Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Social media for activism – Driver for societal change or overhyped myth?

For a while now I am following what seems to be a trench battle between the so-called “cyber-utopians”, who see social media as the guarantor of a new age of equality, democracy and civil rights, and the critical skeptics who point out that they’ve seen it all before and who see social media as an overstretched hype with no real impact on the real world.

The Arab Spring and the related media coverage regarding the role of social media have surely added a new quality to the conversation and seems to have sharpened the above cleavage even more. The debate gained such prominence, that entire training courses are now dedicated on social media activism, like the TechChange course on “Global Innovations for Digital Organizing” which I just participated in during the last three weeks.

A key point of this discussion is the question whether or whether not social media actually helps spurring and supporting social activism, or whether all the protests that occurred lately would have happened anyway, with or without social media.

Personally, I always felt that the assessments by traditional media of the role of social networking tools, blogs, etc. have been rather ad-hoc, guts-based and skewed towards a sensationalist viewpoint in order to create a story. Shortly after the Arab Spring lots of - mostly Western - writers were very quick to praise social media for its breakthrough role in initiating democratic change (see e.g. Blake Hounshell’s Foreign Policy article “The revolution will be tweeted”), followed by a counter-reaction in which the role of social media was dismissed as a mere reflection of the change process, without having much of a role in causing the change itself (e.g. Frank Rich’s OpEd in the NY Times “Wallflowers at the Revolution”).

Of course, this dichotomy did not only show itself with the Arab Spring or the Green Revolution in Iran, but is part of a wider debate around social media. And this debate is itself again part of a much larger picture of culture critique, in which technology pioneers and enthusiast are focusing on the positive potential, the personally experienced benefits and anecdotal successes, while the cautious and skeptic zoom into the potential dangers and limitations. We’ve seen this cleavage all through history (think of book printing, electricity, fuel motor, nuclear energy, microprocessor, cloning, TV and internet). And there are indeed voices which try to tell this larger story, which in turn leads to rather grand conclusions regarding uniqueness of the current moment within the last 2000 years of history (e.g Paul Levinson's blog post “Occupy Wall Street, Direct Democracy, Social Media: A Thumbnail History of Media and Politics Since Ancient Athens”)

As always, when two extreme viewpoints are battling with each other, the truth lies probably somewhere in between. And I would like to think the same is the case with the topic of social media and activism.

Yes, there have been a lot of utopist views around, claiming that social media almost inevitably leads to more democracy, because social media is wiring society that way. But some of these “cyber-utopians” also have some good points. The authors Clay Shirky (“Here Comes Everybody - The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”) makes a compelling case how reduced cost and barriers of group formation lead to increased engagement and activism. Just think of the many niche topics you now can join into respective online groups, say for self-help or special interests, which facilitate interactions which would not have happened in the past (and which often lead to actual face-to-face interactions at some point in time).

And yes, as a reaction to this type of “cyber-utopianism” there have been very outspoken voices against too pink-painted views which ignore the downsides that come with new technologies. Some of the most prominent among them is Evgeny Morozov. In his book “The Net Delusion” he makes a very valid point of highlighting that any social media can also be used by oppressive governments against their citizens (by scanning faces from photos featuring protesters, by tracking communication in social media sites, analyzing sentiments and political opinions of individuals, etc). He even goes so far to state that e.g. in Iran’s ‘Twitter Revolution’ those repercussions “often strengthened rather than undermined the authoritarian rule”.

Others criticize that the exponential growth of communication channels and groups must lead to a depreciation of attention which itself will make activism overall less likely. Mary Joyce brings this up in one of her most recent posts,Cacophany: Why Digital Activism Isn't Helping America” where she argues that "America’s democracy and pluralism make digital activism less effective at bringing about dramatic change. In a country where everyone is free to speak and mobilize, many will. Attention is divided and the impact of any one initiative represents only one voice among many clamoring to be heard."

In his famous New Yorker article “Why the revolution will not be tweeted” Malcom Gladwell, a prominent voice drawing also on the work of Morozov, takes apart existing success stories of mass mobilization through social media (a prominent one being the case of Ewan Guttman’s friend Ivanna who got her smart phone stolen and through Facebook campaign initiated by Ewan managed to get local police pursuing the case which previously had dismissed the case as closed). Gladwell basically argues, that due to the inherent nature of social media interactions (low cost, loose ties, not centrally organized) compared to the nature of face-to-face activism (high cost, close ties, hierarchical organization), no meaningful activism can come out of social media.

Such voices are supported by a general sense of the rather low cost of online activities, which led to the term ’slacktivism’, describing the tendency to affiliate with causes in a passive manner just for the sake of peer approval, rather than taking real action.

Positions like this draw again sharp criticism of actual activists, who do make use of social media and who strongly object to the outright dismissal of any value in activism through social media.

A nice recent example how proliferation of online activism is not damaging but rather unleashing the potential for engagement is the Tar Sands Action campaign, which has brought together a number of environmental groups, first nation tribes, farmers, and people from across the US party specturm. @daryncambridge uses this example in the TechChange course to demonstrate that “through online organizing of the kind that Shirky refers to in his book, the largest civil disobedience campaign for the environmental movement in a generation was born and continues to this day.

One highlight of rebutting the above critics is Maria Popova’s essay “Malcolm Gladwell Is #Wrong” in which she makes the point that online activism is in fact very high-stakes for many political bloggers in totalitarian countries. She also accuses Gladwell of not understanding the online world, in which social media reputation does lead to the natural formation of hierarchies in which communication influential opinion leaders trickles down through a pyramid of follower bases to a large number of individuals. (Of course, one can also argue that Maria tries too hard to fill the gaps identified by Gladwell instead of questioning some of his assumptions, such as whether hierarchies are in fact necessary for activism to succeed).

What I think is particularly interesting is Maria Popova's statement that "Ultimately, Gladwell's mistake is seeing online and offline social networks as disjointed mechanisms". Sudanese human rights activist @daloya put it in an online discussion board of the TechChange course on social activism mentioned above,what Popova is telling us here is that the new technology will not replace traditional forms of activism, but will rather tranform them. And this moves the conversation away from the extreme rejection or acceptance of digital technology for social change, to the more practical terrain of how to use this technology strategically and smartly, and how to create lasting and effective linkages between online activism and offline traditional activism.” Questions which articles like How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak touch on in more detail.

Also, my colleague @bkumpf pointed out that “Gladwell´s assumption that online activism ‘shifts energies’ seems intuitively wrong and was contradicted in real-life by the Arab Spring. Many of those who participated in online discussions and mobilizations in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya actually went to the streets. And there the support of other social and political movements was crucial to bring about change.

In particular when looking at the Arab Spring it is quite clear that we can find numerous instances that support both cases: (a) where Facebook wasn’t the effective logistical tool it was taken for (e.g. "The Secret Ralley that Sparked an Uprising: Cairo Protest Organizers Describe Ruses Used to Gain Foothold Against Police; the Candy-Store Meet That Wasn't on Facebook"), and (b) where it was a powerful instrument to strengthen indirect support, building awareness and a social environment that is conducive to activism.

Regarding the latter, I was very inspired by the many examples that I’ve come across which tell the stories where social media did make a difference for activism in the uprising of Tunisia and Egypt. In her comprehensive article “Egypt's Revolution 2.0 The Facebook Factor Linda Herrera makes an excellent point in describing how “Digital communications media have revolutionized learning, cognition, and sociability and facilitated the development of a new generational behavior and consciousness”, something which Tunisia’s and Egypt’s “old guard simply did not get”. This goes beyond just the practical application of tools, but points to a deeper change, a “generational rupture” within the fabric of society that seems to be a factor for the change movements we have witnessed the recent past. Herrera describes how in politically authoritarian states like Egypt, Tunisia and Iran, “youth have been fashioning Facebook into a vibrant and inclusive public square. They use it to maintain their psychological well being as a space to metaphorically breath when the controls and constrains of the social world become too stifling”. And indeed, Facebook with millions of users in Egypt alone became a central part of a youth culture of open self-expression. Herrera explains that as the tensions with the government grew, “many young people were worried that the government would close down Facebook”, explaining that the government “feared the flurry of critical political activity that would invariably precede an election”. Though many expressed that turning off Facebook would be akin to suffocating them, as one young man put it, it would be like “blocking the air to my lungs”.

Her conclusion, far from being utopian, is that “what is happening in Egypt is not a Facebook Revolution. But it could not have come about without the Facebook generation, generation 2.0, who are taking, and with their fellow citizens, making history.”

As with any case of intellectual debate, first of all I believe that some of the positions featured above are to some part deliberately extreme, for the point of filling a niche in the debate that guarantees visibility and audience. But all of them add valuable dimensions to the conversation, which otherwise would be missed out, thus successfully fulfilling the role of either a forward-looking pioneer or a devil’s advocate (both of which are always needed).

Eventually, we will all arrive at pragmatic approaches for tools and methodologies which to a large part have become mainstream elements in the middle of our post-modern world (a fact that social media thought leader Brian Solis points to in his blog post “The state of Social Media 2011 – Social is the New Normal”).

I won’t hide the fact that I find myself mostly on the optimistic pioneer’s side, so when I look at the debate above, it will come as no surprise to you that it seems to me the actual benefits do outweigh the negative effects to date. But then again, this is more based on collected anecdotal evidence, rather than scientific research. I would love to see some thorough studies done on this to understand better the actual effects for a larger number of cases, and compare the actual variables that were involved in making protest successful. Another interesting PhD thesis I will never get to write... Any researcher out there up for the task?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What does it take to make a ShareFair happen? Don’t ask ‘what’, ask ‘who’!

When walking through the IFAD corridors this warm Italian September week one cannot help but be amazed by the buzzing, vibrant energy that is felt in every part of the building. People chat in corners, engage in up to 15 parallel group sessions, share their thoughts with someone with a video camera or sit in the hallway with their laptop on their lap, communicating one of their many impressions through email, Twitter or a blog. Over 600 participants, 160 projects, 200+ scheduled group or plenary sessions, and one is left with an immediate question: How on earth did they pull this off? After all, there is no professional event management company involved here that pulls the strings. This event is done by the sponsoring organizations themselves, with a surprisingly low budget and mostly with staff who – if they are not helping plan and implement knowledge fairs – have other jobs to do.
I talked to some of the organizers to get a small glimpse of the machinery that made this event happen behind the scenes.

Planning for this ShareFair started already in January 2011, with a one-day facilitated brainstorming workshop where the Rome-based stakeholders ( Bioversity International, CGIAR ICT-KM programme, FAO, IFAD and WFP) got together to determine the general direction and approach they wanted to take with this event, building on the first event that took place at FAO in 2009. After that a Steering Committee was established in February to plan the event.

As there is no general existing budget for Rome ShareFairs, the team members from the different host organizations had to raise funds for the significant logistical and programmatic requirements (which include necessities such as security, ambulance, infrastructure and communication expenses) as well as to fund travel expenses for proposals from participants who otherwise could not come to the fair and share their learnings. Yet, I was surprised to learn that this entire event is realized with notably less than $200,000 (actual and in-kind) accumulated resources overall.
Talking about proposals: roughly 300 proposals were submitted after the Steering Committee publicly announced the ShareFair through their website in May 2011. The submissions were reviewed and filtered down to about 160, the maximum capacity of content sessions that the IFAD building can accommodate during the three main days of the fair with up to 15 parallel sessions at a given time slot.

These sessions, however, are rarely self runners. If the thematic expert is not by chance also a communication professional, a facilitator is needed to help the presenter avoiding tiring PowerPoint slides and instead turn the presentation into an engaging, participatory learning session using knowledge sharing ( approaches. But where to get those versed facilitators from? Luckily, Knowledge Management staff in Rome are well connected with the Knowledge Management for Development Network (KM4Dev), a community of KM practitioners working in development. Additionally, a call was placed also within each of the participating organizations for facilitators. By calling on about 50+ volunteer facilitators, the ShareFair organizers were able to provide professional facilitation for almost all project presentations, drawing on a range of creative and participatory facilitation methodologies which were introduced in a pre-conference training day for participants interested in these tools.

The training sessions of this so-called “Training and Learning Day” included not only facilitation techniques, but also introductory sessions into a range of social media tools for knowledge exchange and communication, such as Twitter, Facebook, Photos, Blogs or Podcasts. That those sessions were not just theoretical exercises was demonstrated during the entire week by the social reporting team, a group of about 30+ social media enthusiasts who committed to report live from event sessions and interactions in between sessions through the full range of social media tools. This way, the immediate audience of a few hundred on-site participants could be extended to many thousands of interested practitioners that followed the event online, by reading blogs, viewing video interviews or responding to tweets posted during the event.

Finally, as a participant of the Fair, besides noticing some of the more visible faces of the fair that give announcements and introduce sessions, you will most likely run into one of the many volunteers who are supporting the logistics behind the scene at any given moment: as registration desk volunteers, as information focal points and helpful guides on each floor, behind the technology that provides meeting room infrastructure, WLAN access and live webcast, or as runners who help fixing the many little and bigger emergencies that we mostly don’t even notice as participants.
So again, what does it take to make such a ShareFair happen? It takes all those people, seen and unseen, and I think they deserve a collective tipping of hats for the astounding work they do. Or you just walk up to the next one you see and give that person a ‘thank you’. And if you bring them a cup of coffee they might even reward you with more interesting details on life behind the scenes of the ShareFair!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Need to Fail Safely - Reflections on Principles of Evolution in Development

Last week, I participated in an extremely interesting webinar by Owen Barder, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development. His key message was that development problems are complex and cannot be solved with linear thinking. In his presentation, Owen shared his perspective and research findings on “the role that knowledge can play in tackling ‘wicked’ problems such as poverty reduction, illustrating how concepts derived from evolution theory like variation and selection are a useful framework to think about the way ideas and knowledge are applied in development projects”.

Click here for a narrated presentation about evolution and development

(You can click on the presentation above, or you can download the presentation as a pdf file here. )

In general, Owen ran in open doors with me with the concept of diversity & selection, as am trying to advocate for more open, crowed-sourced innovation approaches within development already. However, the webinar also made me thinking, and I had a good follow up discussion with colleagues afterwards, as well as an email exchange with Owen himself. A question that was bothering me was the human dimension of the failed experiments that Own was referring to as a necessary output of diversity & selection paradigm. In a purely technical industry it might be ok to say we try 100 approaches for potential products and 95 won’t work (see the the famous nozzle example). But in development we are talking about people’s lives. If you initiate a project and it fails, there is a danger that the actual people involved are in an even worse place (often economically, but certainly emotionally) than before. Promises are made, communities are mobilized, social capital and energy is invested, trust is built, and when the project fails, you don't get that back anytime soon. It’s a rather bureaucratic approach saying this will be the case in 95 of our projects, in order to gain the great value we get out of the 5 successful projects. Can we afford people’s lives and the social capital of communities being the collateral damage of our innovation efforts in development? From a global perspective you can of course say that the overall cost of not innovating through experimentation in the end will be even higher, but that is hard to explain to those individuals and communities which happen to be the guinea pigs for our failed development experiments. (I'm actually surprised how much of an ethical question this becomes when thinking about it. I'm sure Michael Sandel at Harvard could make a great lecture out of this example).

A colleague of mine had concerns along the same lines, as we know that there is the ‘do no harm’ approach, but I we also know that even if it’s considered, there is no guarantee to avoid substantial risks for the humans involved. The organizer of the webinar, Giulio Quaggiotto, suggested that the answer might came again from pointing back to feedback loops that Owen highlighted in his presentation. If you have the appropriate ‘loops’ then you figure out you are going in the wrong direction much faster than if you stick to the original plan just because you have to declare to the donors that you had a ‘success’.

In a follow up email exchange, Owen himself elaborated a bit more on this. First, he pointed to Tim Harford's new book, “Adapt – Why success always starts with failure”, that a key characteristic of successful adaptation is the ability to 'fail safely'. If you bet everything on one approach, you can't afford for it to go wrong. You have to find a space in which it is safe to experiment.

So the question is: how we can do that in development? If we apply this diversity & selection approach, we must (and we can) do this in a way which respects people and communities. Owen mentioned “medicine in which we already have quite tightly controlled ethical standards which must be applied in a clinical trial. In universities, researchers are required to get approval from their Ethics committee before conducting any experiments” (e.g. randomized controlled trials) with human subjects.

While there is probably no general answer to this question, Owen indicated we should always look at specific cases and assess whether they meet agreed ethic principles. There are definitely cases where variation & selection can be applied without doing actual collateral damage, being more innovative and experimental in ways that respects the human dimension of our ‘development experiments’. And then there will be other cases where we can't (though Owen says he thinks these might be few and far between), in which case we probably shouldn't be using the diversity & selection approach.

Owen’s explanations made a lot of sense to me. My own conclusion from this discussion is that what seems would be needed then are some sort of ethical as well as practical guidelines which help assessing for which scenarios the approach should be applied and for which it shouldn't, including an outline of the recommended steps to mitigate any potential collateral damage. I think Owen is indeed right that what is key is the ability to "fail safely", and I think what is needed is a methodological approach for this.

I’d be glad for comments. Maybe you have examples and ideas under which conditions we should go for this “development by evolution” approach – and when we shouldn’t!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Development 2.0 is not ICT for Development. In fact, it is something entirely different!

The other day, I had a conversation about emerging development topics. In this instance, I was referring to a discusson on “Development 2.0 - using social media for development projects” among colleagues of mine which in a very short period of time got quite an active following. And the question is raised whether “Development 2.0” should be an actual service line in an organization's portfolio of advisory service topics.

One response I got was that this is not a new topic at all, but that “ICT for Development” has been around as a service line in the development community for a long time. I startled for a moment, as it never occurred to me that someone could use these two terms as interchangeable synonyms. Only then I realized why we sometimes struggle to get the message about the potential of social media in development work across: It might be indeed because so many people equate social media with ICT4D.

From a purely bureaucratic perspective, this might not even be entirely wrong. Yes, looking at the literal term, Web 2.0/social media tools are technologies used for information and communication. Yet, lumping them together with what we traditionally label as ICTs, makes it impossible for us to understand the nature and implications of social media. Because the true nature or identify of social media is not technology, but culture.

The term ICT4D comes from a time where our major concern was to “bridge the ‘digital divide’” between rich and poor countries, connecting countries and communities to the internet, providing communication infrastructure and building capacity for the use of ICT to support access to information and economic growth. It was about getting computers into schools and mobile phones into the hands of small businesses. It was a mostly about infrastructure and training.

Social media is entirely different. It assumes ICT is there and available. What it does, however, is introducing a new way of working, engaging and communicating. This new way is bottom-up, participatory, democratic, networked, open, transparent, fluid, ad-hoc, serendipitous. It is not replacing, but complementing existing process and structures by a dimension which was previously underleveraged. It affects the culture of an entire generation and with it the workforce that emerges out of it. And thus, eventually, the way our organizations do business and societies live.

What is happening when we are currently discussing how to leverage social media within development projects, is not so much that we talk about how we apply technology (although this is also in parts the case), but how we can leverage the fundamental strategic principles of Web 2.0 within our projects: How to initiate an inclusive and participatory deliberation process about our activities and results. How to tap into the collective knowledge, experience and creativity of stakeholders to improve effectiveness and quality of results. How to raise awareness and reach out to more stakeholders more effectively. How to make planning, decisions, activities and results more transparent and open them up for wider accountability. Those are clearly not technology questions answered by engineers and IT experts, the profession primarily involved in ICT4D. Those are question raised by thematic development experts who do not think about the tool they want to use (in fact they couldn’t care less about tools), but about behavioral change they want to initiate as part of their project objectives.

And it doesn’t stop here. Social media is not just changing the way we work within our projects, but it raises questions regarding culture change within societies, as we recently witnessed in an exemplary fashion in the Middle East. What role do Web 2.0 tools play in democratic processes, regime change, access to information and services, and the development of knowledge economies? Again, these are not technology questions, but questions coming from the fields of social science, political science and economics.

With this in mind, we understand that using Development 2.0 interchangeably with ICT4D not only falls short of the full picture, but deprives us of the chance to understand and apply the true nature and potential of this emerging field. Only by handling Development 2.0 as something essentially new, we can make full use of all the opportunities that social media offers to us. And by acknowledging that it is really the widespread application of the principles behind social media which are of importance, rather than the tools and the fact that there is some technology involved.

Monday, 10 January 2011

How we deal with what we know - or don't know

Through the network, I came across this interesting article in the New Yorker: "The Truth Wears Off". It elaborates in the "Decline Effect"or empirical science, which is the phenomenon that the more scientists try to replicate previous empirical results, the more the statistic effects of these results wear off.

"Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can't bear to let them go.

And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren't surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will
soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.)

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that¹s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn't mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn't mean its true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."

First, I think the article makes a nice point about the fact that we are all humans, and even in our most sincere efforts to acquire objective knowledge, often fail to deal with our world in an objective manner. Nothing really spectacular or contentious about that. It just reminds us that a healthy dose of humility in all that we do is always a good idea.

However, the article also points to a deeper issue. Some might argue that there is such a thing as gravity. There is such a thing as electrons. That one can measure toxins in the environment. That mere belief can never diminish scientific results. And that it was one specific contribution of Enlightenment that we must still answer the question whether what we believe is true or false.

But I don't think it's as easy as playing out "perception" (non-science) versus "fact" (science). Besides all the wonderful blessings that the Modern Age and Enlightenment brought us, that specific era also had at least one flaw, namely that it made modern society believe it eventually could know everything, and every subject could be approached with a dualistic scientific model that looks for true or false statements.

The last 100 years, however, have taught us that the universe is far more complex than that. We learned that sometimes two opposing statements are true at the same time, that light is both wave and particles, that the movement of the subject experiencing time is changing how fast time goes by, that it is physically impossible to determine the location and the vector of an electron at the same time and that by the mere fact of observing a scientific experiment, we are sometimes changing its outcome. And these are only the examples of physics.

What these discoveries did to us was moving us towards a post-modern society, in which we still build on the achievements of Enlightenment and modern science (modern in the sense of the clear-cut causalities of Newton mechanics), but in which we also acknowledge that there are boundaries to our cognitive capacity to get a hold of absolute "truth". This allows us to go beyond a dualistic world view in which we can only deal with phenomenons in yes/no or true/false categories, but in which we can embrace complexity, paradoxes and unanswered questions. Such a mindset even allows us to deal with unanswerable questions in an productive way (e.g. in the areas of ethics, social justice, law, culture, arts, philosophy, religion) which dualistic science was never capable of doing.

Let's not be afraid of a world that is bigger and more complex than our little boxes of knowledge are made for.