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At the core of every culture is “storytelling”, says Shel Israel, a San Francisco-based social media strategist and author of the book, “Twitterville: How Businesses can Thrive in the New Global Neighbourhoods”.
Speaking at the WTF conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Israel spoke about how social media is simply a new toolset that capitalises on this age-old impulse to tell stories. To illustrate this, many of the examples of social media he used have little to do with commercial or business applications; rather, they’ve changed the social or political landscape in some way. Through these examples, Israel shows that social media has become so significant that it can no longer be ignored by any institution — be it commercial, governmental or otherwise.
Wael Abbas and YouTube vs. the Egyptian Government
Based in Cairo, journalist and blogger Wael Abbas worked for German press agency DPA before he “wrote stuff the Egyptian government didn’t like”. Instead of giving up his profession, he simply modified the means for disseminating his information to the public. In the wake of this, Abbas began posting hundreds of user-generated videos from ordinary Egyptian citizens on YouTube that documented things like police brutality and mob harassment. Since he began doing this, Abbas has been threatened, incarcerated, beaten up (along with some of his family members), and still he continues to do it. Why does he still do it, Israel asked him? Abbas replied, “So others will know.”
Isaac Mao and Blogging vs. the Chinese Government
One of China’s best-known bloggers, Isaac Mao started blogging in 2000 with the intent of joining the cause to overthrow the Chinese government. Although he says that 10 years later this is a near-futile attempt, he’s nevertheless become a fountainhead for the more than 335-million Chinese citizens engaging in social media. Meeting up with him recently in San Francisco, Israel asked Mao whether he thinks the Chinese government’s attempts to censor these conversations online are succeeding. Mao thinks not, saying that there are “too many voices for too few ears”: No matter how much the Chinese government tries to control the information getting out, the adoption of social media by Chinese citizens continues to grow at such a rate that it is outstripping the government’s ability to do so.
Janis Krums: The right place at the right time
When US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing into New York’s Hudson River in January 2009, all 155 crew and passengers on board survived. Although the story made headlines around the world, it broke on Twitter a full hour before reaching traditional news outlets.
Illustrating the increasing power of citizen journalism, Israel spoke about Janis Krums, a passenger on a ferry from New York to New Jersey who witnessed the crash happen in front of him. After taking a picture of the half-submerged plane and posting it on Twitter, his photo subsequently appeared on MNSBC, NBC and other major news networks. This shows, says Israel, that the traditional media is becoming increasingly needy and dependent on people like Janus to be their location reporters.
Among other reasons for this, the financial cutbacks in the traditional media space have meant that these channels no longer have the resources to bring readers a better story than an official channel is able to deliver in a prepared statement. Instead, it’s the bloggers, Facebookers, tweeters and cell phone users with camera and video functionality on their phones that have become the new “feet on the street”.
Saudi Arabia’s first women’s social network
Launched in 2008, iMatter is a social network in Saudi Arabia that allows Saudi women to connect with others and share ideas and information. While this may not seem remarkable in and of itself, the platform takes on a new significance given the country’s history of oppression towards women (a news story at the time reported how a father had beaten up and shot his daughter after finding her flirting with a man on Facebook).
In this context, social media is being used to cut through barriers so that women can connect, engage, and gather support from each other where it would have been difficult to do this before..
Well-known to African readers, Israel talked also about Ushahidi, the mobile wiki that helped users report and crowdsource information on violence in Kenya after the 2007 elections. Violence reports could be texted or emailed in before being plotted on a map of the country using Google Maps, allowing Kenyans to avoid certain areas or create alternative travel routes that avoided turbulent areas.
The tool also used crowdsourcing to confirm reports of affected areas, which allowed it to avoid disinformation. Ushahidi still exists today as an emergency wiki network in Kenya, and has also subsequently been used as a citizen reporting tool for other disasters including the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.