26
Jan 11

Facebook and Twitter targeted by Egyptian authorities

Evgeny Morozov, author of the recently-published The Net Delusion, tweeted the other day that he felt sick having to restart discussions for Egypt about whether the country was starting a Twitter or Facebook revolt.

I know how he feels and social networks aren’t the same as the courage required to get onto the streets in these countries. So I just mention quietly that Twitter stopped working in Egypt yesterday; both Twitter and Facebook seem to be blocked today. It’s worth noting what the authorities think is a threat: the enhanced ability to connect and mobilise. (Readers new to this theme start here or here).

While on the subject of Morozov, if you are looking for a single piece which sums up his contra-suggestive thinking, I’d recommend this. Coming from a quite different, and more constructive, direction on the same theme are two pieces which both examine how journalism needs to adapt to verify the information that flies at us on the web. The first is from the Online Journalism Blog of my City University colleague Paul Bradshaw and lays out basic methods of verification on the web. The second is by the BBC journalist Matthew Eltringham (via Charlie Beckett) and reflects on the practical problems of sifting the truth in new circumstances and something called the “line of validation”. These are both creative ways of extending the idea of “verification” which I listed when trying to pin down the definition of journalism in the digital age.

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15
Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

Continue reading →


04
Jul 10

Weekend miscellany: Eric Schmidt, exabytes, cognitive surplus and shallows, Ferguson vs Daily Mail

A handful of bits and pieces that I didn’t get round to posting last week. No point in pretending that they’re connected.

  • It’s 16 minutes long but this video of Google boss Eric Scmidt speaking to a London conference is well worth a look for a tour of the man’s thinking. His themes are mobiles, the cloud and networks. For my money, the stuff about the computing cloud is the best. Other highlights: Google has a highly advanced face recognition application which they did not launch in Europe because it would be illegal. Google translation software works without a dictionary but with a “statistical machine translation” programme.
  • One last Schmidt stat: from the beginning of history to 2003, humankind produced 5 exabytes of information. That quantity is now generated in two days. Yes, Google love this kind of fact because it describes a problem they will make money by solving. But even so.
  • NiemanLabs is running a series of pieces (why so long please?) on Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Interesting pairing. Evgeny Morozov has been writing about Carr’s book in Prospect (but I can’t see the web version).
  • In 2004, the playwright Joe Penhall wrote a brilliant, uncomfortable play called Dumb Show for the Royal Court which examined the love-hate relationship between minor celebs and red-top journalists. It is a black comedy but with biting moral: get too close to reporters with blowtorches and you will get burned.The play jumped into my mind when I read this sad, angry paragraph from an interview with the historian and prolific commentator Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has recently left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born campaigner on Islam and former Dutch MP. He is asked about the Daily Mail and this is his reply in full.
  • “I wrote for the Mail when I was a struggling undergraduate. For money. But having been on the receiving end of that combination of intrusion and defamation and misrepresentation, I have revised my opinion and want nothing more to do with those people. I despise them from the bottom of my heart, because they are just hypocrites. While they posture as opponents of radical Islam they have twice put her in danger by revealing her whereabouts. And that is the thing I will never forgive.”
  • That long quotation comes from The Times, whose online content is now of course no longer free so if I link to it and you click, it’ll ask you to pay. I think that makes linking not worth it, which is why I haven’t provided one here. If you’d like links to sites with registration, charging or paywalls, let me know.

17
Jun 10

Morozov on Shirky, plus the internet and your brain

Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus comes out here in Britain at the end of the month. Here is a long and critical review by the sceptic of digitopia, Evgeny Morozov from the Boston Review.

Plus a fascinating collection of contributions to the question: what is the internet doing to our brains? Reassuringly to me, Steven Pinker doesn’t think that the web is doing much harm.