Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: April 2011 (page 2 of 3)

re:campaign XI: Tools of Change (How Social Media Helped Spark the Arab Spring)

On Saturday, I gave another talk in Berlin, this time at the re:campaign conference, on the role of technology in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond. My take, as I’m sure you know by now, is that tools are just that…tools, and that a revolution comes from human power, but that nevertheless, such technology has become integrated into our lives (and lives of Egyptians, Tunisians, etc) to the point where it’s only natural that we would turn to them in the case of social movements and protest.

My presentation, which doesn’t include many words, is below. If you’re interested in learning more (as a few folks who attended mentioned they were), I’m happy to also share the corresponding notes, though I warn that I tend to spend a lot of time putting together visual aids so that I can then speak off the cuff. Ultimately, this presentation takes you through a variety of examples of existing movements in Tunisia and Egypt, explaining how these movements were a long time in the making (Egypt backgrounder on that, by Hossam El-Hamalawy, here).

The slideshow then jumps into the question of what role these tools did in fact play, emphasizing their role as amplifiers rather than as organizational tools, while noting that that backchannels like email and private groups (as well as SMS) do exist and do matter. I end with a few key quotes from Egyptians and Tunisians whom I greatly admire, explaining the importance and role of tech in their own words. My presentation ends with a prescient quote from 2008 from Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy, who wrote then:

The internet is only a medium and a tool by which we can support our “offline” activities. Our strength will always stem from the fact that we’ll have one foot in the cyberspace, and, more importantly, the other foot will be on the ground.

Check out the slides below, and as always, let me know if you have any questions:

re:publica 11: noha atef on egyptian social media stories

Noha Atef, the Egyptian blogger behind tortureinegypt.net is giving a talk at re:publica 11 on “Egyptian social media stories” to answer questions about how Egyptians have used social media and how, overnight it seems, Egyptians managed to mobilize on social networks to assist in the revolution.

“The answer to the question: ‘Were Egyptians using social media prior to January 25?’ is yes” says Noha, sharing figures about how many Internet users exist in Egypt (21,000,000 subscriptions, 4.5 million Facebook users, according to Noha’s presentation; but only 26,800 Twitter users). She says that Egyptians have begun looking to the Internet as some sort of “magical genie” that could answer their demands. She says: “that’s wrong.”

How Egyptians Used Social Media Before the Revolution

Noha explains that the Internet has been around for awhile, and people have been using it for entertainment, information, and much more. She also notes that Egypt has a fairly high illiteracy rate. “Still,” says Noha, “Egyptians have been using new media. They film, take photographs, of protests and celebrations. If they know you’re a blogger, they’ll ask you to post their photo online.”

She shows the famous Al Ahram photoshopped image of Mubarak leading the leaders at a peace process meeting last year, and explains how bloggers blew the story out of the water by tweeting, retweeting, and photoshopping, then blogging the image again and again, and how that created a scandal.

Did the Use of Social Media Pave the Way to Revolution?

Noha’s initial answer to the question is “yes.” She says that social media, and traditional media, shape the views of the public, and since the public made the revolution happen, then of course media and social media influenced that.

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re:publica 2011: this is our public sphere

I’m in Berlin for re:publica 2011, a conference I’ve been wanting to go to for at least two years and which I was invited to speak at this year. When organizer Markus Beckedahl contacted me in January to speak, he was excited about my September 2010 paper, Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere. Just a week into the Tunisia uprising, the paper was about to see a resurgence in relevance as activists there and in Egypt would face account deactivations for using pseudonyms, posting graphic videos, and “spamming” users with information.

Though video of the talk won’t be online for a couple of weeks, I was pretty proud of how it went, and the tweetstream that followed reinforced my feeling. Oddly enough, I couldn’t see my notes and had to “wing it” – luckily, I’d spent so much time typing them up (and speaking about this topic) that it turned out I didn’t really need them after all.

I took the audience through the five examples in the paper (Twitter, Blogspot, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr), focusing on the latter three and their particular importance to Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. Examples included the takedown in November 2010 of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, the freezing of the Sayeb Sala7 page for being “generic”, the removal of Hossam Hamalawy’s Flickr photos of Egyptian security forces, and YouTube’s policy of placing an interstitial warning page on graphic videos (a policy I actually don’t mind).

YouTube's warning page for graphic content

I also talked about why this all matters; that the Internet is our public sphere, our town square, except that it’s global, and definitively the only global forum for our modern world. It is certainly the only forum that just about anyone can participate, despite remaining barriers to access for many. And yet, it’s decentralized, owned by private companies whose bottom line is money, not free expression.

And even still, “decentralized” is almost the wrong term, as Facebook increasingly resembles a monopoly. Facebook has no competitors: Diaspora is tiny, Orkut is big only in Brazil and India (and even in India, Facebook is taking over). You can take your speech elsewhere, surely, but there’s no telling if anyone will follow you, or listen. Facebook is important, it’s where the network is. That’s why it’s all the more important that we, its users, act like consumers and stop staying quiet when it breaches our confidence, our privacy, our safety, or our rights.

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions as to why I’m more outspoken about Facebook than say, Flickr (which has surely breached users’ confidence) or YouTube. My main response is this: Both are important sites, and the most popular of their kind. And yet, both have plenty of competitors. The networks on each exists but are de-emphasized; when you post something on YouTube or Flickr, you expect a large part of your traffic to come from external sites: Facebook, Twitter, blogs. You can take it elsewhere, without much suffering. Facebook is assuredly different.

I will be sure to share the talk with you when it’s online: It was fun, I got a few laughs (a great coup in the German tech space, I’m told), and it was illustrated by Anna Lena Schiller. I will also do my best to blog a couple of other sessions (Noha Atef is speaking later today on Egyptian social media stories; a topic which will surely be relevant to my own work).

Addition: Slides from my presentation are below.

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