Tag Archives: social

Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fas­ci­nat­ing early look-back at the rela­tion­ship between social media and the largely-nonviolent rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt writ­ten by David D Kirk­patrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumul­tuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that long­time auto­crat Hosni Mubarak is finally out. Most of the quotes and inside knowl­ege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engi­neer and a lead­ing orga­nizer of the April 6 Youth Move­ment, who became an activist in 2005.

Les­son One: Years in the Making

The Times starts off by point­ing out that the “blog­gers lead the way” and that the “Egypt­ian revolt was years in the mak­ing.” It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Blog­gers have been active for years: lead­ing, learn­ing, mak­ing mis­takes and col­lect­ing knowl­edge. Many of the first round of blog­gers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effec­tively neu­tral­ized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legally rec­og­nized oppo­si­tion par­ties.” “What destroyed the move­ment was the old par­ties,” said one blog­ger. A les­son we might draw for that is that blog­ging isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a step­ping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The cul­ture of blogs and main­stream move­ments are not always compatible.

Les­son Two: Share Your Experiences

The Egypt­ian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The con­text was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more per­va­sive police state than the Egyp­tians, with less lat­i­tude for blog­ging or press free­dom, but their trade unions were stronger and more inde­pen­dent.” Still, it was impor­tant to share tips: “We shared our expe­ri­ence with strikes and blog­ging,” a blog­ger recalled. Some of the tips were exceed­ingly prac­ti­cal (how to avert tear gas–brought lemons, onions and vine­gar, appar­ently) and oth­ers more social (shar­ing tor­ture expe­ri­ences). Les­son: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the inter­est­ing side­lights was how the teach­ings of Amer­i­can non­vi­o­lence strate­gist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Ser­bian youth move­ment had based their rebel­lion on his tac­tics and the Egyp­tians fol­lowed their lead, with exiled orga­niz­ers set­ting up a web­site (warn­ing: annoy­ing sound) com­pil­ing Sharp’s strategies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his col­leagues began read­ing about non­vi­o­lent strug­gles. They were espe­cially drawn to a Ser­bian youth move­ment called Otpor, which had helped top­ple the dic­ta­tor Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic by draw­ing on the ideas of an Amer­i­can polit­i­cal thinker, Gene Sharp. The hall­mark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that non­vi­o­lence is a sin­gu­larly effec­tive way to under­mine police states that might cite vio­lent resis­tance to jus­tify repres­sion in the name of stability.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tick­les me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egypt­ian protests. Amer­ica really can export democ­racy sometimes!

Les­son Three: Be Relent­less in Con­fronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took spe­cial aim at the dis­tor­tions of the offi­cial media.” He told them that when peo­ple “dis­trust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact check­ing role. Peo­ple turn to inde­pen­dent sources when they sense a pro­pa­ganda machine. The cre­ator of a Face­book site was a Google mar­ket­ing exec­u­tive work­ing on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and news­pa­per arti­cles [and] repeat­edly ham­mered home a sim­ple message.”

Les­son Four: Don’t Wait for Those Sup­posed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was cre­ated by stu­dents for good­ness sake and it all relied on essentially-free ser­vices. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Mus­lim Broth­er­hood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scram­bled not know­ing what to do as protests erupted in the major cities. Even­tu­ally the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full orga­ni­za­tion fol­lowed suit but it was not the lead­ers in any of this.

When we’re talk­ing about pop­u­lar orga­ni­zat­ing, money and estab­lished cre­den­tials aren’t always an advan­tage. What’s inter­est­ing to learn with the Egypt protests is that the gen­er­a­tion lead­ing it doesn’t seem to have as strict a reli­gious world­view as its par­ents. This came out most dra­mat­i­cally in the images of Chris­t­ian Egyp­tians pro­tect­ing their Mus­lim broth­ers in Tahir Square dur­ing times of prayer. This is hav­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tion in copy­cat protests in Tehran. Iran­ian lead­ers tried to paint the Egypt­ian stu­dents as heirs to their own Islamic rev­o­lu­tion but it seems prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are more impor­tant than set­ting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one–protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood might well take over from Egypt pro­test­ers now that Mubarak is out).

On a per­sonal note…

It’s inter­est­ing to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s cam­paign has mim­ic­ked some of the fea­tures of the Egypt­ian protests. Their blog has been pretty relent­less in expos­ing the lies. It’s attracted far more media atten­tion than the professionally-staffed Dioce­san press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talk­ing with churches in other regions to com­pare tac­tics and antic­i­pate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of seven churches nation­wide with round-the-clock vig­ils but it’s the only one with a strong social media com­po­nent. It’s aver­age age is prob­a­bly a gen­er­a­tion or two younger than the other vig­ils which gives it a cer­tain frank style that’s not found else­where. The Philadel­phia Arch­dio­cese is explod­ing now with arrests of recent Dioce­san offi­cials and rev­e­la­tions from the Dis­trict Attoreny that dozens of priests with “cred­i­ble accu­sa­tions” of pedophilia are still min­is­ter­ing around kids and while church clos­ings and the pedophilia scan­dals are not offi­cially con­nected, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admit­ting that they arise from a shared Dioce­san cul­ture of money and cover-ups. Again, “repeat­ingly ham­mer­ing home a sim­ple mes­sage” is a good strategy.

Diigo and the rise and fall of Delicious

One of the big bits of tech news yes­ter­day was a leaked slide show­ing that Yahoo was clos­ing down Del​.icio​.us,
the social book­mark­ing sys­tem that helped define. Yahoo must not do
Twit­ter because it took them till today to finally respond. They now say
that Del​.icio​.us doesn’t fit their strat­egy and that they will be sell­ing it.

Do
we care? Should we care? When it started in 2003, Del​.icio​.us was some­thing
inno­v­a­tive and quirky. It helped teach us that our online behav­ior
didn’t need to be secret and locked away on our hard dri­ves but could be
shared. Indi­cat­ing that you thought a web­site was wor­thy of a book­mark
could be a rec­om­men­da­tion to friends. Even peo­ple book­mark­ing a site was
an indi­ca­tion of it’s real world value. For us techies, Del​.icio​.us
opened our eyes up to a world where every­thing could be an RSS feed and
in 2006 I jig­gered the social aspects to cre­ate a human-powered
edi­to­r­ial aggre­ga­tor Quak​erQuaker​.org.

When Yahoo bought it we
were all a bit ner­vous but it seemed like a good move. Yahoo could bring
server resources and a user­base and take Del​.icio​.us to the next level.
When cor­po­rate decided to rename it Deli​cious​.com, it stripped the
quirk­i­ness but per­haps sig­naled a will­ing­ness to take this more into the
masses.

Diigo Import
Screen­shot of my revived
Diigo account, show­ing
Deli­cious imports.

Alas, it didn’t turn out that way. Deli­cious set­tled in
and stopped inno­vat­ing. Even­tu­ally the founder left Yahoo. Things got so
bad that it seemed excit­ing when it essen­tially got a design make-over a
few years ago. Com­pet­ing ser­vices sprang up but none were dif­fer­ent
enough to make many of change our habits.

So yesterday’s news is
per­haps a good thing. I’ve been look­ing at those other ser­vices. Diigo​.com looks really fab­u­lous. I tried it when it launched in 2006 but wrote it off at the time as a Deli­cious clone with high ambi­tions. But they’ve been work­ing hard. They’re onto ver­sion five now and they’ve been
adding the kind of cool fea­tures that an inde­pen­dent Deli­cious might
have pursued.

For exam­ple, you can add a note to a web­page that you’re book­mark­ing and then send a spe­cial URL with the site and note. They make it really easy to Twit­ter this. Last night I book­marked and tweeted about an online radio ser­vice I’ve been using:

Lis­ten­ing to a lot of Radio Par­adise lately. Good back­ground work music, inter­est­ing selec­tions: diigo​.com/​0​e​8gw

That Diigo link will take you to Radio Paradise’s home­page with the note I added. That’s really useful.

Diigo just a few moments ago put out a Tran­si­tion to Diigo FAQ. Export­ing from Deli­cious is really easy and import­ing it to Diigo is easy too–though not instant, it was about twelve hours. I’m con­fi­dent enough about Diigo that I’ve upgraded to the $40/year Pre­mium account–partly chip­ping in since I imag­ine they’re being hit with lots of new accounts today.

Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquaker, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New Yorker arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweeted”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operandi is to make out­ra­geously counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­nesses. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ously. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, another New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tainly right in that most of what passes for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civil Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tended to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well misses is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuaker is pretty strong-tie–it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each other and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each other, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quaker blog­gers came together to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ously, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­ally dan­ger­ous form of Chris­t­ian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tional chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share power, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who visit every day–a small group has taken over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuaker with an ear­lier peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larger audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fairly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­ated with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I never felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quaker work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­tify. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­tity of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more directly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia–that just doesn’t pro­vide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­sonal entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and power is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­ity and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­ogy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably similar.

Glad­well is an hired employee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pany with $5 bil­lion in annual rev­enue. It’s not really sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan skyscraper.

Related Read­ing:

ReconRabbi​.net

ReconRabbiReconRabbi is a social net­work for rab­bis asso­ci­ated with the Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bini­cal Col­lege. It is designed to pro­vide ongo­ing edu­ca­tion and net­work­ing for far-flung alumni.
It’s a highly cus­tomized, member-only site built on the Ning plat­form. The typ­i­cal Ning fea­tures are here: video, pod­casts and mem­ber pro­files. Expanded areas include exten­sive train­ing mate­r­ial for mem­bers. We recorded and I edited a series of eight screen­casts of approx­i­mately five min­utes each for their Help sec­tion using Screen­flow for Mac; top­ics include sign­ing up, adding dis­cus­sions, using the cus­tomized train­ing mate­r­ial.
Member-only Site: http://​www​.reconrabbi​.net/.

The Limits of the Real Time Web

Beth Kantor’s non­profit blog has an good arti­cle ask­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ties for real-time web inter­ac­tion and asks whether it’s pos­si­ble for the web to let some­one be in two places at the same time:


What inter­ests me is if this is the next evo­lu­tion of the social web -
what is the cul­ture shift that needs to hap­pen within a non­profit to
embrace it?  Of course, I want to also know what the value or ben­e­fit
is to nonprofits?

For
me, the eye-opening moment of real-time col­lab­o­ra­tion came last win­ter when I was plan­ning a con­fer­ence with two friends. The three of us knew each other pretty well and we had all
met each other one-on-one but we had never been in the same room together (this wouldn’t hap­pen until the first evening of the con­fer­ence we were co-leading!). A month to go we sched­uled a con­fer­ence call to hash out details.

I got on Skype from my New Jer­sey home and called Robin on her Bay Area land­line and Wess on his cell­phone in Los Ange­les. The mixed tele­phony was fun enough, but the
amaz­ing part came when we brought our com­put­ers into the con­ver­sa­tion. Within min­utes we had opened up a shared Google Doc file and started
cut­ting and past­ing agenda items. Some­one made a
ref­er­ence to a video, found it on Youtube and sent it to the other two
by Twit­ter. Wess had a sec­ondary wiki going, we were book­mark­ing resources on Deli­cious and send­ing links by instant messenger.

This is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from the two-places-at-once sce­nario
that Beth Kan­tor was imag­in­ing because we were using real-time web tools to be more present with one
another. Our atten­tion was more focused on the work at hand.

I’m more skep­ti­cal about non­prof­its engag­ing in the live tweet­ing phenomenon–fast-pace, real-time updates on Twit­ter and other “micro-blogging” ser­vices. These tend to be so
much use­less noise. How use­ful can we be if our atten­tion is so divided?

Last week a non­profit I fol­low used Twit­ter to cover a press
con­fer­ence. I’m sorry to say that the flood of tweets amounted to a lot of use­less trivia. So what that the
politi­cian you invited actu­ally showed up in the room? That he actu­ally
walked to the podium? That he actu­ally started talk­ing? That he ticked
through your talk­ing points? These are all things we knew would hap­pen
when the press con­fer­ence was announced. There was no NEWs in this and no take-away that could get me more involved.

What would have been use­ful
were links to back­ground issues, a five-things-you-do list, and a five
minute wrap-up video released within an hour of the event’s end. They
could have been coor­di­nated in such a way to ramp up the real time buzz: if they had posted an Twit­ter update every half
hour or so w/one selected high­light and a link to a live Ustream​.tv link I
prob­a­bly would have checked it out. The dif­fer­ence is that I would have
cho­sen to have my work­day inter­rupted by all of this extra activ­ity. In the online
econ­omy, atten­tion is the cur­rency and any unusual activ­ity is
a kind of mugging.

When I talk to clients, I invari­ably tell that “social media” is inher­ently social, which is to say that it’s about peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ing. The excite­ment we bring to our every­day com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the judg­ment we show in shap­ing the mes­sage is much more impor­tant than the Web 2.0 tool de jour.