digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

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question Douglas Rushkoff

Welcome to the April Digital Nation Roundtable discussion, Freedom.

Does the Internet promote freedom of expression and communication, making it a catalyst for democracy and activism? Is the net tilted towards Democracy and participatory society? Meanwhile, do services like Facebook and Twitter encourage virtual and superficial involvement over dedication to the kind of activism that makes a difference? Does it just take people off the streets, blogging safely in their homes where they no longer threaten repressive regimes?

Our participants this month are:

Dr. Awab Alvi - dentist, activist, and political blogger in Pakistan
Azmat Khan - journalist and Pakistan researcher
Kelly Niknejad -  Editor in Chief, Tehran Bureau
Sam Gregory -, program director
Vahid - Blogger - vahidonline, Researcher, archivist and media monitor for Tehran Bureau.
Zahid Jamil - attorney specializing in Internet issues, Pakistan
David Nassar - Executive Director, Alliance for Youth Movements and expert in the democratic development of the Middle East.  
Legba Carrefour - Radical organizer, artist, and writer from Washington, DC
Wael Abbas - Journalist, Blogger, and activist - Cairo, Egypt.  Nathan Freitas - Activist + Inventor, Tech Director for Tibet Action Institute
Micah Sifry - Co-Founder and Editor, The Personal Democracy Forum
Ted Byfield - Nettime moderator, Visiting Fellow, Yale Law School Information Society Project

As some of our participants must hide their real-world identities, we will be conducting our roundtable without photos this month. I'll be back momentarily with the opening topic.

Reyniece B April 22, 2010 15:57

I think that technology is interfering in a lot of things happening. Many children and adults spend most of their day on the computer then they should. When your texting and on the computer, face book, twitter and other website many people are on now a days, everyone knows that’s called multitasking. Most people who think that they are good ...(continue reading »)

meagan April 22, 2010 16:03

i have a major problem i am addicted to my phone i can not live without it. I can not even survive in school cause that is how bad i need it. ...(continue reading »)


Douglas Rushkoff

To open the conversation, let's share some examples of the promise of this medium, and the challenge it poses to repression. What are some of the best examples of net activism you have witnessed - or taken part in? What did the net enable that wouldn't have happened otherwise?



Nathan Freitas

My activist work is very focused on bringing the net into the streets, so to speak. I've always had a strong interest in mobile technology, going way back to when I used to try and build my own walkie talkie radios, as a kid. The converge of net and mobile as a mainstream technology has mean that people physically out in the streets (or on the mountain, as is this case with the story below), can be just as tapped into the power and effect of the net, as someone sitting in front of their computer at home. Here's one case of that, which I was involved in making happen.

In spring 2007, one year out from the Beijing Olympics and its global torch relay, China was preparing climbers to take the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest, in order to claim the mountain as their own in front of the world. For Tibetans, this was a terrible insult, heaped on top of all the other political whitewashing and cultural exploitation that was going on there in the lead up to the games. Tenzin Dorjee ("Tendor"), a young Tibetan born in exile and the Director of Students for a Free Tibet, decided to risk his personal freedom, and travel to the Everest basecamp to stage a protest. Unfortunately, that is a location which is about as remote as you can get, at that time under guard by Chinese military, without even guaranteed cell phone coverage. We knew however, that to have an impact and to safeguard Tendor, we needed a way to get footage of the protest out to the world as fast as possible.

Fortunately, the cost of satellite-based net connections have dropped dramatically in recent years, mostly due to the high use by news, humanitarian and military organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I was able to work with Tendor to put together a very affordable and lightweight system that used a satellite modem, laptop and consumer digital video camera setup which could run off battery and solar power. More importantly, we found the right team, willing to take the risk and capable of both mountaineering and tech geekery, because not only would this be a highly sophisticated endeavor, it would also need to be pulled off in the thin air of Tibet.

After traveling for a few days, Tendor was able to make it to Everest and stage his protest, which including a moving speech, the lighting of a Tibetan torch and singing of Tibetan national anthem, all in range of the Chinese camp. They were quickly arrested by the armed military guards in the area and taken away in land rovers for interrogation. Fortunately, Tendor's media support team was able to beam his protest in real-time back to SFT offices in New York, where the protest quickly moved from the real world onto the net. The footage was immediately uploaded to YouTube, released online as downloadable MPEG-4s, and burned onto DVDs that were given to the Associated Press. Blog posts and press releases were published. Social networks and email lists were alerted. The Everest team had been in detention for barely a few hours, yet over 50,000 people around the world had already experienced Tendor's protest directly, and understand the great risk he and the others had taken.

Over the next few days, Tendor and the team were taken through various detention centers on the Tibetan plateau, faced intense interrogation and even had their lives threatened. They were lost to the world for those days with no official information released by the Chinese authorities. The video had made it to the front page of YouTube (in the days where 100,000 views was enough), been covered by blogs including, and picked up by major news outlets, with the footage showing internationally on CNN, BBC, VOA, Al Jazeera and local NBC and FOX affiliates in Boston, San Francisco, New York and across the country. Eventually, the late US. Senator Ted Kennedy became personally involved (Tendor's family lives in Boston), and the U.S. State Department began putting tough pressure on the Chinese government to release the protestors (all American citizens). Finally, they were taken to the China-Nepal border, released, and told never to return to China.

Ultimately, the use of the net in this protest allowed for Tendor to take the ultimate risk, while knowing in his heart and mind, that the world would know what he had done almost instantly. In addition, in a media world built on sound bites and story hooks, the idea of "this just happened now on Mt. Everest" helped captivate netizens, sell the story to mainstream media, and garner the support and attention needed to activate our own government representatives before it was too late. In the coming months, every mention of the Chinese Olympic ascent up Everest also mentioned the "Tibet Protest" as the counterpoint to the story. News of the protest spread through Tibet thanks to official shortwave and satellite broadcasts of RFA and VOA Tibet, as well as just word of mouth of "The Tibetan Who Protested on Everest".

Throughout history, untold numbers of activists and dissidents have taken similar risks without the benefit of the net to get their backs, to spread their words, to amplify their cause. That in no way should diminish the nobleness of their acts, but instead, only prove the value that the net has brought to people such as Tendor.

Just search "Everest Protest" on YouTube to see it for yourself:

Anthony April 30, 2010 7:31

While proponents of the web may think that it helps people become more knowledgeable and allows greater collaboration and connectivity, a recent discussion in my sociology class has led me to think otherwise. Facebook and the internet in general, a potentially momentous tool for pushing society forwards, seems to actually be limiting activism. As my peers noted, its easy to ...(continue reading »)


Micah Sifry

I'm going to start by offering some answers from the perspective of how the internet is changing the structure of American politics, mostly for the better.
1. Ten years ago, the only people who could effectively speak in the public arena and be heard were either already famous, wealthy, or under the employ of some other wealthy entity. The pathways to break into that public arena were tightly constrained: go to the right schools, know the right people, etc. Or fall into a well.

Today, while there is no guarantee that you will reach millions of listeners, you don't need millions of dollars, or the right connections, or fame, to reach millions of people. You do need a compelling message, and this is not something everyone has the ability to make. But the barrier to entry into the public conversation is much lower.

To take a pretty unusual example, a middle-aged homeless man using the handle "Slumjack Homeless" can write a comment on a blog post on a relatively low traffic site explaining why he prefers the streets to shelters, and end up featured on the New York Times and BBC websites. A college student named James Kotecki with a cute way of reviewing political videos can become a star on YouTube. A Twitter user named Amanda Ross can rally her friends to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign that, within weeks, raises a quarter million dollars via home-grown events in 200 cities. A campus activist named Farouk Olu Aregbe can create a Facebook group with a million members supporting a presidential candidate, etc. An 80-year-old man can email his 50 closest friends a video of Barack Obama on the campaign trail and have more influence on their votes in a few minutes than it would have taken him if he had to speak to each one personally face-to-face.

2. The Internet is a freer and more interactive medium, and the result is a richer and more diverse public conversation than what we had when the free press was just for those who owned one. Even as the political blogosphere matures, with some bloggers becoming bona fide media stars and longtime journalists taking up blogging, the result is a more democratic medium.
First, bloggers are their own men and women. Being your own boss means you are freer to speak your own mind. It's not surprising that some bloggers have earned large audiences--there has always been strong latent public demand for red-blooded journalism and opinionizing, just not much of that was offered by the old, big corporate media.

And even the bloggers who now work for media conglomerates are subject to the readers and competitors in ways that old media workers never were. It isn't just being exposed to commenters (who can make you smarter or show how dumb you are); it's knowing that you are in competition with other bloggers who are more transparent and interactive--that is what is changing the medium in a small-d democratic way--regardless of how concentrated the traffic may be.

Blogging about politics, unlike the old days of oped columns and talking heads, means being in constant contact with your readers, who collectively exert tremendous influence on the public conversation through their ability to comment, rate and share blog posts.

3. The "netroots" hubs online are far more than mere blogs; they are switching stations for action, not just opinion--sifting the news and pointing readers to all kinds of tangible political activities. For example, there's a lot more going on on the biggest liberal political site, DailyKos, than meets the eye, and anyone who simply equates that site with its founder, Markos Moulitsas, is missing the big picture.

DailyKos is more like a virtual city than it is just a national blog. Kos's personal contribution, contentwise, is about 1%, in terms of words written, of all the content on his site. Likewise, he probably gets a similarly small fraction of the overall number of comments posted on his site every day. The site gets several thousand diary posts a week, and these are read and rated by thousands more. It's also not just focused on national politics; there are all kinds of sub-communities buried inside it focused on more local concerns. There's even a progressive gardening club that "meets" every Friday where people share pictures and news of their gardens. To talk about a site like DailyKos in the same breath as an old media entity like the Washington Post is to compare apples and oranges.

4. The web is flattening, somewhat, the financing of politics, and to a modest but real degree, reducing the importance of large, maxed-out donors on who can become a viable candidate for office.

At the highest level, we've seen an important shift towards smaller donors, according to a careful analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. Obama had more than 400K individual contributors, more than Bush and Kerry combined in 2004. And the percentage giving under $1000 were 53%, compared to 40% for Bush and 44% for Kerry. [Details here.]

The Democratic hub Actblue has channeled more than $111 million in contributions to more than 3000 Democratic candidates since its founding in 2004, with a median contribution of $50. The small-donor shift isn't as important in down-ballot races as we'd like, but it definitely is making it easier for candidates and members of Congress who want to take a more maverick approach--from Joe Wilson to Alan Grayson.

5. As an abundant medium, the web puts far less of a premium on the sound-biting of politics, and indeed often rewards rich political content. I've written about the rise of the "sound-blast" plenty of times and won't repeat that here, but it isn't just about the fact that Obama's second-most viewed video on YouTube is his 37-minute speech on race. Lots of popular political video clips tend to run anywhere from one to three minutes long; we should recognize this as a tremendous improvement in the public discourse.

To conclude, let me just suggest that it is dangerous to make conclusive statements about such a young and dynamic space. Four years ago, YouTube was just starting. Two years ago Twitter was just starting. Now something like 30 million people now have iPhones, and by 2012 the number of Americans with some kind of smartphone will probably be double or triple that. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what happens when you combine real-time web access with location services with tools that you can carry anywhere in your pocket.

Slum Jack April 25, 2010 11:06

> . . . a middle-aged homeless man using the handle "Slumjack Homeless" can write a comment > on a blog post on a relatively low traffic site explaining why he prefers the streets to shelters, > and end up featured on the New York Times and BBC websites. Hey, I'm glad you noticed! And thanks for the mention. Yes, ...(continue reading »)

Anthony April 30, 2010 7:21

I'd like to argue against your second point, Micah, as I think that, while the internet would, at first glance, offer a broader range of viewpoints and thereby enlighten the populace, a trend called 'group polarization' prevents this from occurring. Group polarization is a psychological phenomenon characterized by a group of like-minded people whose opinions become more reinforced when exposed ...(continue reading »)


Sam Gregory

Hi all - glad to join the conversation!

My perspective is of someone watching the radically increasing capacity of the internet (and increasingly, particularly the mobile web) as a place/space for creating and sharing video and visual imagery, and its impact on human rights work - so I'll focus primarily on video online for my perspective on the internet and fighting repression. When WITNESS, where I work, was founded in 1992, coming out of the Rodney King incident, the promise then was of handicams in the hands of human rights activists as a way to document the reality of what was happening on the ground around the world. But that moment was very preliminary - since in the absence of distribution venues for their footage most of the groups and activists we worked with found it extremely hard to get into the mainstream media (which they assumed to be a primary audience). Gatekeepers were not receptive to many of their issues, or didn't want to reflect the complexities in the stories they allowed to be seen. The internet - for many of the groups we work with - adds the distribution and sharing element that was missing at the start, particularly for rapid distribution outside of a specific local space. So, our partners working in eastern Burma can distribute a video on attacks on ethnic minority villages, and have it instantly in the hands of solidarity groups and activists worldwide - and receive half a million hits on it on YouTube over time (though perhaps with a question on the impact of those views, that may be just as relevant as when we look at broadcast viewing figures on TV and wonder what people did as a result). That's not to say that all of groups we work with use the internet as their primary means of distribution to advocacy audiences (we work with many who still rely on distribution of DVDs, or on using video as evidence or in lobbying behind closed doors), but that it gives them a critical way to either share information privately or publicly that they lacked before.

For best examples, there's alot to choose from - and also noting I think we're all still teasing out the linkages between online viewing/engagement and offline activism, particularly with some many variant and hybrid forms of internet-based video media. Over the past two years, WITNESS has featured many of these examples of what's working in terms of video online on our human rights media-sharing site, the Hub ( Within that spectrum of online video for activism there are well-produced and well-edited short viral videos - some of the best examples include 'The Girl Effect' on the importance of prioritizing education and support to girls (highlighted in examples of using video to stop violence against women) or something as hard-hitting as the Amnesty UnsubscribeMe videos, that would never get played on television as PSAs (though '24' might be close), as well as the types of NGO advocacy material like the Burma video I mention above, that can speak to specific audiences with much greater ease than they ever could before. The internet has enabled (and bearing in mind that there are still massive digital divides in terms of access, digital literacy and participation) the circumvention of gatekeepers' control of access to the 'airwaves' and of editorial and a reduced need to prioritize one unitary voice, allowing instead to show the patterns of what is happening (as for example a tool like Ushahidi enables), or provide multiple perspectives on issues that might not otherwise get attention (e.g. ActionAid Nepal's participatory video work to share children's voices from Nepal on climate change) and at a length that is of the creators' choosing.

Then you also have excellent examples of less produced cellphone and handicam video sharing multiple facets of demonstrations or state brutality in Burma, Egypt, US or Iran - and sparking public activism in country and internationally (Iran), official investigations (eventually in Egypt) or news coverage (Burma). In the case of Burma, there is no way the situation there would have had the same amount of attention for the time it did during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 if it had not been for the capacity of bloggers and video-journalists, and human rights activists in the country to shoot, and share video online (captured so clearly in the Oscar-nominated film Burma VJ). Now, there were also repercussions in terms of that video (as activists were identified and targeted), and also questions about how we assess ultimate impact of the coverage, but that's probably for another stage of this conversation. I also want to echo Nathan's observations on the real-time nature of video shared online, and how it creates instant distant witnesses that can be pushed into other forms of activism.

There's also the phenonemon of unintended and intended consequences of video circulating online and being remixed - in the absence of gatekeepers, and understood in the context rising digital media literacy to share, remix and re-edit. So in Burma, one of the cause celebre videos that has done most to compromise any sense of popular trust and integrity for the ruling military junta was the leaked wedding video of the daughter of the dictator, Than Shwe - that showed opulence and ostentation as the country was heading towards crisis. An example of how the internet (plus digital media literacy, increasing access to capture devices and a participatory sensibility) enables remixing of multiple voices in a structured ways, is the work my colleague Chris Michael did with student chapters of the youth anti-genocide coalition STAND where they were encouraged to remix footage that they shot themselves (of key influencers in their state - for example genocide survivors, religious leaders or community leaders) into short videos of material from key voices at a national level and footage from genocidal situations, in order to individually target their state's Senators with personalized videos that spoke to their particular interest and affiliations, encouraging them to support more effective legislation against genocide. It's discussed in this blog post. I also admire the innovation in the Tunisian Prison Map and related projects where Sami Ben-Gharbia and colleagues working in the opposition human rights movement in Tunisia found a way to embed testimonies from political prisoners and their families in the YouTube video layers on GoogleMaps, circumventing the government's attempt to hide these kinds of truths from their citizens. This, as well as the example of the Targhiz Sniper, are in a recent video '10 Tactics for Turning Information into Action' by the group Tactical Technology Collective, that does a great job of highlighting innovative tactics drawing on new information technologies, including the internet.

A final thought... At the heart of much human rights practice is 'making visible' what is happening. That's not to say that that alone is enough - but it's the start, both within national borders and to create the 'boomerang effect' of international, transnational publicity - both for the type of visible violations of civil and political rights like someone being beaten in public by the police (see this recent example from East Timor), but also for more complex, structural issues like access to water or housing. In order to guarantee other rights, communication rights are absolutely essential - i.e. in order to know your rights, understand them, and communicate, mobilize and organize around them to hold people in power accountable people need to be able to access and share information. The right to communicate essentially unlocks people's agency to demand other rights - and for this the internet has opened up new spaces for many people that didn't exist before. Whether they are successfully able to use that communicative space, and what others also do with that space is another matter!

Looking forward to participating in the rest of this conversation!

Sam Gregory
Program Director

Did you know another citizen journalist in Burma was just sentenced to thirteen years in jail? AHRC Urgent Appeal:



David Nassar

Hi all - happy to contribute!

The use of the internet in Iran was and is fascinating to me, not so much for how it enabled information to spread within Iran because that seems to be fairly limited but for how it enabled news to get out of Iran.

Most of the focus has been on the tools, and for sure Twitter is amazing. Beyond the tools though, lost in that debate is a strong analysis of the motivating factors behind the successful use of the web. To the extent it has been covered, people have talked about where CNN failed. However, it is not only that mainstream media has shortcomings, which it does. Rather, it is that Twittter and other types of blogs and social media are now able through their own assets to challenge mainstream media for credible reporting. This is historic. If we are going to understand the potential for what is happening and did happen in Iran, we need to look closely at those unique assets that enable the web to challenge TV news as a credible source.

First, there is the quality of the content. People watch mainstream media to get information and because that information is of a sufficient quality to generate credibility. However, how do we assess quality? One way is clearly presentation and CNN beats a blog or Twitter there hands down. However, probably a more important factor is authenticity and the web crushes CNN there. If people believe they are more likely to get quality content from alternative outlets that is better than the mainstream media, they will gravitate towards it.

Another inherent asset of the web is the human connection. What Twitter and Facebook and the others are doing by connecting people is generating credibility by connecting thousands one at a time, rather than all at once through the shared agreement that millions are watching one program. Those connections are happening at lightening speed. If thousands of people are following posts by an activist in Iran, that lends credibility to the source by our mutual agreement to listen to him/her. This is real alternative media but coming to you with a shared sense of agreement that blurs the line between it and a"mainstream" product.

So when you combine good content, with ease of use and the power of human interaction, what you get is the reporting out of Iran on Twitter or on blogs. It's a brave new world. Like any new world there will be risks and challenges, but it is exciting to watch it develop.


David Nassar
Executive Director
Alliance for Youth Movements



Vahid Online

The internet has had a profound effect on both the personal and public
sphere in Iran. For many Iranians online, it has been a crucial step
toward self actualization. In the Iranian blogosphere, we're
constantly learning from one another. The comments section of a blog
or news item is the space we've carved out to debate and hash out
ideas. It's where experts on a topic share their knowledge. As more
people raise their knowledge and self-awareness through these
interactions, it's bound to have a bearing on society as a whole.

For me personally, it's made me who I am. When I write on a certain
topic, or make a comment, I have to learn to stand by it. Over time,
it has made me a more idealistic person. You detect that among other
Iranian bloggers, too. They may not admit it, but you often see that
when the topic comes up again in a different context, they have
shifted their views. Because we can't have democracy in Iran offline,
the internet is where we are learning to practice it.

Of course there is the double-identity problem here. Because of the
nature of the Iranian government and the huge gap in culture from one
generation to the next, many of us have one personality and set of
ideals online, and another in the other world. So while some bloggers
may spout about democracy online, they may act contrary to it in real

The downside to the internet for many of us who live online is that we
deal with issues on a more superficial basis. No one bothers to read a
book or well thought out analysis anymore. It's too long. It requires
too much focus. We skim headlines. We're interested in the next quick
fix. With a blog post, at least there is the potential for debate. Few
bother to engage in that same debate in the comments section of
Facebook or engage in a back-and-forth on Twitter.

In terms of those tools changing the focus of activists from the
streets to the computer screen, I don't think the overall percentage
of Iranians actually in Iran using Facebook and Twitter are
significant enough to make a difference.



Azmat Khan

With all of the insightful commentary before me and in the wake of the WikiLeaks viral video, I'm thrilled to take part in this very timely conversation.

Although I have much I'd like write about, I am only going to comment briefly in two areas: 1) A complicated example of how the internet can bring social change in Pakistan; 2) The question of who decides whether social media from a particular region is relevant.

The Swat Flogging Video
Sam Gregory's work in Burma and discussion of the Neda Agha Soltan video from Iran, remind me of the Pakistani activist community's role in disseminating the 2009 Swat-flogging video, which is perhaps the most well-known, recent example of the internet's propensity for bringing social change in Pakistan. This video, which is believed to depict a young woman who is held down and beaten as public punishment for alleged moral transgressions, while a crowd of observers watch, went viral in Pakistan and around the world in March and April of 2009.

As a journalist working for Express 24/7 news when it was released, I saw firsthand how the video became a media goldmine: ordinary people watched it from their cell phones, the internet, and of course Pakistan's many passionate, prolific TV news channels. It sparked formal investigations and engendered rich, nationwide debates over the dangers and reach of the Pakistani Taliban, violence against women and misogyny, and notions of justice and morality.

For many in Pakistan, the video was a final straw in how far they were willing to allow Taliban encroachment in their country and for their government to strike deals with militants. Around this time, there was an observable shift in Pakistani public opinion against the Taliban, arguably a result of the video. The video is also believed to have significantly helped build support for Pakistani military operations against the Taliban in Swat.

Over a year later, it continues to be a source of controversy, with some individuals now confessing to have faked the video with paid actors in an effort to undermine the Taliban (and arguably rally military support). If this is in fact true, does it also undermine those rich conversations on violence against women which resulted from it?

Regardless of its veracity, the video's impact (whether good or bad) is undeniable. In Pakistan-policy discussions in Washington where I now work, I often hear U.S. strategists refer to the Swat flogging video as an example of how Pakistan can engage in a "strategic communications campaign" against the Taliban. This of course raises important ethical questions, which I'd be interested in hearing your perspectives on, particularly as they relate to your experiences elsewhere.

Dr. Avab Alvi, who is also on this roundtable, can probably speak more to the activism within Pakistan regarding this video and his own experiences writing about and bringing attention to the video and its authenticity through his popular blog, Teeth Maestro, which you should also check out.

Who Decides If Social Media Is Relevant?
I'm also very interested in the question of who (or which audience) decides whether social media from a country is relevant, particularly in politically volatile places like Iran, Pakistan, or Kyrgyzstan. Of course, the Iranian election brought unprecedented global attention to social media use in the country. Why can't the same be said for Kyrgyzstan? Sarah Kendzior of does a wonderful job raising these questions in this post, arguing that social media users in Kyrgyzstan were ignored because they were writing for a local audience. I'd love to get your perspectives on this.

I have more to say on how the internet also opens up opportunities for the manipulation of events and promoting false information, as well as the less examined social and cultural impacts of greater access to the internet. I hope to raise these in future posts. I look forward to your responses.



Douglas Rushkoff

Thanks to all who have responded so far, for your insights, experiences, and candor.

Vahid says:

The downside to the internet for many of us who live online is that we deal with issues on a more superficial basis. No one bothers to read a book or well thought out analysis anymore. It's too long. It requires too much focus. We skim headlines. We're interested in the next quick fix. With a blog post, at least there is the potential for debate. Few bother to engage in that same debate in the comments section of Facebook or engage in a back-and-forth on Twitter.

In terms of those tools changing the focus of activists from the
streets to the computer screen, I don't think the overall percentage
of Iranians actually in Iran using Facebook and Twitter are
significant enough to make a difference.

Which leads me pretty directly to my next question.

Did you ever imagine a day when a *blog* and its comments would be considered a higher, more contemplative form of public political activity? Will something come along that makes Twitter seem deep and reflective?

And to Azmat's many cogent points of this weekend, which represent both a great summary of much of what we've expressed so far, and a great preface to the next stage of our conversation, what do we think about the way the Internet so easily becomes part of the "house of mirrors" of media and abstraction? It's one thing to read newspaper reports and then engage with the real world; it's another to learn about the world through Internet sites, and then express ourselves through other Internet sites.

When we find out that an important viral video was faked, does it make us cynical about all of it? Are the reality of repression and the ethereal, unreal quality of media getting confused?

In short, how is the net biased against what we'd like to be doing with it? And how can we safeguard against these pitfalls?



Nathan Freitas

I do worry that these digital medium are overtaking the message they bear, gaining an importance simply because they are being used, and not because they are significant in any lasting way themselves. Yes, Twitter is convenient, but in places without it, the phenomenon of Twitter still occurs via text messages, message boards, forums, game chat, taxi radios and so on. In addition, there have been many profound moments throughout history where someone has uttered a statement less than one hundred and forty characters long that has had a huge impact on the world. Whether it be "Ich bin ein Berliner", "Tear down this wall" or "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind", our brains are wired to be moved by the turn of a terse, inspired phrase. In addition, as the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei (@AIWW) recently observed, you can say much more in 140 Chinese characters than you can in the Latin alphabet, so the idea that something would be deep or not because it is on Twitter or a blog will hopefully soon be an observation only uttered by dismissive novices.

English: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." (162 characters - untweetable w/o edits sadly)

Chinese translation: 我有一个梦想,我的四个孩子将生活在一个有一天,他们不会被判断他们的肤色,而是以他们的品格的国度里生活。(89 characters! tweet away!)

If I can paraphrase, Dr. King was right (as usual) - it *is* about the content of the characters, and not the color (or length) of them.

As a follow-up to this, here is a writeup I did back in 2004 of the proto-Twitter text messaging system I was involved in setting up and running at the 2004 Republican National Convention protests in New York City. We had 10,000+ people "following" us and reporting back via the UPOC and TXTMob services.



Awab Alvi

As much as I am committed to the social web for all my efforts in activism there is a definite downside to it, the downside is that there is too much clutter to sieve through, and sadly its growing by the minute. It can all be attributed to just merely have a larger user base which is now able to digest the information on the net and regurgitate their own thoughts as and when needed - this power of speech aka type written journalistic thought was once merely limited to the morning newspaper or the occasional letter to the editor. Some might actually be moments of genius but quite often its a waste of 1's and 0's. With a larger user base naturally the number of bad apples amongst the crown increases.

That said I still believe that the occasional fake video or the occasional mis-reporting should not undermine our confidence in the medium, in fact it just highlights the human aspect to this use of technology. You have to learn to live with both sides of the coin, knowing the fact that this can sometimes be bad.

Another downside which I see is that the phenomenon of the white screen which allows almost all of us to hide behind it, a facebook event would get hundreds in not thousands of "Will attend" to actually end up having only 5 eventually show up. Says a lot about the power of the 'click', it simply can not be trusted, they may mean well, but it has lost us the human touch level, the importance of having RSVP'd to an event which was previously considered as a corner stone to an unwritten verbal promise that I must attend. Is it that we have slowly begun to deliberately decieve, will that have serious repercussions in our own human lives as time progresses, will be slowly morphing ourselves into untrusted humans, where the no one will put a value on our promise

So I often question the power of the web has it has become merely a chatter box with too much of extraneous noise interspersed with a few moments of brilliance. Often I meet people who are frequent commentators on my articles, behind the white screen they elevate to a larger then life personality, and when you bump across them on Main Street, its more often contrary to what the appear online.

On the flip side - I being a dentist by profession, would have lived a closed limited life spending my time as dentist working 9-5 six days a week in solitude treating the 32 teeth that nature had to offer, had it not been for blogs which I discovered in 2004, had it not been for the Government of Pakistan blocking the domain in 2005, had it not been for Perviaz Musharaff putting a martial law in 2007 - I probably would have never embarked into the arena of online activism that I so much enjoy today - so I then must ask even myself, have I been liberated, have many others like me found the light to be able to share their freedom of thought so freely - I do not know, but this I can tell - my being part of this online revolution is immensely satisfying and liberating to say the least.

So do I have the right to question the downsides of the net, or is it just that its a web full of people learning and discovering their way across the hyper-connected world that we call Internet

Awab Alvi




Kelly Niknejad

Whatever the downside, it's dwarfed by the positive in my opinion.
Let's take the example of the occasional fake video. During the early
stages of the post-election crackdown, I came across a clip not very
different from the real ones streaming in from the protests that day.
Our webmaster quickly wrote back to tell me he wasn't going to post it
because it had been in circulation several months earlier. I did get a
little angry, mostly at myself though. I took it as a wake up call and
tried to be a more discerning news consumer. It also helped gear me up
for the misinformation campaign that was under way. If it had that
effect on me, I'm sure it did on many others. In a way, I think the
internet has made us all more sophisticated.

In terms of the superficial aspect of the internet, I think it
parallels the real world to some extent. Most interactions are on the
surface. There are other occasions when you engage in a more
meaningful way with someone or a group of people. But how often does
that happen? The internet multiplies the interactions and increases
the chances of both types of engagement.



Sam Gregory

A colleague just shared with me a post by Craig Newmark of Craigslist (at which I thought was apposite as we think of the antecedents of blogging and informal (social) media:

"People have always used the "social media" of their time to effect change. Without belaboring history, consider that some of the most widely-felt changes in the Western world were made by "bloggers" using the technology of their day. Paul of Tarsus (St. Paul), wrote newsletters (epistles) that substantially influenced Christianity throughout the Mediterranean. Martin Luther brought church abuses to light and initiated the Protestant Reformation through his 95 updates (theses), and Thomas Paine spread his blog (printed pamphlets) about democracy to the masses in the ramp up to the American Revolution."

Similarly to this, rumours have always existed, and similarly photos and videos have always been staged and faked (think about the continuing controversy around the Robert Capa photo of the soldier as he is hit by the bullet during the Spanish civil war). One of the positives about an increasing visual media literacy that comes from more people knowing how to create visual media (because they can just do it on their cellphone or digital camera, or on their computer) is that there is an increasing critical literacy about images we look at and the power of selectivity/editing. And more people with the capacity to analyze, blog and share their views means more capacity to weed out the false videos - one of my colleagues looked at that in the case of some controversial footage from Sri Lanka in this blog:

Another trend is tools to draw on the power of the volume of information out there in positive ways - (Craig mentions some in the post above in terms of open government), tools like (used to map needs for humanitarian support in Haiti) can help us see multiple information points, including visual information points, and make transparent the range of information on an incident and the patterns. When we see fifteen different sources telling us the same thing, or allowing us to see the patterns and not have to rely on a single account, then we're using the power of multiple information sources to corroborate for ourselves. Perhaps one worry here is the lack of media literacy at a broad level for understanding these visualizations when our human tendency is to think in terms of single-track personal narratives?

There is a surreal nature to our some of the spontaneous solidarity that occurs on global human rights crises, particularly from afar and out of dander - when we join 'Support the Monks in Burma' on Facebook, or turn our Twitter icons green, there is a danger that we feel like that is enough. Just like Nathan I hope that our response online doesn't preclude our response offline, that our response online is equally effective as if we'd made the same effort on another action, or that it doesn't leave us with a feeling we've done something when in fact that feeling of satisfaction shouldn't have come that easily! I worry that we can vicariously take other people's suffering (which we can experience so directly through a YouTube video of the violent repression of a protest) and in our safe worlds of circulating, re-tweeting and sharing information, lose touch with the very direct, painful nature of what is happening on the ground - and how people's lives may well depend on how effective our reaction is, not just that we react at all. As a related concern that we've been looking at in some of our work at WITNESS (see for example our post at - how do you think about the very real safety, re-victimization, unintended consequence and consent issues involved in our gathering, manipulating, remixing and recirculating of imagery of human rights crises, particularly if we don't act as truly 'ethical witnesses' and act upon the material.



David Nassar

In the opening to your question, you use the words contemplative, deep and reflective. One word you do not use is authentic. As I suggested in my previous post, I believe it is the potential for authenticity that the web offers that makes it a truly credible alternative to other forms of media So if we were weighing relevancy, how much weight do we give to an "expert" offering deep thoughts as compared to an "amateur" offering footage or analysis from the spot where events happened, just having lived them?

If we suppose that people come to the web expecting authenticity then faked videos or false testimony to events undermines its value for sure. However, the multiplicity of sources online also offers its own checks and balances.

People seem to be caught in a debate over whether the web will replace traditional media and I feel this is implicit in your question. I would argue that is the wrong question and that the right one is how can the two forms of media complement each other to ensure the most accurate picture gets out about events.

Erica Diegelman May 10, 2010 16:11

I do think that the web and the TV media should work together to get the facts accessible to more people. I know there are a lot of fake videos out there that are cause for media scrutiny. If the web media and the televised media worked together to get the facts out (i.e. then there would be a ...(continue reading »)


Legba Carrefour
What are some of the best examples of net activism you have witnessed - or taken part in? What did the net enable that wouldn't have happened otherwise?

Sorry I'm late on joining in. Meatspace activism got in the way pretty
drastically. I know we've moved on but I wanted to start by directly
answering the initial question.

I'm a little apprehensive of the notion of "net activism", largely
because the most successful actions aren't defined simply by
technological interaction, but by networked action. "Net activism" to
me brings to mind a mental space where we divorce who owns the network
from our on-the-ground work. When we use the internet, we're
communicating over spaces we don't own and can never hope to, making
us quasi-legal media squatters. It's something worth keeping in mind
when we talk about this.

I do grassroots radical organizing across the spectrum and I've
witnessed some pretty spectacular uses of network technology,
particularly at large mobilizations (like the old anti-globalization
protests). The one that sticks in my mind was the development of a
project by the Institute for Applied Autonomy called TxtMob back in
about 2003.

TxtMob was this a pre-Twitter microblog service that ran exclusively
via SMS. You would set up a group and you could do group distribution
either through an open group that allowed anyone to post (sending the
message to everyone else subscribed to the group) or an announcement
only list.

I first saw it in action at the 2004 Republican National Convention in
New York. At one point, something like 1200 people suddenly mobilized
on Broadway to disrupt convention delegates who were given free
tickets to Broadway shows, followed by dozens of spontaneous actions
all over Mid-town Manhattan.

TxtMob eventually shut down after Federal prosecutors tried to
subpoena records for the site and the owners decided to simply trash
the servers rather than turning it over. It's also definitely been
technologically surpassed, but the model it set up was a great way to
organize people on an instant level.

I'm actually a little skeptical of the utility of something like
Twitter to on the ground mobilizations. I've used it for a lot of
protests in Washington, DC and because of how it's set up and what
it's for, it seems more suited to sparking and directing dialogue on
that specific network. So you can publicize what you're doing and get
other people to pick up and repeat it and because it's an open network
and searchable, you can get the conversation up to pretty high levels
in the corporate media chain.

The repetition bit is really interesting: Ten years ago, one of the
most successful ways of rapidly communicating at protests was to have
people at the site of whatever thing was taking place would, in
unison, say a short message, fall silent, people behind them would
then repeat the message, fall silent, and so on until 5000 people
learned something like where the cops were within 3 minutes. Tools
like Twitter have the capacity to replicate on a global scale.

You saw something like that happen with the uprising in Iran over the
last year. Twitter wasn't so much useful for coordinating protests due
to the near-total shutdown of service inside Iran, but the story got
picked up and repeated until the entire world was watching. And
because people are repeating things in their own words, it allows for
information resonance instead of one-way broadcast like you get with
traditional corporate media.



Legba Carrefour

Azmat Khan asked:
"Who Decides If Social Media Is Relevant?

I'm also very interested in the question of who (or which audience)
decides whether social media from a country is relevant, particularly
in politically volatile places like Iran, Pakistan, or Kyrgyzstan. Of
course, the Iranian election brought unprecedented global attention to
social media use in the country. Why can't the same be said for
Kyrgyzstan? Sarah Kendzior of does a wonderful job
raising these questions in this post, arguing that social media users
in Kyrgyzstan were ignored because they were writing for a local
audience. I'd love to get your perspectives on this.

I just wanted to chime in on how key this is. There's a clear
prioritization of what social media gets repeated to certain
audiences. With Twitter, in the US at least, the network is dominated
by a lot of 30-something "urban sophisticates", often employed in the
IT industry or part of the "creative class", whatever that means. It
gives a really specific bent to what information you see.

Iran is a really fascinating look at this question. During the initial
uprising, the State Department actually intervened to convince Twitter
to reschedule network maintenance so the information could keep
flowing out. Then, during the G20 demonstrations in Pittsburgh last
November, Pennsylvania police burst into the hotel room of two guys
running a comms center, sending out information about the publicly
known movements of police. They got arrested, charged with felonies,
and sent on their way. Days later, federal prosecutors showed up their
house and turned the place upside down. The reasons behind the raid
are still secret and part of a grand jury proceeding.

If you're interested in the case, there's a ton of information up at

So you've got a situation where a government that's pretty publicly
opposed against the government of another country deliberately
encourages information resonance across a network turns around and
suppresses the same network use within its own borders. I'm a huge
booster of what's happening in Iran, but that's a pretty creepy



Legba Carrefour

LOL. I can't believe I missed this and I just posted a huge paean to TxtMob.

You helped set that up? That thing was absolutely brilliant and still
has yet to be surpassed in my view. It was a mainstay of a lot of my
organizing up through some of the early big anti-war demonstrations
with large anarchist presence.



Nathan Freitas
So you've got a situation where a government that's pretty publicly opposed against the government of another country deliberately encourages information resonance across a network turns around and suppresses the same network use within its own borders. I'm a huge booster of what's happening in Iran, but that's a pretty creepy dynamic.

Legba... yes! This is an excellent point about when this technology of dissent comes home to roost and how the U.S. government and other pro-democracy governments react. I actually brought this up in congressional hearing (the U.S. Helsinki Commission), awkwardly titled "Twitter against Tyrants", that I was asked to participate in last October. Other than being the usually homogenous mix of (mostly) white male panelists, it was an interesting discussion.

I was one of the comms centers folk at RNC2004, working with TXTMobs, IAA, Ruckus and so on. The Pittsburgh incident had just happened and was fresh in my mind... and I felt I had to say something, so I blurted this out:

" And while the free world is enamored of these tools and we're here with this hearing, our own federal, state and local law enforcement are often quite fearful of their use at home. So just recently, Elliot Madison, a 41-year-old social worker, was arrested in Pittsburgh and charged with hindering apprehension for prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime.

He was found with a computer and was using Twitter. This is a contradiction that we must address and come to term with. "

You can view the transcript and hearing video here.



Legba Carrefour

The abstraction question is a pretty good one as is the comment from
David about authenticity. The thing is, I don't know if you can say
that multiplicity really ensures authenticity.

It's pretty easy to swarm parts of the network with junk information.
There's an analogy here with social media's impact on music

A music critic named Christopher R. Weingarten went on this pretty
epic rant at the 140 Character Conference about how real-time social
media is effectively gutting any value in music journalism. He starts
off by quoting a music aggregation site called Hype Machine's about

"We handpick a set of kickass music blogs and then present what they
discuss for easy analysis, consumption and discovery. Rather than
picking and writing about music ourselves, we think a select group of
passionate people can do a better job, so we amplify their posts and
the audio they choose. This group will produce more vibrant culture
and conversation than a huge social mob, or a rigid hierarchy of

Weingarten goes on to say that people who use aggregators think they
are getting some kind of alternative view when the reality is that
they're getting a pre-packaged lowest-common-denominator set of
information that serves no other purpose than consumption.

His rant is pretty amazing and has direct relevance on this conversation.

So I'm not always enthused by the idea of a huge social mob that
dictates conversation--that just displaces discussion from actual
humans right back to a top down media model. It's one-way broadcast
communication like corporate media, the only difference being that the
corporate media can get free labor from a crowdsourced pool of people.

It's a fine line between the zeitgeist of a grassroots social fabric
and the death of discourse through search engine optimization.

Here's where he goes off:



Micah Sifry

The dichotomy is worse: Americans were cheering demonstrations in Iran
that would be illegal in America. That is, marching without a permit
from the police got lots of people arrested in NYC in 2004. But during
the burst of international solidarity around the #iranelection, very
few people noted that what we were supporting in Iran was illegal in



Kelly Niknejad

Micah, why would you even think the two situations were comparable?

[Micah then asks for clarification, to which Kelly replies,]

I was asking how these two "illegal" demonstrations were comparable
and what your point was in making such a comparison: "Americans were
cheering demonstrations in Iran that would be illegal in America. That
is, marching without a permit from the police got lots of people
arrested in NYC in 2004. But during the burst of international
solidarity around the #iranelection, very few people noted that what
we were supporting in Iran was illegal in America."



Micah Sifry

My point was that it was ironic that Americans would express such
vocal support for democracy demonstrators in Iran, who were doing
things that, unfortunately, are strictly regulated here in the US. I
don't see what's wrong with that comparison. Personally, I would like
to see much greater freedom of expression allowed here in the US.



Kelly Niknejad

Thanks for the explanation. I agree with you there.



Legba Carrefour

So I'm going to shamelessly promote something: Today is the start of the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings in DC and we're organizing three days of unpermitted demonstrations. If you are so inclined, we should be tweeting from the street @Anticapitalists or using the hashtag #imf



Douglas Rushkoff

I like where the conversation has brought us - we are finally engaged with one another about two or three of the core issues and contradictions inherent to online activism. I am hoping for a final flurry before we end the roundtable this week.

Of the way Americans got arrested in the US for the same Twitter activity that they were encouraged to promote in Iran, David said: "This is a contradiction that we must address and come to term with."

Then we went on to explore a few more of the contradictions in online activism, from the unreliability of the swarm, to the manufactured and falsely amplified results of aggregators.

So, my question then is what guidelines can we establish or promote to those who are attracted to this activity? How *do* we "come to terms" with contradictions?



Ted Byfield

I wanted to wait a bit because it seemed like it'd be more interesting to
listen to all of you.

There used to be a name for what I was doing, "lurking" -- it dates back to a
very different time in the net's history, when usenet and mailing lists were
the main forms of communication. It was hard to talk about lurkers then, for
the obvious reason that no one knew much about them; it hasn't gotten much
easier since.

The idea of lurkers has all but vanished now, buried by a succession of ways to
try and slice and dice them: "eyeballs," pageviews, users, subscribers,
friends, followers, etc, etc. I think these changes are relevant in this
context because Doug's initial questions put a lot of emphasis on expression:
participation and activism on the one hand, and a concern that "social
networks" (as if there were any other kind) might be diminishing the quality of
people's engagement, on the other. But the vast, vast majority of activity
surrounding the net isn't 'expressive' in the sense of leading to overtly
"creative" output: instead, it's people clicking around, reading, absorbing,
procrastinating, relaxing, etc. There seems to be a lot of temptation to
interpret this kind of ambiguity in the worst light, but the fact is that we
don't know what it leads to, in general let alone in any specific instance.

That pessimistic view is closely related to perspective(s) of people who are
trying to make money off of lurkers, because "monetizing" (a really ugly word)
them and their actions sooner or later requires connecting whatever they're
clicking on or reading or whatever to some kind of action -- preferably, some
sort of expenditure.

It took several years, more, for Americans to settle in to the idea of spending
money "on" the net -- and we were coming from a fairly open (I won't say
"liberal") society. But many have, and the result is a net that -- to use
another old geeky phrase -- is deeply intertwingled with consumption. And now
to my point. That intensely sophisticated and commercialized net is the version
that many other societies are encountering in a much fresher way.

That's good and bad. The good news is that it works much better: software,
systems integration, connections, interfaces are much easier to deal with. The
bad news is that it's a much more complicated and risky environment.

For example, the confidentiality of things like server logs tracing people's
activities used to be sacrosanct; now, more and more business models are
metaphorical ways to generate and rent out access to that info. Moreover,
manufacturers on the "hardware" side know very well who their customers are --
national states, telcos, big-league ISPs -- and are happy to tailor their
offerings to the needs of those customers: "firewalls" and filters,
redirection, surveillance.

My point isn't to spread (to use another old geekism) FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty,
and Doubt. NOT AT ALL. Instead, it's to point out that more and more people are
"participating" without even realizing it. They may be experiencing things in
terms very much like Doug proposed: based on the new ideas they're learning
about -- issues, perspectives, organizations, actions -- many are no doubt
sorting out their feelings. But as their thoughts are increasingly expressed in
terms of clicks, what may seem very private to them is less and less so.

In some ways -- and certainly in some contexts -- this is really worrisome. But
if we're going to ask big questions about democracy and sustainable
sociability, it makes sense to take the long view. I'm certain that more access
to information will tend, in the long run, to make people and populations more
cosmopolitan. That's a really good thing.

But it definitely has downsides, too. Steve Cisler, one of my quiet heroes who
passed away a few years ago -- a huge loss -- pointed out to me several years
ago that as more and more people in isolated circumstances "interact" with
idealized representations (which are typically urban), their immediate lives
can very quickly come to seem intolerably remote and dull. And they leave. In
that way (and many others), the net is contributing to the destruction of more
traditional societies.

While the net is hardly the "cause" of urbanization, I don't think there's any
doubt that it's facilitating mass migration. It pulls people with images, it
pushes them by destabilizing traditional markets, and just about everything in
between -- for example, it enables cheap communication with family and friends
(mobile phones, Skype, etc), and by offering more ways to send remunerations
back home. It isn't something you just access, use, or click on.

So the problem is simple (ha!). We can ask how the net is changing this or that
term we're comfortable with, but I think it's a part -- a very central part --
of a much deeper shift: the terms we're comfortable with are less and less able
to describe what's going on. Democracy is an excellent example: people within a
given jurisdiction might have disagreed, even violently, about this or that
issue, but they more or less agreed on the terms of debate. We can't take that
for granted anymore, because if we do we run a very serious risk of excluding
what for lack a better term I'll call new arrivals. Democracy speaks to people
who *know* they live in a particular place; but more and more people are
uncertain, transitional, or tenuously connected to where they happen to be. The
task -- self-determination -- remains the same.

(Oh, and BTW: Twitter and Facebook ain't it.)

I've sprinted though a few dozen impossibly complicated issues in a very
on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand way, which is a bit frustrating. On the one
hand (yes!), I think it's important to acknowledge just how deeply the net is
changing the fabric of the societies (very definitely in the plural) within
which we'll necessarily ask these kinds of questions. On the other hand, I wish
I had some clearer answers.

At this point, the usual conclusion would be something like "and now I'll go
back to lurking." I'll try not to.

Cheers, Ted



posted February 2, 2010

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