Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Clay Shirky

On Clay Shirky’s Bread and Digital Dualism

In the New York Times, a piece that caught my eye–in a “an article about Clay Shirky making bread? Must be a slow news day” sort of way–has sparked an interesting conversation elsewhere and caused me to reflect a little on the idea of what Zeynep Tufekci calls “digital dualism” – the idea that online and offline worlds are somehow separate entities, one “virtual” and the other “real.”

In his Times piece, David Carr talks about having dinner with a group of people with whom he is more familiar with “as digital avatars than as people.” His host, the inimitable Clay Shirky, turns out to be an excellent baker of bread, which in turn causes Carr to observe that he wouldn’t have known that solely from social media. Carr gives a nod to Tufekci as well, suggesting that she would “point out that I never would have gotten around to eating that bread with those people unless I had had a digital connection to them,” as she has observed (as I have as well) that weak ties often lead to strong ones.

This is of no surprise to me: Even before I joined the hundreds-strong Global Voices community, ensuring me a place to crash in more than 120 countries, I was dabbling with online friendships, something I wrote about in 2009, where I concluded:

As Web 2.0 gives way to Web 3.0 and beyond, and as social media continues to grow, so will our conception of relationships and what makes them strong. And as we take our online friends to the “real world” and our offline friends to the Net, those lines will ever so slowly begin to blur for all of us.

Indeed, those lines have blurred even more for me in the nearly three years since. While back then my online/offline interactions were limited to local encounters and Global Voices summits, these days some of the people I hold most dear are people I knew first online and see regularly on my travels. There’s Katherine Maher, a mutual Twitter follow I first met in 2009 or 2010, but whom I now see nearly once a month because our careers have collided of late and who is one of my favorite people to drink and gossip with. There’s Nora Barrows-Friedman, whom I’d followed for years before moving to SF and becoming “real life” friends with. There are my blogging friends scattered throughout the Middle East and North Africa, people like Razan Ghazzawi, with whom I’ve shared a meal or a drink in at least four countries, or Alaa Abd El Fattah–we’ve now been to each other’s homes. There’s my fellow bloggers from Kabobfest–even though I haven’t written on the blog in years, I’ve grown closer to my fellow bloggers like Will Youmans, with whom I authored a forthcoming paper for the Journal of Communications and May Alhassen, whom I met in LA last year and with whom I am currently playing phone tag. There are scores of others, the people whose blogs I read and Twitter feeds I follow and who I might run into at SXSW or in Stockholm in a couple of months. There’s even Zeynep herself: our friendship a testament to her theory; she took this photo in Istanbul of me and Ahmed Al Omran, with whom I traveled from Brazil to Turkey last November, a 30-hour transit period that gave us ample time to form strong ties (and after which I noted that there are few “real life” friends I could spend 30 straight hours with).

All of these examples serve to remind me that our world has changed. Another way our world has changed is our increased mobility and travel, leading us to meet people we might not otherwise have ever encountered. These two phenomena combined result in a new meaning of friendship, one that isn’t necessarily rooted in neighborly cup-of-sugar-sharing and Sunday chats around the table (or at the bar) but in trans-Atlantic opportunism, tracking of friends’ travel schedules on Google Calendar and TripIt, and always traveling with a few local items for your friends who miss this or that from home.

There is, however, one way in which I’m decidedly analogue: I still send postcards. The only difference is, half the people in my address list are people I met first online.

Where I’ve Been: M100, OVC, and Blogs & Bullets

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling to various events, and the rest of autumn looks about the same; in two weeks, I’ll travel to Brussels and Tunis, then a few weeks after that to Istanbul and possibly Brazil. Then comes Canada, and perhaps a few small trips that I haven’t nailed down just yet.

Though some of my speaking is publicly streamed or otherwise covered, much of it isn’t, and so I figure that, from now on, I’ll attempt to do a better job of accounting for my away time. Whenever possible, I’ll continue to liveblog, though most of my recent travels have unfortunately included pathetic Internet connections, making that frustrating at best, impossible at worst.

M100 Sanssouci Colloquium, Potsdam

The M100 Sanssouci Colloquium is in its seventh year. Designed for cross-cultural dialogue and held in the beautiful UNESCO heritage site of Potsdam’s Sanssouci Gardens, the colloquium attracts top German and international journalists, as well as observers from the area.

This year’s subject was, unsurprisingly, lessons from the ‘Arab Spring,’ and included a variety of speakers from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region in addition to international speakers such as myself. I’m afraid that, two weeks out, my notes aren’t particularly good, but stuck in my memory are the words of Fathy Abou Hatab of Al Masry Al Youm (“Egypt Today”). In a speech on his paper’s move to digital, Hatab said, “I didn’t realize until recently that the plural of media was medium; what really matters in respect to media is the medium.” He then went on to share his experience in Tahrir Square, calling it “one big social network,” and noting the importance of connectivity amongst people for changing the media landscape.

Also notable was the awards ceremony in which Chinese journalist Michael Anti was honored (press release here). Anti gave a brief speech in which he talked about his own reasons for fighting for free expression, noting that companies entering China (or other authoritarian countries) should “always stick to [their] values.”

Open Video Conference

At my first-ever Open Video Conference, I was fortunate to be invited as the keynote speaker on the first day, to discuss the role of video in the ‘Arab Spring.’ I’m secretly hoping there’s no video of my talk, because I said “um” more than usual (I was horrifically jet-lagged, having spent only 36 hours in Germany and arrived in NYC the night before), but I’ve uploaded my slides (which include ample video, that seems to only work if you download the presentation) for sharing.

I started by showing a series of iconic videos, videos that I remember either from youth or from seeing them on retrospectives. From the Kennedy assassination to the Challenger explosion to the YouTube post seen ’round the world, the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, video is seared into our memory, becoming iconic.

This weekend marks the 29th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, an horrific event perpetrated against Palestinians by Lebanese Phalangists and overseen by the Israeli Defense Forces, in which a minimum of 328 people were murdered (various sources put the number as low as 328 and as high as 5,000).

Like the Hama massacre of that same year, it is an event of which I am grateful video does not exist, but it is also an event which seems to have largely slipped out of international public memory (an interesting piece on that). On the other hand, and particularly with the advent of YouTube and citizen video more generally, we are able to relive again and again the events that haunted our youth, as well as those that we never saw; we’re also now able to witness events that we never would have seen otherwise: the excitement of Tahrir Square, the desperation of protests in Bahrain, the brutal murders of Syrian opposition.

I argue that the sheer act of witnessing is wherein the power of video lies, an argument that organizations like WITNESS are well aware of (their report, Cameras Everywhere, which I’ll be blogging about this week, is a must-read).

Witnessing may not always have immediately apparent effects — in other words, lives may not be spared in the short term — but I predict that our loss of innocence, our ability to step outside of our sheltered American lives, will have lasting effects in the next generation.

Sifting Facts From Fiction: The Role of Social Media in Conflict

Last but not least, I spoke at the US Institute of Peace, in their beautiful new dove-adorned DC building, on the role of social media in conflict. The third meeting to accompany the Blogs & Bullets initiative and corresponding paper, this event contained several panels in which the paper’s authors, as well as folks like Andy Carvin and Sultan Al Qassemi, discussed the role of social media in the ‘Arab Spring.’ It was particularly interesting to see how our views have changed (or not) since the first meeting in August 2010, several months prior to the onset of the region’s uprisings.

I was on the last panel, and seated between GWU Professor Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) and Alec Ross, with Clay Shirky coming through the audio waves. Our segment mainly focused on those “newly empowered at the edge of the network” (as Ross so aptly put it), with thoughts on how those voices should be leveraged, listened to, and conversed with.

As you all probably know, I have complicated feelings about the role of government (any, but with an emphasis on my own) in all of this. And so, when first question (“how should we harness this?”) was posed to me, I couldn’t help but point out that I was the outsider on the panel, and that I continue to be surprised when I’m invited to events like these (Lynch and our moderator, USIP director Sheldon Himelfarb, responded by saying that’s exactly what I was invited). I then went on to say that there’s a real risk of marginalizing voices; that while the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have shifted the balance of power, that balance is still incredibly lacking online. We hear the voices of Egyptian elites, but there are entire swaths of voices that we ignore, and that in doing so, we risk further exacerbating conflict, rather than reaching a point of real discussion. In other words, I talked about Palestine without talking about Palestine.

We also discussed the value of testimony, in parallel to my talk at OVC, with Lynch noting that “testimonies have value on their own,” and that hearing them isn’t always about changing the course of things, or intervening in foreign conflict. Shirky added that “local documentation matters,” a point that explains in a nutshell why organizations like Global Voices even exist, as well as why the work that Andy Carvin is doing is so important. Ross tackled the question of whether the State Department’s ask to Twitter (to temporarily hold off servicing their equipment) in 2009 was a good thing (“It was,” he said, “and it wasn’t a ‘decision’ so much as Jared Cohen just making a call without following processes”), and we all hit on points about whether propaganda still works (“traditional propaganda is toothless,” said Ross, while we all agreed that nonetheless, propaganda on social networks can have silencing effects).

Lastly, Shirky made some excellent points about the so-called global zeitgeist; “People are self-consciously referencing Tunisia and Egypt,” he said, calling this current moment a time of “psychological synchronization” and positing that “events will add up to a greater whole.” This brought forth the question of whether young people — my generation, really — sees itself as different, with Shirky asking, “To what degree do the people using these tools see themselves as part of a global generation?”

Interestingly, that’s an issue I’ve been hoping to tackle for a long time in my writing, but which I’d held off for lack of a strong framework. In light of Shirky’s comments, perhaps I’ll delve into it soon!

-marginalization (my own experience +)
-the role of research
-the proof in the framework (http://whimsley.typepad.com/whimsley/2011/03/blogs-and-bullets-breaking-down-social-media.html)

Internet & Mobile Access and Social Movements: Libya, Madagascar, Beyond

Lots of conversations in my life these days are inspired by single tweets. And those tweets, for me at least, are often inspired by my own frustration in the media’s ineptitude on certain issues. One of those issues, of course, is understanding the effects of social media and the Internet more generally in the Arab world. The other day, after reading a jumble of cyberutopian bullshit (and yes, the real outlier stuff Evgeny Morozov talks about), I tweeted:

Please, spare me the “Internet/free flow of info/Libya” meme. 5% Internet penetration, friends, does not a “net revolution” make.

Allow me to explain. Regardless of which side of the contrived fence you stand on, you are unlikely to deny the anecdotal usage of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites for political organizing in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Perhaps you, like Morozov, contend that the Internet is more a tool of repression than one of liberation. Or perhaps you argue that these revolts would have happened without the invention of the Internet. Whatever your orientation, you are no doubt able to see how, in a country where nearly one-third of the population accesses the Internet and millions are on Facebook alone, the advent of social media was helpful in both organizing and disseminating information.

Which brings me to Libya. Libya is not, in any sense, Egypt, nor is it Tunisia. There are others who could explain the political differences, so allow me to ruminate on two interesting and very relevant factors: Internet and mobile penetration. The stats below are from the International Telecommunications Union–one of several organizations that track such data–but are generally representative:

ITU Internet and mobile penetration stats

The normative question in relation to the Internet (mobile is obviously a different story) is, then, how much do basic indicators like Internet and mobile penetration affect the effectiveness of such tools for organizational or revolutionary purposes? Or, can a tiny group of Internet users* influence a countrywide movement?

After posting my tweet, I got an email of polite disagreement from Clay Shirky who, among other things, noted:

“Making the question “net revolution or nothing” kills the part of the conversation that could be about how serious the effect of the net was, in any situation. There’s a lot of space between inert and essential.”

And he’s right, of course, but I pointed out that he was not my target demographic; rather, the tweet was directed toward that elusive class of cyberutopians Morozov so often addresses (note: they might not be the majority, but they do exist). Nevertheless, it sparked an interesting conversation on various aspects of the debate, a couple of which I’ll point to here.

First up, the media. The mainstream US media has perhaps been the biggest cyberutopian of them all. I watched as, during the Tunisian revolt, they shied from overhyping the Internet then, turning to Egypt, began to gain confidence in their reporting. I fielded literally hundreds of calls from journalists who wanted to know (and I quote) “exactly how Egyptians are using social media.” I wrote a blog post about it. I cheered a little inside that they were asking me (and more importantly, actual Egyptian activists) rather than the likes of Tom Friedman. And I did my best to talk to Egyptians and check all of my facts (which is not to say I’m always right, or right to all), as did a lot of journalists I spoke with. Bravo, all around.

And now, with Libya, we’re back to where we were in 2009 with Iran: Completely dumbfounded and, unable to check facts with Libyans on the ground, reporting inanities. Take Isabel Kershner’s garbage New York Times piece on how Arabs are surprised (gasp!) that an Israeli created an autotuned version of Qaddafi that is (gasp!) actually kind of funny. Or ABC News’s piece (parroted later by Wired) on the use of a Muslim dating site (which they claim is the “Muslim Match.com”) to “rally the revolution”. The first example is straight up ridiculous, while the second could be true (as Shirky points out, “it is often better to think of dissidence than dissidents, because when a population gets radicalized, they will use the tools they have to hand.”) But it is nevertheless a single anecdote, not a diagnosis of how the Internet has been used in Libya.

Now, to that point: Frankly, we–and by we I mean folks in this space as well as the media–simply don’t know that much about the Libyan Internet. We know that the blogosphere is limited in size, and that the Libyan exile community is active in this space and read by Libyans in-country. We know that Internet cafes in Libya are under heavy surveillance much of the time. We know that the Internet is only nominally filtered.

We also can assume that Libyan Internet users are largely urban, a point that Shirky argues has a more complex meaning than what I had initially thought:

I think social media (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera) was useful in Libya, even given 5% penetration, because of the disproportionate value net access has in what became the sites and among who became the participants of the uprising, and I don’t think this makes me a woolly headed “X Revolution” labeler — I think it makes me someone who lived through the progress from <1% penetration to ~75% in my own country, and I remember how much of an effect 5% can have on synchronization and coordination of key urban groups.

To that point, I responded that Madagascar might be an appropriate comparison to Libya in terms of Internet use for protest. Shirky agreed:

Yeah, and that’s because Antananarivo is to Madagascar more like Seoul is to South Korea than to the Cairo::Egypt — what happens in Tana is largely what happens in Madagascar, full stop, at least politically, so the leverage of small degrees of connection is hugely amplified by civic density.

I’m not feeling conclusive about any of this, but I think one of the most important points to consider in all of this is Shirky’s offhand definition of “social media” (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera), to which I would add “satellite TV” and possibly landlines. Of course, acknowledging such a broad definition would challenge the media narrative as well as numerous funding initiatives.

And now to the point of mobile, which is well outside my area of expertise (and thus I invite you mobile advocates to jump in here): Libya was the first African country to reach 100% mobile penetration. It now stands at 150% (which yes, means people own more than one mobile, not uncommon in the Maghreb). Why is this playing second fiddle to the media narrative of soccer and dating sites? Why isn’t mobile the point of focus here? Hell, I ought to ask myself the same question (answer: I’m already spread too thin).

It seems obvious to me that mobile (150% penetration), and not the Web (5%) is the real champion tool here. So how do we start that conversation? What are the key factors? How do we measure one against the other? Let’s talk about that, please.

*in Libya, about 320K people have access, and we have to assume that some are apolitical or support Qaddafi

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