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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16
Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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14
Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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22
Nov 10

Online hyperlocal: power shifts coming

At the conference of Dutch-speaking investigative journalists a few days ago I listened to a presentation by Vadim Lavrusik of the social media advice portal mashable.com and I began to see what a profound change the new hyperlocal news sites might, in time, effect.

Lavrusik namechecked a series of sites in the US doing effective accountability journalism by mobilising communities. He mentioned the Talking Points Memo Muckraker section (slogan: “they have the muck; we have the rakes”), a survey of condom outlets in Colorado, tbd.com and the “stink map” for Columbia, South Carolina. Tbd.com, which covers parts of Washington DC and northern Virginia had appealed for information on escalators that weren’t working in the metro system and they accelerated repairs by generating public pressure.

Local online journalism isn’t quite as developed in Britain as in the US, but there’s no doubt that it’s growing (example here). In all the places where local printed news is losing money or prominence, we’re at the start of what will come to be a big shift in the way local politics works.

As you can see if you look a few of Vadim Lavrusik’s examples, the first thing that happens is that power starts to flow towards people who are adept at using the new sources of power. In this case that means groups or individuals who are smart with new media and social media, who can mobilise campaigns which use information in new and agile ways. Local authorities, not usually famed for their nimbleness, are sitting targets for this new style of Twitter and Facebook activism.

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15
Oct 10

The Chinese twittersphere

There’s endless back-and-forth over whether or not Twitter really played a significant part in the failed Iranian  “revolution” of June 2009. Did Twitter grosssly exaggerate the opposition strength and help to identify people subsequently arrested? Or did it link previously disconnected people and help to bring the regime to the brink of   collapse?

This theme is picked up and applied to the very different Chinese experience by Professor Hu Yong, who is reflecting   on the flood of tweets unleashed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. In China, he says, social media like Twitter are not likely to be suddenly transformative but they do push a “more subtle social progress”.

I predict that the next topic in Twitter Studies will be the role of covert tweet manipulation in totalitarian societies. Twitter and social media massively increase the range of networks at the price of removing face-to-face contact. Looking someone in the eye is often the best (if not the infallible) way to check whether someone is who they say they are or whether they are telling the truth.

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08
Oct 10

Is this the best tweet ever?

This blog has very occasionally been a shade grumpy about over-inflated claims being made for Twitter as the platform that will change journalism, society, the world, the universe and everything.

But sometimes short is beautiful, not to mention punchy and eloquent. Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. His old enemy and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez simply tweets “cuentas iguales” – or, “we’re even”.

Very cool. If you want to know why this is the perfect commentary on the news of the prize, this wonderful piece from the Guardian books blog by Stuart Jeffries will fill in the story (hat-tip: Ollie Brock).

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08
Sep 10

Arthur Sulzberger on the New York Times and “wantedness”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times, popped up in London today at a WAN-IFRA seminar and told us what we mostly already know about how the paper plans to charge its digital readers in the New Year. But he was more interesting about how the Grey Lady wants to be hugged by its readers.

Having been burned on one earlier paywall experiment, Sulzberger is now an evangelist for “test and learn”. If one scheme doesn’t work he told his audience more than once, we’ll drop it and try another one. The plan which has so far been eight months in development and will launch in January or February will allow users of nyt.com a set number of items for free, after which they will be charged.

They’re still working on what content exactly counts for moving a user towards triggering a charge. Thye haven’t decided the pricing. They’re still working on how the search engines will reach them. A user arriving at an NYT story from a third party will be allowed the “first click” free. The paper wants, Sulzberger said, to be part of the “free eco-system.”

Sulzberger painted these decisions as part of a larger reconsideration of what kind of relationship the paper wanted with its digital readers. We are rethinking, he said, “the very nature of engagement.” The language of marriage is not inappropriate here, for Sulzberger wants the NYT to bond, truly, madly, deeply with its readers. The relationship is glued by emotion. With the possible exception of the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the New York Times is one of the most formal papers on earth. Yet respect isn’t enough. It officially wants to be loved.

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15
Jun 10

Love letter to a web platform (Twitter, of course)

There’s been the odd dampening remark here and there about Twitter in this blog along the lines that tweeting (this blog does not follow New York Times style rules) may not be the answer to every single one of the world’s problems. And 140 characters is a bit tight for some communications.

But for sheer bubblingly eloquent enthusiasm, try this essay by one of America’s top movie critics, Roger Ebert, which is a love letter to a web platform. He kindly helps us with his favourites, introducing some compellingly vivid Indian bloggers competing to develop a literary form last tried in Japan with the haiku. He illustrates very well what a powerful tool Twitter is for simply swopping information with links which make the 140-character limitation less important.

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