This Week I Learned (2016-03-03)

SASS and Mystery Show.

Not much—I was sick all week and spent most of my time sleeping/migraine-ing/coughing.

I did experiment with SASS, though—I’d dabbled a bit previously, but not seriously. Verdict: four stars.

I also discovered Mystery Show, Starlee Kine’s podcast on solving mysteries that are less true crime, more “how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” It’s excellent.

Thoughts from the Al Jazeera Forum

I’m spending this weekend at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha, where I was asked to participate in a seminar on the role of the blogosphere in bringing social and political change. The question posed to us — Hisham Almiraat, Mohamed Najem, Georgia Popplewell, Ramsey Tesdell, Nasser Weddady, and myself — revolved around the article Malcom Gladwell published in the New Yorker last month claiming that online connections are purely weak ties and that social media are therefore incapable of creating or sustaining a social movement.

I side with those — David Weinberger, Zeynep Tunecki, and others — who have responded to Gladwell by saying that attempting to cleanly separate online and offline media (or connections, or actions) is a futile pursuit. Social media are an integral part of a new media ecosystem, one in which bloggers are amplified and inspired by more traditional forms of media and in which mainstream media outlets increasingly partner with citizen journalists to provide the most complete coverage they can.

Throughout the forum, panelists have repeatedly raised this theme, arguing that framing media as old versus new or mainstream versus citizen is not a productive approach to understanding the impact of online networks. Speakers who work with major news outlets have thanked bloggers for sharing their first-hand accounts of what’s happening on the ground, while bloggers have thanked major news outlets for broadcasting their reports. In a break-out discussion on Saturday, citizen journalists from Tunisia and Egypt said that Al Jazeera’s amplification of their voices helped bring the situations in these countries to a tipping point.

This idea of a media ecology is one I’ve been mulling over as I’ve been working with the Technology for Transparency Network over the past year. We’ve interviewed more than 60 organizations who use digital tools to promote transparency and accountability in their governments, and one of our key conclusions has been that organizations who build partnerships with traditional media organizations — whether these are local radio stations or major national newspapers — tend to have more success than organizations that rely solely on the Internet to get their message across. For me, it’s been interesting to hear that this is the case not only when talking about city budget transparency, but also when talking about revolutions.

I don’t think this in any way diminishes the importance of social media in the movement for government accountability. In many cases, both local radio stations and national papers (and, as I’ve heard this weekend, Al Jazeera) would be unable to report on the stories they cover without the help of bloggers and tweeters. I’m glad to see that those who are here at the forum — both traditional and citizen journalists — are willing to exlore these partnerships and acknowledge their importance.

Taking offline censorship online: Rwanda may start filtering

The Rwandan government has announced it may block the website of an independent newspaper if the paper does not obey a six-month suspension of its publishing rights.

Not content to simply ban the printed publication of independent newspaper Umuvigizi, the Rwandan government has announced that if the paper does not shut down its website it will take matters into its own hands by blocking the site.

Read the full story at the OpenNet Initiative blog.

In Rwanda? Help us track whether Umuvugizi is blocked!

Internet censorship reporting site Herdict allows Internet users to track which sites are blocked in their countries. If you are in Rwanda, please let us know whether you can access You can submit a report via the Herdict reporter or using Twitter or e-mail.

Twitter Revolution?

“This is it. The big one…. It’s Twitter.” For those of you who haven’t been following the media hype surrounding Iran’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-a “Twitter Revolution,” that’s Clay Shirky, speaking four days after the June 2009 presidential elections. Ouch. Awkward.

Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.
Image courtesy of TouchTheStars09 on Flickr.

“This is it. The big one…. It’s Twitter.”

For those of you who haven’t been following the media hype surrounding Iran’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-a “Twitter Revolution,” that’s Clay Shirky, speaking four days after the June 2009 presidential elections.

Ouch. Awkward.

It’s not that Shirky was alone in his enthusiasm, nor was he the first to champion Twitter as a revolutionary force in Iranian politics. Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic wrote of the protests, “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before,” and the New York Times chimed in with an article on how “new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions.”

It’s more that…well…nothing much has changed. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power, and a recent study found that less than one percent of Iranians — 0.027 percent, precisely, though that number likely includes foreigners who changed their profile location last summer — are on Twitter.

Shirky shouldn’t feel too bad, though. Evgeny Morozov, who’s made quite a name for himself bashing “cyber utopians” for their uncritical love of all things social media, is responsible for the phrase “Twitter Revolution,” which he first applied to Moldova in April 2009. Boing Boing‘s Xeni Jardin appropriated the meme in GOOD magazine during Guatemala’s May 2009 political unrest. I myself am guilty of propagating it – on Twitter, no less – in Uganda after the September 2009 riots in Kampala.

Still, despite all the hype (and no matter how much we wish it were so), none of the so-called “revolutions” in Iran, Moldova, Guatemala or Uganda have lead to substantially different governments. Rather than reflecting actual politics, the Twitter Revolution seems to be largely a product of the media, both mainstream and social. “Western journalists shifted their focus from the role of Iranian people to the role of technology,” Ethan Zuckerman says of the June 2009 media coverage. In the October issue of Information Today, Morozov wondered if the emphasis on Twitter took critical focus away from the politics and history behind the event: “It certainly made an impact in how the events were covered in the West…. It probably stole from the protesters, because instead of discussing what was happening, a quarter of American media coverage was devoted to what so-and-so said on Twitter.”

I tend to agree with anthropologist Maximilian Forte, who conducted a study of the election-related tweets and related media coverage between June 13 and 17, 2009. Forte’s research led him to conclude: “This is indeed a ‘revolution’…but it’s for Twitter.”

It turns out Shirky was right. The big one is Twitter, as long as you get a little Clintonian (“it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) in your definition of the “one.”

Was Twitter a revolutionary force in Iran? I don’t think so. Was Iran a revolutionary force in how the average American views Twitter? Definitely, unquestionably yes. The Twitter Revolution — or revolutions, if we’re being fair to Moldova, Guatemala and Uganda — is the big one. Just not the one we were hoping for.

Adapted from a paper written for “Social Impact of Mass Media,” a class taught by Andie Tucher at The Journalism School at Columbia University (download “Twitter Revolution?” as a PDF). Crossposted on The Morningside Post.