Summary of a Social Media lecture at Princeton

Does Civic Media Help us understand the Arab Spring? A lecture by Ethan Zuckerman at Princeton University 11/10/11

The talk was about how or even if media can affect social change. This can only be determined if the effects of media can be measured. This matrix has been difficult to measure with conventional media because the numbers or ratings are derived from statistical samples and aren’t always accurate. New or digital media that include websites, the blogosphere, tweets, FaceBook and several others, provide accurate and excessive data. The rest of the discussion went about making comparisons of media measurements to civic actions in current events to see what can be derived. This in itself is very interesting, but the tools Ethan Zuckerman uses, some of which are available to the public, is the most fascinating to our discussion.

The selfimmolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable cart owner in Tunisia is deemed the origin of the Arab Spring. There were no other countries to model the revolt on so it makes a good “patient 1” in analyzing a movement in the time of social media. Twitter and Facebook documented this and earlier similar and unrelated events, but while many advocates like to credit New Media with enabling it all – there’s no evidence to prove this. Somehow through word of mouth, perhaps SMS (texting), an already angry population got together, in mass, and took back their country from a dictator. The government was monitoring all social sites; the population knew it and the only supporters were those outside Tunisia. Expatriates promoted it, perhaps that’s why there was traction – Ethan concludes that’s partially true.

Zuckerman proposes that when New or Participatory Media overlaps Civic engagement, Civic Media forms. This can be explained in four ways. Ecosystems, Participation, Inclusion and Codesign – this discussion concentrates on the first two,Ecosystems and Participation.

Ecosystems – Understand, map and visualize the relationships between traditional and new media, so we can help communities and organizations call attention to stories and issues that otherwise go uncovered.

Zuckerman then sites 4 takes on how social media influences social change

Malcom Gladwell says  it doesn’t  – physical participation is required to make change.

Clay Shirky says the internet enables groups to form and gives voice to activists

Beth Coleman says the internet allows affiliation and this leads to virtual support

And Sami ben Gharbia feels the internet influences broadcast which help coordinate broad social movement

He later illustrates the expatriate connection referred to earlier. Using phone cams,  images are posted to FB and a Nawaalja page for Tunisian expats. It gets the attention of Al Jazeera which puts the news out on (pirate) television.  Locals are aware that the government is monitoring FB for subversives so don’t use it, but learn of the protest from the unblocked Aljazeera TV reports. A combination of old and new media, by design or accidentally causes something to happen.

Some may think those laptop-wielding people at protests like OWS are tweeting and getting the word out, but this is not the case. The media team is monitoring the coverage and trying, where possible, to frame or shape what images and stories get out. Rather like old school public opinion, but now with new tools. This is how one social component works. When the OWS movement first began, a rash of photographs of people holding handwritten signs appeared on FaceBook.  These were used to bring attention to the cause, but were also designed to project a certain way. The handwritten passages then subsided and have been replaced with relevant quotes from historic figures and presented on more graphically designed vehicles. An infographic that shows the relationship between inside and outside tweets of the Tunisian protest is useful and attributable to Kovas Boguta. Another visualization makes the point as well and shows how something is/was going on.

Mr. Zuckerman has a very interesting graphic, familiar to us that show the interaction between different media today.

Looking at some media cloud graphics of the different topics on blogger sites when OWS first began was very informative. We see the evolution in memes between left and right, left and left and right and right over time. Initially, the Left are talking about how it’s growing and cities where the occupiers are forming gets attention while the Right start to knock the gatherings trying out different name calling to see what get traction – As time goes on the conversation grows to a focus of Corporations, Democratic, Labor and more in tune with what the OWS organizers want. – This media cloud is good stuff. It helps see trends and when you get enough social traction, they can show audience users preferences.

Ethan Zuckerman comes from the Media lab at MIT so he also explains the workings of and promotes the adoption of the nutritional label for content. Along these lines, another great illustration showed the types of stories most read in the New York Times over a certain period. It revealed that the Times’ reader is more interested in national news at times of recession and domestic news during prosperous periods. Because everything is digital, it’s data can easily measured to see what type and when stories appear. This can be applied to video only when there are transcripts of the text, which would also be useful. A somewhat troubling aspect of this technology is when it’s married to the devices we use to consume content. From the information found in our content consumption diet we may be able to find if we’re in an echo chamber and not getting any information from outside. And of course, so can advertisers.

Particpation – Civic media helps communities participate effectively in civic life. Participation in civic life cultivates consumers for informative and investigative media. We’re working to help people participate effectively in both local and distant communities.

Zuckerman tells of an early case of civic participation. During the labor vote in Wisconsin when protestors essentially occupied the state house. A sympathizer asked if there was anything they could do to help the protesters. The reply was to ask if they’d could get some pizza from a local pizzeria. Once this was tweeted it grew and the pizzeria was inundated with pizza orders from around the country. The media drove participation which circularly drove more media coverage. This came back to Gladwell’s cry for physical participation or interaction not just tweet or as we used to say in the security world “actionable information” This is also the complaint of many OWS detractors. What do they want? The cycle now seems to be you see some information that pisses you off. You maybe share it or like but want to do something more, but something more – isn’t readily apparent. So you go back and see some funny cat video on youtube. A lesson there for makers of content that does’t ask for something.

The next subject was politically what was going on. Main Stream Politics requires, you petition your law makers they represent you , you vote , sign things etc. But much of what we see with TEA and OWS is the disfranchisement of citizens – they just don’t see things change based on the old way. They feel compelled to take to the streets and DO SOMETHING, because this democracy thing just isn’t working for them us. Other examples of this need to DO something are users changing their avatar to one color to demonstrate support. Or, the more sinister Anonymous who shuts down “offensive”  website with denial of service attacks. And somewhat successful   leave your bank day, which had 1/2 million new customers switch to credit unions from big banks, along these lines you could add American Express’ brilliant Small Business Saturday campaign.

He basically concluded with something that reminded me of the dot com days in tech. He used the South Park example of the 3 phase underpants. Basically it says, Do something you think is cool; don’t worry about the 2nd phase and then in the 3rd phase – PROFIT.

Before Web 2.0 it was start a cool internet company – have someone buy it out, make a profit. Wait, how will the company make money? Not my problem, I sell it before that part. That’s what they said with twitter and FB and many others, Ethan relates it to a movement, start the movement, yada yada  – change the world.

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