interested to see whether Tunisia registers this week. And while important cheerleaders like Andrew Sullivan have started waving their influential pompoms for Tunisia, it hasn’t captured the imagination of the Twittersphere in nearly the same way (likely due to some of the reasons Brock outlines.)

Where Brock and I agree completely is that social media is having some sort of role, probably an important role, in the protests. Brock’s language is a bit stronger than what I would use:

This has been a social media revolt, both in the mobilisation of middle class intellectuals and in the gathering and distribution of detailed information about what was happening on the ground. Much inflated hyperbole is talked about the effect of social media on politics and society in Europe and the US. But here in the Middle East, it is impossible exaggerate the importance – actual and potential – of informal media. (An earlier post of mine on this here).

Anyone doubting its importance to the events in Tunisia should look at the actions of the authorities. At first, traditional reflexes operated. Newspapers were disrupted and journalists detained. Then the authorities realised that the printed press was a nuisance but not the real problem: they went after the bloggers and the web. This sequence of events is well summarised here by IFEX.

I’m not ready to declare a revolution until Ben Ali steps down and Tunisia holds elections. And even if that happens, I’d argue – as I have previously – that social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole. But it does seem like those who are enthusiastic about the role of social media in mobilizing and promoting protest, but aren’t watching Tunisia closely, are missing something big here. The protests in Tunisia have already yielded concessions that would have been hard for most Tunisians to believe a few weeks back, and have served as a profound warning to other autocratic leaders in the region.

January 12, 2011

What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?

On December 17, a 26 year old Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi reached the end of his rope. An unemployed university graduate, Bouazizi had become a seller of fruits and vegetables in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. When authorities confiscated his wares to punish him for selling without a license, Bouazizi set himself on fire. He died in hospital on January 4, 2011.


Video of protests in Sidi Bouzid on YouTube

Bouazizi’s suicide struck a chord with other frustrated Tunisians. Thousands took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid to protest widespread unemployment, government corruption and lack of opportunity. Another frustrated youth in Sidi Bouzid, Lahseen Naji, killed himself by climbing an electricity pylon while crying out “No for misery, no for unemployment!” before grasping the high voltage line. The Tunisian government responded by sending baton and teargas-wielding reinforcements to the city and by promising future economic development projects. But riots have spread from Sidi Bouzid across the country, and the government has responded by closing the high schools and universities, arresting those they perceive to be ringleaders and imposing a curfew. Global Voices contributor Slim Amamou was one of those arrested on January 6th – we’ve not heard from him or been informed of the charges.

Despite the crackdown, it seems increasingly possible that the Ben Ali government might fall. The New York Times reported that members of Ben Ali’s family have been leaving the country. And it looked like a coup might take place last night, as the army took to the streets of Tunis. Rob Prince of the University of Denver, who is following the situation closely, speculates that the army deployed itself to protect citizens from the security police (who’ve been violently suppressing dissent) not in an attempt to seize power. There’s good reason to believe the Ben Ali government could fall – trade unions and lawyers have both gone on strike in support of the protests, and the situation appears to be rapidly spiraling out of the government’s control.

If you’re in the US, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard what’s going on in Tunisia unless you follow news from North Africa and the Middle East closely. The story of the ongoing protests has received very little media attention. Google Trends (below) shows a spike of attention that’s lower than the attention Tunisia received for losing to Ukraine in the first round of the 2006 World Cup.

One explanation is that the tragic shooting in Tucson has (understandably) captured the US’s attention at present and that the Christmas and New Years’ holidays prevented the early chapters of the story from gaining attention. (Below, a comparison of news and search volumes for “Tunisia” and “Tucson”.)

I think there’s more to the disparity than that. Tunisia is a deeply authoritarian state, but it’s one that’s masterful at public relations. Despite being an aggressive censor of the internet, Tunisia was chosen to host the World Summit on the Information Society in 2005, apparently convincing the rest of the world that they’d use the opportunity to loosen the restrictions on online and offline speech that keep Tunisian opposition groups in check.

Global Voices attended the summit with the support of Dutch foundation Hivos, and we ran a workshop titled “Expression Under Repression” – the Tunisian government removed our workshop from the program, chained the doors of the room where we were to meet and relented only when the Dutch government threatened a diplomatic incident if we weren’t allowed to speak. When we convened, Tunisian security police flooded into the room and began photographing and videotaping the attendees, a technique designed to intimidate anyone brave enough to attend our session. (They also ate all our cookies.) When I led a workshop on internet security, a senior member of the intelligence services introduced himself to me and sat in the front row, taking copious notes, while his associates confiscated the open source software we were attempting to distribute to attendees. Some of the people who met with our team were later detained by authorities. It was a memorable introduction to a country that maintains a network of secret prisons, controls the press and the NGO community and systematically suppresses dissent, all while managing to maintain an image as a comfortable tourist destination and a (sometimes) cooperative partner in US anti-terror efforts. (Some notes from my Tunisian trip in 2005 here and here.)

Tunisia was widely praised for its successful hosting of the summit and the ITU’s organizers deflected questions about whether the event would have any lasting change on the restrictive media environment in the country. And the country often gets a free pass on human rights issues from business leaders and governments who praise the social stability of the Ali government and the concomitant business opportunities.

What’s fascinating to me is that the events of the past three weeks in Tunisia might actually represent a “Twitter revolution”, as has been previously promised in Moldova and in Iran. There’s been virtually no coverage of the riots and protests in the thoroughly compromised local media – to understand what’s going on in their country, many Tunisians are turning to YouTube and DailyMotion videos, to blogs, Twitter and especially Facebook. The government hasn’t made it easy to access these sites – not only are several social media platforms blocked, they appear to be conducting phishing attacks on users of Gmail, Facebook and other online services. (Slim Amamou reported on this issue for Global Voices Advocacy in July of 2010 – others have picked up the story more recently, as it developed a Wikileaks/Anonymous connection…)

So why isn’t the global twittersphere flooding the internet with cries of “Yezzi Fock!” (the rallying cry of the movement, which translates as “We’ve had enough!” in local slang)? Perhaps we’re less interested because the government in danger of falling isn’t communist, as in Moldova, or a nuclear arm seeking (perhaps) member of the “Axis of Evil”, Iran? Perhaps everyone’s read Evgeny Morozov’s new book and followed his path from celebrating the Moldova twitter revolution to concluding the internet is most useful for dictators, not for revolutionaries? (I recommend Zeynep Tufekci’s thoughtful review of the book.)

My hope is that we’re getting collectively smarter about concluding that social media will or won’t act as a catalyst for social change. There are complex economic forces at work in Tunisia – a demographic bulge, increasing economic inequality, a reduction in government subsidies, shrinkage in the tourism and textile sectors. Was social media the catalyst that helped frustration turn into protest, or helped protest spread from one corner of the country to another? It’s the kind of question that keeps scholars busy for years, as my colleague Henry Farrell wisely noted in a reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s dismissal of the power of social media for protest. In the case of Tunisia, we need to understand whether information about the protests in Sidi Bouzid helped convince other Tunisians to take to the streets, and to understand how that information reached them – I’m far from ready to declare this a victory for social media, but I’m looking forward to studying it and understanding it better.

What’s frustrating is that there are ways we know social media could be helpful to those people in Tunisia who are trying to overthrow 23 years of dictatorial rule. Tunisia relies on relationships with Europe and the US to maintain its economy, which is one of the reasons Ben Ali has so carefully build an internal and externally-focused propaganda machine. If more people in the US were paying attention to the protests, perhaps Secretary Clinton wouldn’t get away with declaring – absurdly – that Washington won’t take sides in the conflict, but hopes for “a peaceful solution”.

Not everyone is ignoring the events in Tunisia. My friend and colleague Sami ben Gharbia has been exiled from his homeland for years, but is covering the protests with great intensity on his personal blog and on groupblog Nawaat.org, where content is in a mix of Arabic, French and English. Global Voices has a special coverage section with links to all the stories we’ve run on the events. Andy Carvin, social media strategist for NPR, has been aggregating a great deal of news and asking for help in translating from Arabic via Twitter – his Twitter feed is extremely useful. Jillian York – who’s written movingly about her frustration that Tunisia isn’t getting more coverage, recommends Brian Whitaker’s blog, which is tracking events closely. Tom Trewinnard is trying to translate #SidiBouzid tweets from Arabic to English using curated.by, and the folks at Meedan are translating as well, using a mix of machine translation and human correction. Al Jazeera English is covering the story in great detail and mapping where protests are taking place. PRI’s The World has an interview with Slim Amamou and several Tunisia focused stories. Foreign Policy’s Mideast Channel has in depth coverage as well. I hope people will keep pointing me to great online and offline coverage, but I think these laudable examples don’t change my core argument that Tunisia is getting far less attention than other “revolutions” like Iran.

I don’t know whether most people are missing the events in Tunisia because they don’t speak French or Arabic, because they don’t see the Mahgreb as significant as Iran, because they’re tired of social media revolution stories or because they’re mourning the tragedy in Tucson. I’m disappointed and frustrated, not just because I care deeply for Tunisian friends who have been working for justice in their country for years, but because real change in the world is a rare thing, and it’s a shame that people would miss the chance to watch it unfold.

September 2, 2010

Crisis Commons, and the challenges of distributed disaster response

Filed under: Berkman,Developing world,Geekery,ideas — Ethan @ 1:52 pm

Heather Blanchard, Noel Dickover and Andrew Turner from Crisis Commons visited the Berkman Center Tuesday to discuss the rapidly growing technology and crisis response space. Crisis Commons, Andrew tells us, came in part from the recognition that the volunteers who respond to crises aren’t necessarily amateurs. They include first responders, doctors, CEOs.. and lately, they include a lot of software developers.

Recent technology “camps” – Transparency Camp, Government 2.0 Camp – sparked discussion about whether there should be a crisis response camp. Crisis Camp was born in May, 2009 with a two-day event in Washington DC which brought together a variety of civic hackers who wanted to share knowledge around crisis technology and response. The World Bank took notice and ended up hosting the Ignite sessions associated with the camp, giving developers a chance to put ideas for crisis response in front of people who often end up providing funds to rebuild after crises.

The World Bank wasn’t the only large group interested in working with crisis hackers. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft came together to found the Random Hacks of Kindness event, designed to let programmers “hack for humanity” in marathon sessions around the world.

While these events preceded the earthquake earlier this year in Haiti, that crisis was the seminal event in increasing interest in participating in technology for crisis relief efforts. A crisis camp to respond to the Haitian earthquake involved 400 participants in five cities and pioneered 13 projects. Over time, the crisis camp model spread to Argentina, Chile and New Zealand, with developers focused on building tools for use in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan. Blanchard explained that the events provided space for people who “didn’t want to contribute money – they wanted to do something.”

The camps had some tangible outcomes:
I’m Okay, a simple application that allows people to easily tell friends and family that they’re okay, in an emergency situation, was developed at Random Hacks of Kindness
– Tradui, an English/Kreyol dictionary for the Android was developed during the Crisis camps
– Crisis camps also developed a better routing protocol to enable point to point wireless between camps in Haiti, writing new drivers in 48 hours that were optimized for the long ping times associated with using WiFi over multi-kilometer distances

Perhaps the most impressive collaboration to come from the Crisis Camps was work on OpenStreetMap for Port au Prince. Using satellite imagery released by the UN, a team created a highly detailed map, leveraging the work of non-programmers to trace roads on the satellite images and diasporans to identify and name landmarks and streets. As the map improved in quality, the volunteers were eventually able to offer routing information for relief trucks, based on road damage that was visible on the satellite imagery. A convoy would request a route for a 4-ton water truck, and volunteers would use their bird’s eye view of the situation – from half a continent away – to suggest the safest route. Ultimately, the government of Haiti requested access to the information, and Crisis Camps provided not only the data, but training in using it.

The conversation turned to the challenges Crisis Camps have faced in making their model work:
– About 1/3rd of the participants are programmers. The others range from the “internet savvy” to those with complementary skill.
– Problems and requirements are often poorly defined
– It’s challenging to match volunteers to projects
– There’s a shortage of sustainable project management and leadership
– Projects often suffer from undocumented requirements and code, few updates on project status.
– Little work focuses on usability, privacy and security.
– Code licensing often isn’t carefully considered, and issues can arise about reusability of code on a licensing basis.
– Projects can be disconnected from what’s needed on the ground
– Disconnection happens in part because relief organizations don’t know what they want and need and are too busy to work with an untested, unproven community
– Volunteer fatigue – the surge of interest after a disaster tends to dissipate within four weeks
– There’s a lack of metrics and performance standards to evaluate project success.

The goal is to move from a Bar Camp/Hackathon model to a model that’s able to build sustainable projects. This means bringing project management into the mix, and asking hard questions like, “Does this project have a customer? Is it filling a well-defined need?” It also means building trust with crisis response organizations and groups like the World Bank and FEMA, who can help bring volunteer technology groups and crisis response groups together.

Crisis Commons see themselves as mediating between three groups: crisis response organizations like the Red Cross; volunteer technology organizations like OpenStreetMap; and private sector companies willing to donate resources. Each group has a set of challenges they face in engaging with these sorts of projects.

Crisis response organizations have a difficult time incorporating informal, ad-hoc citizen organizations into their emergency response plans. There’s a notion in the crisis response space of “operating rogue” if you’re not formally affiliated with an established relief organization… which further marginalizes volunteer tech communities. Many CROs have little tech understanding, which means they aren’t able to make informed decisions about collaboration with technical volunteers. In a very real way, crises are economic opportunities for relief organizations – that reality doesn’t breed resource sharing, which in turn, gets in the way of sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Volunteer tech communities frequently don’t understand the processes used by CROs, and frequently fail to understand that there’s often a good reason for those processes. While VTCs provide tremendous surge capacity that could help CROs, if there’s no good way for CROs to use this surge capacity, it’s a waste of effort on all sides. At the same time, tech communities inevitably suffer from the “CNN effect” – when crises are out of sight, they’re out of mind, and participation slumps. This is particularly challenging for managing long-term projects… and tech communities have massive project management and resource needs. Finally, successful VTCs can find themselves in a situation where they have a conflict of interest – they’re seeking paid work from relief organizations and may choose to cooperate only with those who can support them in the long term.

Private sector partners are usually participating in these projects led by their business development or corporate social responsibility divisions… while cooperation with the other entities often requires technical staff. Response organizations are often the clients of private sector players – the Red Cross is a major customer for information systems – which can create financial conflicts of interest. And working with large technology companies often raises intellectual property challenges, especially around joint development of software.

Meeting with a subset of crisis response organizations, Crisis Commons understands that there’s a need for long term relationships between tech volunteers and relief organizations, tapping the innovation power of these charitably minded geeks. But this requires relief organizations to know what solutions are already out there and what are reasonable requests to make of volunteers. And volunteer organizations need to understand the processes CROs have and how to work within them.

The hope for Crisis Commons is to become an “independent, nonpartisan honest broker” that can “bridge the ecosystem and matrix the resources.” This means “translating requirements of the CRO to the crisis crowd, helping the public understand CRO requirements,” and the reasons behind them. This could lead towards being able to set up a service like “Crisis Turk”, which could allow internet savvy non-programmers to engage in data entry tasks during a crisis.

In the long term, Crisis Commons might emerge as an international forum for standards development and data sharing around crises. Building capacity that could be active between crises, not just during them, they could direct research projects on lessons learned from prior disaster relief, could build a data library and begin preparing operations centers and emergency response teams for future crises. Some scenarios could involve managing physical spaces to encourage cooperation within and between volunteer tech teams and providing support for future innovation through a technology incubation program.


Starting from the shared premise the Crisis Commons founders presented us with – “Anyone can help in a crisis” – the discussion at Berkman focused on the structure Crisis Commons might take. The goal behind a “commons” structure is to be able to be an independent and trusted actor in the long term, to be able to be objective source of tech requirements, and to be able to bring non-market solutions to the table. But the founders realize that this is an inherently competitive space, and that volunteer organizations might find themselves in conflict with professional software developers in providing support to relief organizations, or with relief organizations if volunteer organizations began providing direct support.

It’s also possible that another player in the space could compete with Crisis Commons in this matchmaking role. Red Cross could develop an in-house technology team focused on collaborating with technology volunteers. Google could use the power of their tech resources to provide services directly to relief organizations. A partnership like Random Hacks of Kindness could emerge as the powerful leader in the space. Other volunteer technology organizations – Crisis Mappers, Strong Angel – might see themselves providing this bridging function. FEMA could start a private-public partnership under the NET Guard program. What’s the sweet spot for Crisis Commons?

One of our participants suggested that Crisis Commons could be valuable as a developer of standards, working to train the broader community about the importance of standards, and on the challenge of defining problems where solutions would benefit a broad community.

Another participant, who’d been involved with several Crisis Camp events worried that “the apps, while neat, never really made it into the field,” suggesting that the problems raised are real, not theoretical. It’s genuinely very difficult for tech volunteers to know what problems to work on… and hard for relief organizations under tremendous pressure to learn how to use these new tools.

This, I pointed out, is the problem that could prove most challenging for Crisis Commons in the long term. When crises arise, people want to help… but it’s critical that their help actually be… helpful. Clay Shirky told the story of his student, Jorge Just, who’s worked closely with UNICEF to develop RapidFTR, a family tracking and reunification tool. It’s been a long, engaged process with enormous amounts of time needed for the parties to understand each other’s needs and working methods… and it’s easy to understand why it might be difficult to convince volunteers to participate to this depth in a project.

I offered an observation from my time working on Geekcorps – I meet a lot of geeks who are convinced that the tech they’re most interested in – XML microformats, mesh wireless, cryptographic voting protocols – are precisely what the world needs to solve some pressing crisis. Occasionally, they’re right. Often, they’re more attached to their tech of choice than to addressing the crisis in question.

As such, the toughest job is defining problems and matching geeks to problems. At Geekcorps, it often took six months to design a volunteer assignment, and a talented tech person needed to meet several times with a tech firm to understand needs, brainstorm projects and create a scope of work, so we could recruit the right volunteer. While that model was expensive – and ultimately, made Geekcorps unsustainable – I think aspects of it could help Crisis Commons find a place in the world.

I ended up suggesting that Crisis Commons act as:
– a consultant to relief organizations, helping them define their technical needs, understand what was already available commercially and non-commercially and to frame needs to volunteer communities who could assist them
– a matchmaking service that connected volunteer orgs to short term and long term tech needs, preferably ones that had been clearly defined through a collaborative process
– a repository for best practices, collective knowledge about what works in this collaboration.

Unclear that this is the right solution for Crisis Commons or the road they’ll follow, but I came away with a strong sense that they are wrestling with the right questions in figuring out how to be most effective in this space. Very much looking forward to discovering what they come up with.

June 7, 2010

Who to support? Algorithms for World Cup 2010

The 2010 FIFA World Cup starts on Friday, which means that football fans across the world have a difficult task this week: determining who to support.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be a difficult task – contrarians aside, we support our national sides. But that’s not much help if your nation didn’t qualify… unless, like Ireland, you didn’t qualify in a way that gives you a team to root against throughout the tournament. And even if you have ties to one or more nations who’ll be competing, there are dozens of qualifying matches where you’ve got no direct rooting interest. Assuming you’re neither South African or Mexican, who do you pull for in the opener Friday afternoon?


A Wikipedia map of countries competing in the 2010 Cup. Countries in green will be competing. Countries in red failed to qualify. Laos and the Philippines, in purple, are members of FIFA, but did not compete in this year’s qualifiers. And Western Sahara and Greenland (along with smaller states like San Marino and the Vatican City) aren’t FIFA members.

Poking around on various football discussion boards and on friends’ blogs, I’ve seen several strategies proposed.

Strategic support If the goal of the World Cup is for your national team, – or the team you’re most passionate about – to win, the key is for the rest of the most talented nations to lose. If I’m supporting Ghana (and I am, as well as the US), I’m not just pulling for Ghana to get past Serbia and Australia, I’m supporting Algeria to get through in group C rather than England, in the hopes that I get an easier round of 16 match. Carry this method to its logical extent and you find yourself pulling for New Zealand and North Korea in the hopes for a cakewalk of a final. Not necessarily the prettiest of methods.

Support through spite An excellent strategy for supporters of nations who really should have made it into the tournament. I suspect many Irish fans will support any team playing France in any match… which is likely to give them someone to support through at least the quarterfinals. You can combine this method with strategic support and support teams most likely to defeat the team you most loathe… Still, is it really satisfying to support Germany in the hopes that they’ll smash the hated French/Italians/pick your nemesis?

Non-FIFA support If you support a Champions League club, there’s a good chance you can coast through the tournament supporting national teams that feature your club players. As such, many Bara fans are supporting Spain (a surprise to me, given Catalan nationalism) and Argentina, as a chance to support the sublime Messi. This strategy has obvious flaws, though, when players on your club side are on both sides of a WC match.

Aesthetic considerations Certain teams are just more fun to watch than others. Watching Dutch total football is more enjoyable, in my opinion, than Italian total gridlock. Add in the joy of watching certain players perform and you can add Argentina and Cameroon to aesthetically pleasing teams like Brazil and Spain. The risk of this method? Becoming one of those smug football fans who says, “Oh, I don’t care who wins – I just want to see the most beautiful game possible.” Yeah, right. The most beautiful game is the one in which the team I support unexpectedly trounces an aesthetically superior team.

Outside considerations I suspect this is the method most of us use to decide who to support in matches like Paraguay/Slovakia – are there outside associations with either nation that lead to a rooting interest? If you can’t come up with any associations with either Paraguay or Slovakia, MetroUK has a charming “neutrals” guide that offers largely irrelevant reasons you can use to support or oppose any of the 32 teams. And if you’re an NFL football fan with no connections to global football, there are at least two guides helpfully aligning World Cup teams with NFL teams. Of course, if you’re rooting for South Korea because some blogger thinks their speed and precision parallel the Green Bay Packers, you’ve probably got other problems.

Algorithmic support I’ve always admired systematic thinkers, so I have a certain respect for anyone who’s able to put together a set of rules that allow them to make a decision for who to support in any match. Next Left offers a simple version of an algorithmic strategy – support the teams whose nations have democratic left governments – but realizes that this leads to first round conflicts like Brazil versus Portugal. More sophisticated algorithms have multiple tiers – my friend Alaa once outlined a strategy that involved supporting his native Egypt, then Arab nations, then African nations, then supporting colonies over the colonizers. (Indeed, I’m writing this post in part in the hopes that I can provoke him to outline his full algorithm.)

As for me, I’m an algorithmic sort of guy, with flashes of nationalism and aesthetic concerns. So my football strategy looks something like this:

– Sub-Saharan African teams get my support, especially Ghana, recognizing that it’s looking like a tough tournament for the African sides.
– Developing world over developed.
– Pretty football over ugly – Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Netherlands over Italy, Germany, England.
– Places I’ve been to over those I’ve never visited, with quality of national cuisine as a tiebreaker.
– Bonus points for truly unlikely teams, including NZ and North Korea.
– I’ll root for the US until they face Ghana. At that point, I’ll probably support Ghana, if only so there’s some conflict when watching with US friends.

In other words, I see your arbitrary and raise you ludicrous and illogical. And yes, I’ll be supporting South Africa over Mexico, despite my love for bistec encebollada and distaste for sadza.

If you’re inclined, I’d love to hear how you’re strategizing about who to support, especially if you’d blogged about your personal algorithms. I’m hoping to write a piece for Global Voices on this strategy, so I’m especially interested if you’ve already posted something I can link to…


Nigerian-American blogger/photographer/author Teju Cole was responsible for one of my favorite portraits of the 2006 World Cup – he watched each match, selecting a different restaurant or bar in New York City or New Jersey affiliated with one of the competing sides. This year, he’s repeating the experiment along with blogger Siddhartha Mitter. If you’ve read Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief, you know the wit, insight and poetry you’re in for. I look forward to seeing “the Mundial” through his eyes, and to learning from him where I can find Paraguayan food in the greater New York area.

May 3, 2010

ROFLCon: From Weird to Wide

Filed under: Developing world,Geekery,ideas,Just for fun,xenophilia — Ethan @ 4:26 pm

An audio version of danah and my keynote is now available for download online. I recommend a background of lolcats – preferably multilingual ones – as you listen.


I gave a dozen public talks last month, and it’s possible that ROFLCon was the most intimidating of the bunch. I was asked by Tim Hwang, internet researcher (and Berkman Center affiliate) co-founder of The Awesome Foundation and of ROFLCon, to kick off the event by co-keynoting with (dear friend) danah boyd. danah actually works in the deep swamps of contemporary internet culture, so ROFLCon – a conference that takes both a loving and scholarly look at the phenomenon of internet memes – is close to home turf for her. I, on the other hand, tend to study things like the impact of cellphones in political organizing in the developing world, and wondered if there was any possible way to connect the sort of issues I work on with a conference that featured Mahir Cagri (of I Kiss You fame), the owner and videographer of Keyboard Cat and the author of Garfield Minus Garfield.

Turns out I was underestimating ROFLCon. Yes, there were panels where the main question seemed to be, “What’s it like to be a microcelebrity”… which may have included the panel danah and I moderated. And yes, there’s nothing to make you feel old and decrepit like walking into a panel where you don’t know a single one of the internet memes being celebrated. (No, I’d never heard of cornify. No, my world has not been substantially broadened by listening to their founder, wearing a unicorn mask, discuss vampires.) On the other hand, the panel on race – I can haz dream? – was one of the best conference panels I’ve ever attended. (If any network execs are reading this blog, let me just point out that a late night show based around Baratunde Thurston and Christian Lander would kill.) And many of the people at the conference seemed to be deeply engaged in the sorts of issues danah and I were talking about – Who creates internet culture? Whose voices are amplified and whose aren’t? What happens when marginal, weird cultures become mainstream?

Alex Leavitt did an excellent job of liveblogging our talks. I thought I’d post my notes and some of my slides as well – the full slide deck is online, though isn’t real useful without accompanying notes, which follow below.


It’s not easy being an academic at a conference like ROFLCon. The stars are the folks who’ve done something wonderful, weird, unforgetable, or so wonderfully weird it’s unforgetable. Those of us who are trying to make observations about the field feel a little like musicologists studying Bach – we can study his compositions exhaustively, but we’re acutely aware that we’re not going to write a mighty fugue. No matter how much I might study internet memes, I know I’m never going to accomplish something as majestic as keyboard cat… and I have to live with that truth every day of my life.

Unlike danah who can actually tell you something about internet culture, I study information in the developing world. Basically, I’m interested in the question of whether the internet, mobile phones and community radio can make people healthier, wealthier and more free.

slide4.004

If you work in this field for very long, you’ll end up realizing that the basic question behind development economics is “Why are some people rich and other people poor?” There are better and worse answers to these questions. Some of the smartest answers focus on which parts of the world had animals and plants that were easily domesticated and which had endemic diseases. Other smart answers look at the ways in which colonialism held back development or look at the problems of bad governance and persistent conflict. Bad answers to the questions focus on the idea that some people are inherently, biologically smarter than others. This idea – “scientific racism” – surfaces throughout history, as the basis for eugenics and more recently in psuedo-scientific analyses of IQ scores.

If you’d like to understand just what a stinking heap of bullshit scientific racism theories are, I recommend spending some time in very poor nations. You’ll discover that many of the people you meet display extraordinary creativity as they navigate the challenges of everday survival. And you’ll start learning about people like William Kamkwamba, whose near death from famine in Malawi didn’t prevent him from building a fiendishly ingenious power-generating windmill from an old bicycle and some recycled PVC pipe.

My time in the developing world suggests to me that intelligence, creativity and humor are evenly distributed throughout the world. People’s ability to express their intelligence, creativity and humor – and our ability to encounter said traits – are heavily geographically constrained, but the basic distribution is near constant.

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All of which leads us to the question at hand today: Daddy, where do memes come from? I suspect Drew will be asking me this question any day now, due to Rachel and my egregious tendency to misuse Cafe Press and the fact that we gave him the middle name “Wynn” in part so we could title his blog “For the Wynn“. In answering these questions, I find that I’m usually referring to Randall Munroe’s brilliant
Online Communities map, and to the fertile equatorial regions that extend from the Gulf of YouTube through the Ocean of Subculture. Within this region, there are areas whose soils – turned black with the charring of endless flamewars – are especially fertile for the cultivation of new memes. (sup, /b/?)

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I’m interested in mapping memes in a different way. Here’s a quick and dirty map of internet memes extracted from Know Your Meme. Yes, the US and Japan dominate global memetics (or, at least, they do based on the site, which has its own – recognized, now being addressed – cultural biases). But there’s a huge number of memes coming from almost all corners of the globe.

In development economics, we pay special attention to the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China – who we expect to become increasingly important over the next few decades due to their large populations, natural resources and rates of economic growth. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to find distinctly regional memes emerging from each of these countries – I offer as a gallery of superheroes Brother Sharp from China, Golimar from India, Glazastik from Russia and the legion that is Tenso from Brazil. You may not know who these viral wonders are, but the people who live in these rapidly developing nations do.

Assume I’m right and that creativity has a near-constant distribution. Assume also that access to the internet continues its explosive spread. The inescapable conclusion is that the next wave of internet memes is going to come from the developing world.

It’s already happening – I just watched the first major Kenyan internet meme come to life. The Nairobi-based band called “Just a Band” released a video for a song called “Ha-He” off their new album. The video’s absurdly good – it’s shot by the guys in the band, and it introduces a new superhero: Makmende.

Actually, “Makmende Amerudi” means “Makmende has returned”… “Makmende” was what you called a kid in the neighborhood in Kenyan in the 1990s who wanted to be Bruce Lee. I heard it and assumed that it was a sheng word – “sheng” is the blend of Swahili and English that’s Kenya’s unofficial national language – turns out that “Makmende” is what happens when Kenyans say “Go ahead, make my day”.

So Makmende kicks the ass of all comers in this video, gets the girl… who he promptly ignores, and spouts some incomprehensible but pithy aphorisms. This video went crazy in the Kenyan blogosphere – which is an extremely creative space – and we started seeing Makmende magazine covers, a 10,000 shilling note and lots of video remixes.

Above, we see a local television reporter come to a rapid and bad end when he has the misfortune of finding Makmende’s house… in sort of a Nairobi version of the Blair Witch project. And yes, Hitler’s upset about Makmende as well… But the best stuff actually has pretty low production values – it’s the website aggregating the sort of Makmende one-liners that shot across Twitter for a week or so after the video became popular. Sure, lots of the content here could have appeared on Chuck Norris Facts, but much of what’s there is indigenous to Kenya, and may not make sense if you’re not Kenyan.

Makmende’s so badass that he raises two philosophical questions for me. The first is, “Who gets to decide what’s a meme?”

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Brilliant and funny lexicographer Erin McKean tells us that new worlds enter the language because people love them enough to use them. Lexicographers aren’t the bouncers at the language club; they’re anthropologists, discovering and documenting how language gets used. This is clearly how memes work as well – if people adopt it, love it and transform, it’s a meme… and what anyone else says doesn’t matter.

But it sure as hell helps if it ends up in Wikipedia. Getting Makmende into Wikipedia was one of the first things Kenyans tried to do… and getting things into Wikipedia is a lot harder than it used to be. The article was deleted a couple of times before the authors realized that they needed to make the case that Makmende was Kenya’s first major internet meme, which made it notable. It hasn’t made it into Know Your Meme yet – it was summarily deadpooled when last submitted.

My hope is that all of us who are interested in internet culture can be anthropologists, not bouncers. Yes, not everything that gets posted online is worthy of our study and amplification… but it’s worth keeping in mind that we sometimes don’t understand the unfamiliar at first and would find it intensely cool if we took a bit more time to try and understand it.

My second question is: “Who gets to play along with an internet meme?” On the one hand, there’s not much preventing you from adding some Makmende facts to the mix. On the other hand, a lot of the funny stuff already posted doesn’t make much sense unless you know the language and the culture. “Makmende hangs his clothes on a Safaricom line” only is funny if you know that Safaricom is Kenya’s largest mobile phone company and doesn’t have any traditional phone lines.

My sense is that most memes don’t cross between cultures because we don’t understand the language, don’t understand the references or weren’t paying attention to that corner of the internet to start with. Those that do tend to be funny in a way that’s independent of language. The Back Dorm Boys are pretty funny, and it’s not hard to figure out how to join in the fun.

This question parallels one that internet scholars are spending a lot of time on: Do we have one internet or many? When a country like China heavily censors their internet and encourages the growth of a parallel internet, do we hit a point where it just doesn’t make sense to talk about “the internet” anymore? Perhaps we’ve got to talk about internets, and how they interconnect. And if 340 million Chinese internet users look mostly at Chinese sites, laugh at Chinese memes, maybe it makes sense that the Chinese internet will eventually run on its own protocols, which might make it easier to censor or control. Go far enough down this road and you can imagine diverging internets, each trying to best meet the needs of their users, and no longer having a world where we readily peer into each other’s internets.

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If we care about a single, united internet, it is imperative that we develop, discover and disseminate internet memes that we can laugh at together. When governments censor political sites on the internet, they alienate the small portion of their populations who already identify as politically dissident – and they can make the case that they’re protecting their citizens from terrorism or incitement to violence or pornography. But when they block our access to videos of cats flushing toilets, we see them for the heavy-handed bullies that they are. The cute cats serve as cover traffic for more serious political speech – so long as chinese users want to laugh at our cat videos, we’re encouraging people to circumvent censorship and potentially encounter all sorts of stuff on YouTube.

The Chinese have developed cute cat technology. Even a cursory glance at Youku shows that the once apparently insurmountable cat gap has been thoroughly bridged. And not just simple cute cats – Youku features cats flushing toilets! And not just western style toilets – squat toilets as well! If we accept my assertion that it’s politically critical for us to LOL together, we need not just to be studying Chinese net memes – we need to develop memes we can LOL at across cultures.

When we cross cultural borders in internet memespace, we’re usually laughing at someone else. Engrish, funny though it is, is basically the act of laughing at someone for failing to speak your (absurdly complex and irregular) mother tongue. I’m deeply impressed with people like Mahir a?r? who managed to turn the experience of being laughed at by the entire internet into laughing along with the joke. It takes an unusual personality to pull this off – I’m not sure that laughing at and inviting folks to laugh along is always the best way to go.

I’d rather take the example of Matt Harding, the video game developer who spent years travelling the world, dancing badly. After the success of his first video, Matt discovered that the piece of music he’d used – “Sweet Lullaby” by Deep Forest – had a problematic history. The very short version – the French musicians behind Deep Forest used a lullaby from the Solomon Islands to record their hit song, without seeking permission from the woman who sang the song and over the explicit objections of the musicologist who recorded it. Worse, they presented it in such a way that most listeners thought it came from central Africa, not from the south Pacific.

Matt could have dismissed this story as an ugly footnote to his adventures with internet fame. To his great credit, he didn’t. Instead, he went to Auki, a small town in the Solomon Islands, to interview a nephew of Afunakwa, the woman who’d recorded the original song. It was his way of apologizing for the complex past of the song, and his way of using the weirdness of internet fame to make his world – and all those of us who’ve watched the video – a little wider.

My conclusions?
– We can go from weird to wide, as Matt did, using the strange and quirky corners of the internet to prod us into curiosity
– It’s worth asking ourselves if we’re laughing at, or laughing with. And if we don’t like the answer, perhaps we need to change our behavior.
– Anthropologists are cooler than bouncers.
– If we don’t laugh at Chinese internet memes – the first step towards getting Chinese users to laugh at global memes – the censors win.
– “Erinaceous” is a totally awesome word.


Highlights of presenting the talk included:

– Co-presenting with danah, which encouraged significantly sillier behavior than I generally engage in when on stage. I’d like to believe that I would always be willing to crouch behind a podium wearing a fluffy red hat before delivering a keynote… but it’s just not true. Add danah to the mix and it suddenly is.

– Matt Harding jumping up when his name was mentioned and dancing in the audience. I’m thankful that he came on stage after the talk to introduce himself and apologize if I freaked him out by spontaneously hugging him. I just think he’s wicked cool and deserves recognition for using the internet to show us (one facet of) how wide and wonderful the world can be.

– Meeting Mahir, who turns out to be utterly lovely in person. Yes, he immediately started filming our meeting via flip video and digital camera, and yes, he did invite me, my wife and infant son to visit him in Izmir… but I got the sense that it wasn’t in any way an act, just his particular version of friendliness. It felt more wonderful than weird.

– Talking with the guys from Know Your Meme, who are working really hard to ensure that their site is global and inclusive, and who are trying to take some pages from the Global Voices playbook, recruiting local editors who understand memes in their corners of the world. I’ve got high hopes of a Makmende article in development soon, and hope perhaps for a GV/KYM alliance where we source and research global memes.

In other words, I had a blast. Thanks to everyone involved and hope you had as much fun as I did.

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