Digital Media Worse Than Traditional On Talking About Africa

A fascinating set of highlights over a recent report ‘Mapping the global Twitter heartbeat: The geography of Twitter’. Perhaps the brave new world of online media isn’t quite as fair and international as we might like to think.

Other than that revealed in the tweet that lured me in, there’s a bunch of very interesting info on how to get proper geographical data from Twitter. Where people tweet from, apparently, has little influence on, well, their online influence (square brackets my own):

Kalet et al. [the authors] also carried out a comprehensive analysis of geo-tagged retweets. They find that “geography plays little role in the location of influential users, with the volume of retweets instead simply being a factor of the total population of tweets originating from that city.” They also calculated that the average geographical distance between two Twitter users “connected” by retweets (RTs) and who geotag their tweets is about 750 miles or 1,200 kilometers. When a Twitter user references another (@), the average geographical distance between the two is 744 miles. This means that RTs and @’s cannot be used for geo-referencing Twitter data, even when coupling this information with time zone data.

Read the full report here

The Momentum Of The Blogosphere

A bunch of awesome people @ #GV2012 — Source: 0neiros via flickr

Last week the Global Voices 2012 (#GV2012) summit was held in Nairobi. All of a sudden, the city I live and work in was inundated by all manner of awesome people. I kept seeing people I greatly admire talking about lectures and presentations, it was a hell of a treat to see so many intelligent people whose content I enjoy so much all talking together. It felt like a pretty big deal, even from the outside.

Check out a storify on #GV2012 here.

As I hungrily lapped up updates I started to notice a pattern: a lot of these voices whose opinions I so respected were not media professional. They were bloggers. Citizen journalists. Activists. Whether as a result of my embrace of Twitter or some other reason, I realised that my ‘go to’ sources for most news is no longer traditional news sources.

Don’t get me wrong, I still open up The Guardian or the Washington Post most days to flick through it but that’s normally only for sport or for op-ed pieces discussing ‘news’ I’ve already digested through non-traditional means like blogs or social media. There are a notable few journalists that I do follow but most fall into the categories like ‘worth keeping an eye on’ or ‘likes to argue’ or ‘friends’ – not ‘MUST READ’. With some of these – Charles Onyango Obbo is the example that springs to mind – I actively prefer their non-official output to their columns or news pieces in newspapers and the like. This was a slightly startling discovery.

This week I fired up the interwebs to discover that Whydev – one of the best international development sites around – has rebranded (and to everyone involved with that, you did a good job). I got weirdly excited by this. Then I noticed that the excellent View From The Cave had rebranded and, once again, looked great. These are terrific sites run by experts who are both passionate about the field and communicating their experiences and challenges to a wider audience.

These sites are awesome. Now that they look better, more people are likely to get hooked on their kickass content. I take back the ‘weirdly’ from earlier – I am excited by this!

The more we encourage wider engagement with niche or technical sectors the better off we will be. Events like #GV2012 top-trended world wide. Top aid blogs are starting to get attention from mainstream sources. Other top aid blogs now look and work really well. Hopefully, this is an example of snowballing (in a good way).

Getting big name publications to assign the topic a general reporter with no in depth knowledge of the issue or personal connection to it might bring wider attention to the issue but is it the kind of attention that we want? If the development/aid blogosphere continues to grow more robust and more accessible, those mainstream publications will a) start to steal their ‘niche’ article opinions from better sources and b) start to get circumvented all together.

I’ll say it again – I am excited by this!

Keep Calm & Tweet On

Following the conviction of Liam Stacey, I’ve become aware that, apparently, being offensive is a jailable offense in the UK. Does that make any sense to anyone?

Here’s a quick breakdown of the case in the form of highlights from the BBC’s coverage:

A student who admitted posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about footballer Fabrice Muamba has been jailed for 56 days.

Swansea University student Liam Stacey, 21, from Pontypridd, admitted inciting racial hatred over remarks about the Bolton Wanderers player, who collapsed during a FA Cup tie at Tottenham.

Stacey tried to “distance himself” from the tweets by claiming his account had been hacked, the court was told.

He later tried to delete his page but was arrested the following day at his student house in Swansea.

When interviewed by police, Stacey said he had been drinking since lunchtime on Saturday and was drunk when he made the comments.

Stacey was initially released on bail pending sentence and was ordered not to use Twitter and other social networking sites.

Jim Brisbane, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Cymru-Wales, said: “Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media.

“We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law.”

Let’s be clear: the things he wrote were foul and I absolutely do not support them, it actually depresses me that anyone can hold such opinions during my lifetime. There are, however, two things that I need to address before I start sloshing around my scorn bucket – culture and context.

By ‘culture’ I mean the Twitter or online culture in which Stacey was operating. Internet culture is a moveable feast that tends to differ widely depending on the site you’re on and the attitudes of the most active users on that site – something recently summed up rather nicely by the superior web comic XKCD.

Source: xkcd

Twitter is one of the sites that exhibits an internet sub-culture – as far as I know it is one of the oldest on the web – that results in a lot of users deliberately trying to bait other users into reactions, anger often being the preferred outcome. According to the Know Your Meme link above, this habit comes from the early 80s and continues to thrive in forums, online gaming, comment streams and, obviously, social media. The one to one access granted by the supposedly direct availability of celebrities on Twitter makes them an even better target than Youtube commenters. It is interesting to note that, unlike other twacism rows it doesn’t appear that Stacey actively directed the tweets to Muamba.

While trolling (as it is known) is irritating, it is a pursuit that many people engage in. If it were not, his comments would be unmitigated nastiness; as it is, he’s doing something vaguely normal, albeit in a horrendous way towards a target with no way of retaliating.

The second issue is context. If being ‘grossly offensive’ is grounds for a sped up trial and conviction, the Daily Wail would have virtually no non-incarcerated staff. Obviously, there is a power or influence element to this narrative that hasn’t been properly unpacked. As with a great many of law enforcement involvements with the online community, there remains a nagging doubt that there is enormous danger of the ‘protection vs free speech’ pendulum swinging far too far towards authorities that are very unlikely to support the latter – the announcement of a resurrected UK law is yet another warning sign.

I am not the only one who sees this ruling as a problem. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammaberg, condemned the sentencing as ‘excessive‘ calling for a new approach to dealing with online freedoms. Joseph Harker, in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, made the point that cracking down in such a way on one high profile but, ultimately, harmless case of a young man being racist and unpleasant does little to change things:

At the moment, it seems, the criminal justice system is unleashing all its energy on the little guys. Twitterers, train ranters, even footballers – for venting their emotions in public. These are all issues which, a few years ago, would have gone mostly unnoticed by all but the victims. Now, though, these incidents are likely to be recorded, replayed, retweeted, stuck on YouTube and viewed by millions. And the state seems keen to go after these “quick wins” to try to claim that racism will no longer be tolerated.

It’s an easy way of appearing to tackle an issue that is not an issue of Twitter. Racism exists in a broader and deeper way than a few drunken insults on the internet. The danger is reminiscent of the responses to the 2008 financial crisis – does austerity negatively affect the systematic failures of the banking system or does it simply paper over the cracks and leave the nascent middle classes to foot the bill? Does attacking one drunken man as an example of the unpleasantness of internet communication ignore the growing ethnic divides of modern Britain and allow the Government to go on an offensive against the internet community at the same time?

I know Twitter as a place of wonderful connectivity, somewhere I get news first and most diversely, somewhere I can debate directly with people I admire, somewhere I can encourage a wider range of people to become involved in human rights and other niche discussions. It is also a place of banality and, sometimes, pointless unpleasantness. But I choose to get what I want out of it, as do its other users. Take a look at most of the tweets Stacey sent: they are, by and large, insults sent to random users who condemned what he had said.

I don’t see much incitement when I watch the above video. I see people condemning repulsive behaviour in full public view, in real time for no other reason than genuine and personal ones. Next time a politician uses an unpleasant incident such as this to warn of the dangers of the internet – and, rest assured, there will be plenty of times we hear that speech – think about who they’re talking about; an irritating minority or that annoyed majority that sees them as a nuisance?

Infographic: My placement year

I’ve been a little lax on the blogging front this week. I have two excuses for this: the first is that I spent most of the weekend looking for somewhere to live next year (with success), the other is that I’ve been completing an assignment for my undergraduate degree. It was to make a poster on my placement job. I took at as a chance to try my hand at creating an infographic as well as a good excuse to learn how to use illustrator. It took a little longer than expected but I’m happy with the outcome. It will be printed in A1 size. It’s my first attempt at doing something like this so feedback is appreciated.

My year in advocacy

Apologies for the size/quality – it seems that jpegs are the best option for large-ish picture files on wordpress… Do email/comment/tweet me if you know better.

Also, I haven’t yet been to Nairobi but will have done by the end of the year – hopefully I’ll be going next month. This poster is to be shown following the end of my placement.

Reason No. 2894 To Love Twitter

On the 20th of December I had a very interesting online discussion with Calestous Juma, Professor at Harvard, who focuses on ‘the role of science, technology, engineering and innovation in sustainable development’.

A couple of days before, Mr Juma had sent a tweet that quoted a news story (below) in which a bullish Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda (sometimes referred to as ‘M7’), dismissed the issue of human rights abuses (in this case, more specifically focused on homosexual rights) in favour of focusing on infrastructure development:

“Before anyone gives me a lecture about homosexuals and their rights, first talk about railways.”

My immediate reaction was that this was a cynical attempt to get people to ignore an unpopular issue that Museveni doesn’t want to have to backdown on because of donor pressure. His apparent focus on the development of infrastructure struck me as particularly false. Being a social media evangelist and relentless self amplifier, I posted a response:

Much to my surprise (and delight), the eminent professor replied. At this point, we started to have a very interesting discussion of which I have built a Storify as I had seen this article in The Guardian that made me think I could embed it into a post. Having attempted to make it work, giving up, and then Googling I discovered that I could not embed this long, arduously constructed page of content. WordPress does not allow such things for security reasons.
Unfortunately I’m going to have to ask you to click on a link to go somewhere else, sorry about that. It also means that this post is rather short. Again, sorry.

See the rest here.

The Benefits Of Social Media At Events

I’ve been involved in a fair amount of event planning recently and, as a social media evangelist, I have increasingly been using online media platforms as both promotion and as a way of encouraging and extending discussion and debate during the events themselves. This is a topic that has been written about extensively but, often, they tend to be simple lists of tips with mind blowing insights like ‘use twitter’ or insider knowledge like ‘Facebook has quite a lot of users, use that’. Other articles focus on damage control – i.e. moderating feeds to get good, cherry-picked content that leaves the event organisers looking good. This may be acceptable in some instances but it is pretty much verboten when you work, as I do, for a freedom of expression advocacy organisation.

In any case the thing I really took away from the event were the basic numbers:

a. Number of physical attendees: 68

b. Number of twitter users talking about event: 51

c. Combined audience (a. + total follower count of b.): 67709

All the twitter figures are approximate (I can’t pay for fancy reports so had to do it manually which means I undoubtedly missed stuff) but, nicely enough, because I was using fairly basic tools to locate tweets all these things could be scaled up. Also, calculating the ‘true reach’ of these tweets is, again, something I’d have to pay for/spend a lot of time doing so I’m also probably underestimating the size of the audience there as well. Regardless of these limitations it’s a pretty remarkable scaling up vis a vis the real world vs the interwebs:

This was more or less pointless as a visual indicator

68 out of 67709 = 0.10042978

Pretty much a no contest then. The actual physical audience made up something like 0.1% of the actual potential audience. Of course, without their engagement in the venue (which was more or less at capacity, it was a fairly intimate space) there never could have been such engagement online so many thanks to them for their interesting questions and discussions – some of this online discussion can be seen here, courtesy of @JoBrodie.

Bear in mind these stats come from a (almost) purely Twitter based campaign. I did a couple of Facebook tie ins but they were just reposting tweets I’d sent about the event. We didn’t livestream – I would have loved to have done it but there wasn’t really time/will/money to organise it – so this was almost purely a text driven promotion. I did, it must be said, harass people to tweet about it, helpfully reminding them what the hashtag is several thousand times as well as projecting their comments on the wall while the thing was going on.

Helpfully snapped by robertsharp59

Quite a weird angle here but it shows off a few of the tweets from the day and, in the bottom right, one and a half of the panelists. You can more or less see here that both audience and panelists could see the screen – at one point a question on the screen was addressed and answered by a panelist – which, in my view, is much more conducive to conversation than having a screen behind the panel; the conversation is what matters.

These are my main three points:

  • Choose a hashtag, promote the tag, talk about it as much as you can.
  • Scour your feeds for users with followers and ask them to get involved, it doesn’t matter if they aren’t relevant experts or big media stars or celebrities, you want numbers!
  • Remind your guests about the online aspect before, during and after.

Global Development & Celebrity

Earlier this year the Mail Online became the second most read newspaper website in the world, surpassing The Huffington Post. Its owners have since released a statement which outlined why they projected that they would overtake New York Times in the number one spot, citing the introduction of a Times paywall and the huge, unprecedented success of the Mail iPhone app as indicators of, respectively, probable decline and continued growth for the two sites. This is, I think we can all agree, terrifying.

The vast majority of hits for the Mail come from its celebrity section – who hates who in Tinseltown, gripping updates from the coalface of ‘talent’ search shows, endless sex scandals, Pippa Middleton’s bottom and much, much less. Again, terrifying, but by no means surprising. ‘Celeb culture’ is very much one of the dominant cultural narratives of the past few decades – as pointed out by the mountains of op-eds and columns that have allowed their writers to dutifully worry about or roundly condemn (depending on political allegiance) the changing values of the modern world.

The importance of celebrities in the news world inevitably means that put-upon press officers and communication managers at charities and NGOs start hankering for a celebrity figurehead to raise awareness for their latest campaign. Celebrity endorsement and the inherent increase of media attention not only allows particular campaigns to get more awareness but also gets the name and brand of your charity into the public eye thus very much increasing your ability to fundraise. I imagine that getting Katie Price to back your campaign in a double page ‘tell all’ feature in The Sun would lead to hugging in the office and cake all round.

I recently went to an activist training event hosted by ONE. Contrary to popular opinion ONE was not named specifically to fuel co-founder Bono’s Jesus complex, actually it’s all to do with spreading a message of unity and highlighting the relatively small sacrifices (1% of profits etc) needed to end world hunger. They’re the people who brought you ‘Make Poverty History’ in 2005 and those faddy little rubber wrist bands that everyone used to have. Obviously, they didn’t make poverty history but they did raise an awful lot of money so I thought I’d hear what they had to say.

At the training, Jamie Drummond, another co-founder, said that the Make Poverty History campaign was designed to “take a niche issue and turn it pop” – turn the third world debt issue into something that was known about and discussed in the mainstream media and in non third-sector offices. The best way of doing that was to get people in the entertainment industry on board because, frankly, pretty much no other set of people get as much coverage or have as many followers.

Celebrity endorsement has been around for a long time in advertising but has only been properly embraced by do-gooders in the last ten years or so – there’s ONE with Bono and Bob Geldof, the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, or Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham’s fundraising charity walks for Leukaemia and Lymphoma.

Of course, ‘old media’ is dying, new and social media are taking over the landscape – it’s a revolution for the means of production! It changes how news is reported and examined! There are new influencers and new key figures on the news agenda!Ordinary people have a voice! Oh wait.


This list is depressing

Ah. Not quite so different then. It is still all about celebrities (Barack Obama is the exception, whoever he is). Interestingly, last week Bill Easterly – a leading development blogger in webland – mentioned Justin Bieber in a tweet that shoehorned him into an attack on World Bank policy in a tongue in cheek reference to who people are really interested in on Twitter. It showed that using celebrities can draw attention to niche subjects, even in a simple or jokey way.

So what’s the problem?

Here are a few reasons that some charities decide not to ally themselves to celebrities:

  • Trivialising issues: the nature of ‘celeb’ coverage is light-hearted and shallow, is this really a suitable way of introducing the mainstream to global development issues?
  • Western bias: Celebrities tend to be both American and wealthy. The ongoing criticism of Western aid organisations is that they ignore the voices of those they try to help – using Western celebrities only reinforces the distinction between rich Westerners and poor Africans.
  • Mis-direction: I suspect that people remember the events (like LiveAid) and their stars more than they remember the actual issues. The ‘Feed The World’ song (notwithstanding that I find its lyrics grossly inappropriate and condescending) is now regularly re-played as a Christmas song. Does that seem like the legacy a product of a campaign against famine?
The inimitable Marina Hyde wrote an excellent article earlier this year that underlines the uneasiness of the relationship between charities and development. She took a look at a speech given by Angelina Jolie while accepting a humanitarian award in 2007:

“In any UNHCR office,” she explained to the assembled diners, “in any one of the many areas around the world, you will find an amazing mix of hard-working and often very tired people.”

Well quite. Where you won’t find those people, however, is on a stage picking up an award with the same frequency that Angelina seems to accrue such baubles. Time and again, that honour is reserved for actors and singers who devote a comparatively minuscule amount of their time to the same causes, in between taking home vast paycheques for their day-jobs in the entertainment industry.

Is it a nuisance worth putting up with?

Sure, it’s rare that a non-famous/attractive charity worker gets an award for their day job but it’s equally rare that such a person garners an enormous amount of media coverage and money for their cause.

Personally, I think that until the mainstream media a) completely dies or b) becomes substantially less myopic and idiotic than it largely is now, then we probably have to play their game. That means getting celebrities on board and letting our dinner jackets collect dust from now until forever.