IR13 Sunday highlights: mobile ecologies, Instagram, disruptive spaces, teaching on Facebook…and a bit more activism

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Image of a barber and phone shop in Langa

Store in Langa township, courtesy of Adamina

The day began with ‘Mobile ecologies: mobile phones and young people’s online participation in public access venues in Cape Town’ from Marion Walton and Jonathan Donner. Walton started by saying that mobile Internet in South Africa doesn’t, for the most part, mean smart phones, the Web, or Twitter: it means “feature phones”, and probably platforms like Mxit. Southern ecologies of use for mobile phones are also very different from Northern contexts: most public schools don’t have the resources to provide training in technology, and the overlap between mobile use and the spheres of tertiary education and the workplace is limited (since many people don’t have the opportunity to study further and unemployment is high). Those who are poorest pay the highest costs for data, as prepaid data access is far more expensive than broadband access. Putting this together allows a better understanding of mobile Internet use beyond well-off users in the North: as Internet handsets become more accessible, they amplify some people’s participation more than others, interacting with existing inequalities in diverse ways.

Later in the session, Magdalena Olszanowski looked at Instagram’s spaces of flow. This is one of those talks where I knew absolutely nothing coming in (I don’t use Instagram, let alone study it) , but there were some useful links with the reading I’ve been doing lately on space/place that I want to explore later. It was also lovely seeing the slides, which (as you might expect) were illustrated with beautiful photos.

Slide detailThe next session was a tough choice between ethnographies of online and mobile media and a session on social movements. I ended up going to the latter, but I’ll have to chase down the papers on ethnographies later (and this talk on the ethnography of microblogging and this book and, now that I look again at the program, also the work on social media: technologies of control). There were a couple of good papers in the social movements session on the use of new media in Egypt and Tunisia, questioning the dominant narratives of social media use as key to organising on the ground. Simon Lindgren‘s work on disruptive spaces also looks useful, including the recommendation to look at the edges of networks as well as the cores in research.

There were also a few papers I missed (or other links that turned up in the tweet stream): Agency, Resistance, and Orders of Dissent, Farida VisSocial Media, Social Change, Johnny Unger’s work on Occupy, and an open access special issue on socially mediated publicness,

network mapTim and I presented in the following panel (slides to come), on politics and civic engagement, so my note-taking was limited. Tim’s paper on ‘#auspol, #qldpol, and #wapol: Twitter and the new Australian political commentariat’ will probably be of interest to some readers (so keep an eye on his site for updates), Sharon Strover and Sujin Choi’s ‘YouTube and civic engagement’ was notable for its examination of reply networks on YouTube, and Sheetal Agarwal et al’s paper (also out of SoMe Lab) provides a good model for understanding OWS as a networked organisation (or a series of interconnected networked organisations).

Nearly 70% of students see giving support as a key reason for participating in the group.

Giving support is even more important for students than receiving it.

The day (and the conference) ended with a lively discussion from my colleagues Mike Kent, Tama Leaver, and Kate Raynes-Goldie on the use of Facebook in tertiary education, with Clare Lloyd‘s research presented in absentia. Mike presented the most positive perspective, arguing that while boundaries need to be set, Facebook provides a familiar environment for student engagement that stimulates discussion effectively. Tama’s position was a cautious but still predominantly positive, and focused specifically on Facebook, student engagement, and the ‘Uni Coffee Shop’ group. Clare Lloyd and Kate Raynes-Goldie argued for the need to be careful about context collapses when using Facebook and to avoid getting stuck in a false choice between Facebook and Blackboard. All in all, the panel and following discussion was in favour of using Facebook in a carefully-informed and well-managed way.

IR13 Friday Session: Protest and Online Activism

October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

"Class Let's Take a 15 minute break" Nice, class is over!There have been more talks here on activism than it’s been physically possible for me to attend without splitting into two. Friday afternoon’s session on protest and online activism began with a look at ‘Protest and Internet humour memes in UK universities’ from Gordon Fletcher, which was pleasantly LOL-heavy (even if I was missing the appropriate background for many of them). Fletcher argues that while this is politics of a sort (“politics, but not as we know it”), it’s not necessarily particularly effective politics: it’s not going to start any revolutions.

Next Dan Mercea (co-authoring with Paul Nixon) looked at the use of Twitter and Facebook in attempts to recruit participants to the Occupy movement in the Netherlands. Whereas most participants in our research on Occupy Oakland saw Twitter as the primary online platform for communicating about the movement (even if this was often problematic), participants in Netherlands Occupy sites relied far more on Facebook. Mercea and Nixon also found that both Facebook and Twitter played a role in helping participants to initially learn about the Occupy movement, but wasn’t actively used to try to recruit participants. Participants’ use of both Facebook and Twitter also tended to taper off over time, and lost importance as a source of information or engagement with Occupy.

GWEI screenshot

GWEI’s site is eye-bleedingly bright, and the background flashes constantly. You have been warned.

The talks which followed were a little less relevant to my own research (and, sadly, my note-taking seems to drop off significantly towards the end of the day, especially at conferences that involve international travel): Constance Elizabeth Kampf looked at ‘The past, present and future of online activism towards business’, drawing on some great case studies. I particularly liked the Google Will Eat Itself project, which claims it will use revenue generated from Google ads to buy Google shares, and eventually turn Google into a public trust. (GWEI currently owns 819 shares, totalling USD 405.413,19, meaning it will be 202.345.117 years until GWEI fully owns Google.)¬† Zeena Feldman‘s ‘Beyond freedom and oppression’ looked at practices of resistance to the commodification of the Couchsurfing website, as users tried to continue their engagement without fully capitulating to the site’s shift to for-profit status.

Creating change: Adshel, Live Animal Exports, and the Quick-and-Easy Campaign

June 9, 2011 § 2 Comments

There have been a couple of notable issues over the last week or so in Australia where organised cRip and Rollitizen action has actually led to change.

The first was Adshel’s withdrawal of advertisements promoting safe sex after lobbying from the Australian Christian Lobby. When the news came out activists began mobilising support through a Facebook page and on Twitter, encouraging supporters to let Adshel know that they wanted the ads reinstated. Adshel listened. Within a day the ads were back up, although there are still calls for Adshel to apologise.

The second was the campaign, in the wake of Four Corners‘ “explosive expos√© of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia”, to ban live animal exports. After pressure from a number of directions, including through GetUp’s Ban Live Export campaign, the government went from announcing a ban on specific abattoirs to issuing a blanket ban.

At first glance, both of these stories sound like victories for citizen action (and online organising). However, I think there are two important questions that need to be asked. Firstly, why have these campaigns succeeded when so many others have failed? Another way of putting this question might be: is there something about the strategies used here that can be replicated in other campaigns in order to achieve similar results? Secondly, are the outcomes we’ve seen here for the best?

When it comes to answering the first question, as far as I can tell there are three factors common to both issues that are probably more important to the success of these campaigns than the use of online media.

Neither campaign required broad changes in society. Hopefully, Australian society is now at the stage where the majority of the population wouldn’t be at all offended by the Rip & Roll advertisements, and many people would, at most, find them mildly discomfiting. I’d like to think that many people would simply look at them and take some pleasure from seeing a beautiful photo of two people who are in love. (And, as many people have pointed out, far more sexual images are commonplace in advertising.) Similarly, the images seen in the Four Corners documentary were shocking, and banning the live export trade doesn’t require much in the way of behavioural or attitudinal change from most Australians. Both campaigns built on existing social norms (acceptance of non-threatening images of homosexuality, opposition to gratuitous animal cruelty).

In both cases it was ‘them’ at fault, not ‘us’. While the Australian Christian Lobby certainly does represent a portion of Australian society they’re mostly at the fringe, even of conservative opinion. They’re ‘not like us’, even for many people on the right. Similarly, my understanding of the Four Corners report* is that it was built on the implicit construction of a dichotomy between foreigners who engage in cruel practices (with a focus on the link with halal slaughtering techniques) and our own humane practices. I suspect that this tied into the rather disturbing thread of anti-Islamic racism that’s present in Australia today, with halal slaughtering being framed as another barbaric practice (along with oppression of women, terrorism, etc) that other people, not us, do.

In both cases there was a clear target for action. In the case of the Rip & Roll advertisements, there was a target for action (Adshel), easy mechanisms for showing support (join and share the Facebook page, use the Twitter hashtag, call or email Adshel), and a clear outcome being sought (reinstatement of the ads). Similarly, the GetUp! campaign calling for a ban on live exports had a clear target (“Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig”), easy mechanisms for showing support (sign the petition, email your local MP, support Animals Australia and the RSPCA), and a clear outcome sought (ban live exports).

What this meant was that supporters could take action without having to engage in any major behavioural changes, and without having to examine or admit their own complicity in questionable ethical practices. Which brings me to the second question: are the outcomes we’ve seen here actually ‘good’?

I’d argue that in the case of Adshel’s restatement of the Rip & Roll ads, the answer is yes. Australia has come a long way in terms of accepting and making space for homosexuality. We still have a long, long way to go in terms of fully valuing healthy attitudes to sex and diverse sexualities (not to mention gender identities, on a related note), but as far as I can tell these ads are a step in the right direction**.

In the case of the ban on live animal exports I’m not so sure. My housemate has been quite worked up about the ban, and has been pointing out that it means a heap of animals will be sitting around on ships with limited feed. It also has the potential to have some serious effects on farmers, including limiting their ability to provide feed for cattle (since the much of the income for feed comes from live cattle sales). So the ban means a sudden shock to the industry and the potential for more harm to animals. And the framing of animal cruelty as something that they do, not us, is problematic; as Fox (and a heap of other animal rights advocates) have pointed out, even the Australian meat, dairy, and egg industries involve substantial amounts of cruelty and suffering. By thinking of this as something that only happens in other places, we let ourselves off the hook.

Social media allow us to build campaigns quickly, particularly in cases where there’s a target for action, easy mechanisms for showing support, and a clear desired outcome. However, where issues are more complex and require significant changes in people’s attitudes or behaviours, campaigns that run overnight might not be the best option. It’s easy (and satisfying) to applaud the success of quick campaigns. But we also need to be looking at how to bring about long-term and sustainable change, as many queer and animal rights activists do as they work to create changes to the fundamental structures of society. And while it’s easier to frame problems as something that other people are responsible for, we need to be open to questioning our own complicity in those problems.


* I didn’t watch the Four Corners report. I’m vegetarian-going-on-vegan already, and even seeing the still image on the front page of this video is upsetting for me. (This is also why there are no images associated with the story on this blog post.) I’ve talked to people who watched the report, and am taking my information from those discussions.

** But of course not entirely unproblematic, I must acknowledge. It seems, after all, much easier for us as a society to accept images of homosexuality when those represented conform to dominant ideals of attractiveness and gender presentation.

How to be useful: Twitter activist edition

February 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Having talked a bit about my reasons for discomfort with the way we in the West have been following “Twitter revolutions”, I wanted to give a few ideas about how to use Twitter to engage usefully with struggles in other parts of the world. I’ve been thinking about this primarily in regards to the Egyptian protests, but I think most of these suggestions could also be useful if you’re thinking about natural disasters or other international events.

Know your audience

Think about who follows you on Twitter, and the ways in which you might be able to connect with them usefully.

  • If you know people who are on the ground during a protest or a dangerous situation, retweeting information about police movements and roadblocks can be useful. If most of your followers live outside the area of unrest, this might not be a particularly effective way of showing support.
  • If most of your Twitter followers are likely to already agree with your perspective, think about giving them ways to turn their ideas into action. This might mean sharing information about which ministers to lobby (boomerang politics is one way to try to pressure other governments into changing their policies), organisations to donate to, upcoming vigils or protests, or providing meaningful support in other ways.
  • If most of your Twitter followers are unlikely to have heard about what’s happening, or have a perspective you disagree with, try to pass on information that will engage and convince them. This can be a tricky balancing act, as most people prefer not to feel like they’re being preached to. Humour, personal stories, and good infographics can help.


Be careful what you throw into the stream

Be aware that people in the midst of the situation may be relying on a hashtag for up-to-date information.

  • Be cautious and critical about what you retweet. During the 2009 protests in Iran, there’s some evidence that the government and/or government sympathisers were using Twitter to send out false information (cf. this list on Twitspam and Morris’ brief post on Twitter psyops). As well as actively malicious information, rumours can be passed quickly on Twitter: try to confirm stories before you pass them on, particularly if they may have important consequences.
  • If you can, try to work out who is using relevant hashtags and for what. If activists have asked that you keep a certain hashtag clear for on-the-ground information, respect their request.

Don’t compromise activists’ safety

Twitter has shown a commendable willingness to support activists, delaying maintenance during the 2009 Iranian protests and refusing to hand over information on its users during the US government investigation of Wikileaks. However, there are still ways in which Twitter can be a threat to activists’ safety.

  • If you know Twitter activists’ real names, Facebook accounts, or other details, don’t use them. (You knew this already, though, right?)
  • Be careful what you share: during the Iranian protests, sharing proxy IP addresses for protesters’ use meant the security forces could find them and shut them down.


Do you have more ideas? Feel free to share them in the comments. There are lots of people out there who are looking for ways to help, they just need to know how.

Connecting to the Twitter Revolution

February 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Right now my Twitter stream is full of tweets about the protests in Egypt, mostly retweeted information. It’s easy to get caught up in it. As I type this, protesters and journalists are being beaten up, shot at. Twitter is full of personal stories: video of arrests, messages from increasingly-worried protesters, notes about the international response. It’s hard to read something like this:

“@bencnn: Government-sanctioned mass lynch underway in Tahrir Square. #jan25 #Egypt”

and not feel like I must do something, right now.

Previously unpublished photos from the demonstrations in Thessaloniki on December 2008, over the murder of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police

I felt this way, to an extent, when the protests in Iran, Thailand, Greece, and Tunisia were happening. In some cases, I sat there through the night following a hashtag, retweeting now and then, reading the stream of articles and analysis that other Twitter users linked to. Today, I don’t really know what’s happening in Greece, or Thailand, or Iran, or Tunisia.

The people I followed during those times, people who were tweeting from the middle of the situation, sometimes still write something about the political situation, but it’s not enough to overwhelm my Twitter stream, to make me feel immersed, there. Life moves on, and there’s simply not enough time to stay up-to-date on everything.

This makes me curious: what does it mean when we (Australians? Westerners?) follow these struggles in other parts of the world? Perhaps it’s simply a particularly gripping new form of entertainment, a spectacle that is all the more engaging because we can feel like we’re part of it. Perhaps it actually leads, through an accumulation of small efforts, to concrete benefits for the people whose struggles we follow at such a distance and with such immediacy.

I also want to think more about the ways in which difference is (or might be) effaced through this process. My quick search turned up literacy rates of 83% for men and 59% for women (as of 2005), and around 20,136,000 Internet users among a population of around 80,471,869*, helped along by Egypt’s Free Internet Initiative**. The number of Twitter users based in Egypt also seems to be quite small. It will come, I assume, as absolutely no shock when I write that those tweeting from Egypt are not likely to be wholly representative of Egypt’s population. (The same would be true of tweets from any protest, including in Western states.)

The tweets we read, whether we follow a hashtag or particular users, are likely to confirm our feelings that the protesters are “like us”, because the information we’re getting is usually in English, written by people who read many of the same websites as us, who are at least on one level part of this shared culture that we are all building online. Recognising that similarity, the bond that comes from knowing that people like us are suffering right now, can be immensely powerful. There are so many areas, including the Australian debate around asylum seekers, where I wish there was a more widespread recognition that other people are, in important ways, like us, and they are suffering.

However, there is something about the way in which difference disappears in this process that makes me a little nervous. Because it is also important to recognise that many of those involved in these protests differ significantly from us in their outlooks, in what they want from life, in what they hope to gain in terms of political change. I’m not entirely sure yet why this matters, but I believe that it does. Perhaps because it might influence the ways in which we try to engage with others’ struggles, perhaps because it is important for our own understanding of the situation. Perhaps for a different reason entirely.

The question that I think I am most interested in is: are there ways we can engage in these struggles from a distance ethically and usefully, contributing to and learning from them while remembering that distance (and difference) matters?


Photo courtesy of Asteris Masouras, published under a creative commons license.

* These figures are courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, and are a little off as the Internet user estimate is from 2009 while the population estimate is from 2010.

** Readers may allow themselves a cynical laugh at this name, given the circumstances.

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