Arseh Sevom’s Civil Society Zine: As Strong As Our Signal

Apr 7, 20110 comments

*Please note, this piece was originally written for and published in issue 1 of Arseh Sevom‘s new zine “The Civil Society Magazine.”  This first issue was focused at looking at net­works and net­working, including tra­di­tional, social, and dig­ital platforms. Read the full zine here.

As Strong As Our Signal: An Evolving Novelty by Mana Mostatabi Human rights activist Mana Mostatabi takes a look at the ways in which new media is trans­forming activism. She asks hard ques­tions about just how effec­tive “click­tivism can be when trying to take action for pos­i­tive changes. What hap­pens to those tweets and retweets? Just how big of a ripple do they make?” To many social media is a nov­elty: some­thing for par­ents to worry about, for kids to abuse, for school admin­is­tra­tors to lock-down, for friends to keep in touch, rel­a­tives to over-share, and even now, for e-guilt from those of us with par­ents tech-savvy enough to join.

Thinking back, there wasn’t really a sudden emer­gence of online net­works; rather (like most sus­tain­able net­works) they grew organ­i­cally. It’s funny to think that AOL chat-rooms, MySpace pro­files, and angsty LiveJournal entries would be the new forums for cre­ating and sharing. In the last ten years I’ve gone from pleas­antly excited to get a non-chain letter e-mail to being mildly annoyed by the onslaught of noise and dis­trac­tion from Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Linkedin, IRC, Skype, Xbox Live, and Google. Every action from every friend is a simul­ta­neous alert, flash, bleep, bouncing icon that makes fol­lowing a single nar­ra­tive almost impos­sible. It’s not that we can’t tell sto­ries, it’s that there are too many being told, at the same time, shouted over one another, in the same channel that often seems more like a cesspool than a foun­tain of knowledge. What hap­pens to all those nar­ra­tives we post, like, re-tweet, for­ward, share, for­ward, and paste after we’re done with them? Is that nar­ra­tive, that thin line of story, doomed to thirty sec­onds of rel­e­vance before drowning in the Internet’s Styx? I often wonder how many people actu­ally read the links they re-tweet. And yes, some­times the stars will align so that the right post timing com­bined with an emo­tion­ally packed title can drive people to do more than hit share. The truth is that Internet nar­ra­tives will never rest as com­fort­ably as those sit­ting neatly in between book covers, with the great luxury of being picked up, put down, and remembered. Knowing this, how can we ensure, then, that the nar­ra­tives do not fall into the cracks of the Internet? How can we strengthen our sto­ries, and not just share them, but also use them to fur­ther dis­course? How can we ADD some­thing to the nar­ra­tive rather than just con­tinue adding to the noise? A Not-So-New Phenomenon Iranians took to the streets en masse after the 2009 elec­tions, with stu­dents and union workers protesting along­side bazaar mer­chants and women cloaked in chadors. Ordinary Iranians evolved into cit­izen jour­nal­ists as they cap­tured the brutal vio­lence on camera phones and shared the grainy videos on YouTube. That many of the sig­nif­i­cant events of the 2009 elec­tion protests were orga­nized, broad­cast, and dis­sem­i­nated through social-networking sites and mobile phones became a tes­ta­ment to the poten­tial energy of online media. Social media’s kinetic energy became more apparent after the 2009 elec­tion – it wasn’t invented because of it. Iranian activists have long used internet plat­forms to engage, dis­cuss, and orga­nize; to peti­tion and fur­ther their goals, aspi­ra­tions, and demands; and to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion and offer the Iranian people an alter­na­tive to the State’s pro­pa­ganda machines. Iranians have evolved their net­works beyond dis­sem­i­na­tion; the real power now comes from the net­works’ power in deliv­ering a nar­ra­tive that drives action. Iranian activists are among the most savvy in the battle for rights online, despite aggres­sive mon­i­toring and out­right oppres­sion by the régime’s Cyber Police. Iran’s gov­ern­ment has become increas­ingly adept at lim­iting e-mail and tele­phone com­mu­ni­ca­tions, espe­cially during times of height­ened ten­sion. But Iranians them­selves have also become better adept at cir­cum­venting cen­sors and fil­ters. The régime’s increasing uneasi­ness about Internet com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms hints at its fear of the power of social media and the poten­tial for “neti­zens” not only to share infor­ma­tion, but its capacity to move in con­cert with the people. The One Million Signature Campaign The One Million Signatures Campaign, a female-driven grass­roots move­ment, began as an effort to col­lect one mil­lion sig­na­tures for a peti­tion calling for an end to Iran’s writ-in-the-law gender dis­crim­i­na­tion. Initially the cam­paign involved (mostly female) activists wan­dering the streets col­lecting sig­na­tures; even this sub­dued activism was deemed a threat by the régime. Despite author­i­ties breaking up events, shut­ting down real and vir­tual media of expres­sion, and detaining activists for “endan­gering state secu­rity,” the Campaign has not only sur­vived, but con­tinues to flourish across Iran, with sol­i­darity net­works emerging in coun­tries worldwide. Parvin Ardalan, a founding member of the Campaign, has said that it was because they lost their print plat­forms that they turned to the Internet: “We cre­ated a new world for our­selves in cyberspace.” Much of its sus­tain­ment is no doubt due to its web-based advo­cacy plat­form, Change for Equality. What started as the Campaign’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion avenue has since evolved beyond sharing con­tent and into a plat­form affording the everyday Iranian (and these days, the dias­pora and its allies) a plat­form for action. The draw­back to web plat­forms, to take a point from Parvin Ardalan, is that not everyone con­sumes media online. And let’s be honest, even if they do, there’s no real guar­antee that the con­sump­tion leaves a lasting impact – it’s a share at best, often drowned and buried before Facebook reg­is­ters the Like. The Diaspora’s Use Iranian activists have built plat­forms where aspi­ra­tions are born and ideas not only shared, but evoca­tive enough to drive its par­tic­i­pants to action. (Think of the One Million Signature Campaign’s use of an online peti­tion to help sup­ple­ment its on the ground grass­roots work). While Iranians have man­aged to har­ness social media to plat­forms that drive dis­course & fur­ther the nar­ra­tive, and are evoca­tive enough to get a bazaar mer­chant to sign a peti­tion for gender equality, the dias­pora seems a little behind, stuck in a circle of Re-tweets and Recommendations. There is a need to dif­fer­en­tiate between social media plat­forms driven by con­tent and those plat­forms that push infor­ma­tion around. We cannot con­fuse writing an article with sharing it. These some­times noisy social plat­forms are inte­gral for they let activists every­where work beyond the con­fines of geog­raphy, funding, acces­si­bility or the 365-day-a-year cal­endar. The major ben­efit of using dig­ital plat­forms is just that: the lack of con­fines. Take for example, the case of death row Kurdish pris­oner, Habibollah Latifi, whom the régime attempted to exe­cute during Christmas 2010. Instead, because the Internet knows no hol­iday, office hours, and never closes its front doors, thou­sands of activists were able to send tens-of-thousands of e-mails and tweets to influ­en­tial world leaders, attracting just enough inter­na­tional atten­tion to have played a role in the stay. The Iranian dias­pora has remained polit­i­cally apa­thetic over the last thirty-some years, its bud­ding activist use of these once nov­elty venues has hit a rare (and some­times har­mo­nious) chord, even if lim­ited to Facebook events and spammy mailing lists. While I’m fairly cer­tain we’ll all for­ever be wit­ness to streams of wed­ding pic­tures, baby photos, and Foursquare check-ins, even the slightest act of “click­tivism” – changing a pro­file pic­ture to high­light an issue, retweeting infor­ma­tion casu­ally, or hit­ting “Like” – cre­ates a ripple in the band­width stream. The problem is not casual clicking, but the short length of time the ripple remains. A fancy iMovie video uploaded to YouTube will only go so far. So you get 100,000 views… then what? Networks must figure out how to dis­sem­i­nate the con­tent in a way that urges action. How can a net­work urge action, online or IRL, after sharing a thought pro­voking article, Facebook post or Twitter update? More impor­tantly, how can a net­work cut through the Internet cacophony? The ques­tion remains then, not if the internet has cre­ated a meeting place (yes), but how to effec­tively wade through the internet’s clamor and put forth a mes­sage strong enough to evoke the ordi­nary internet user to action? How can we learn from Iranians to use social media plat­forms and net­works to fur­ther a nar­ra­tive while urging action? How do we nudge newly mobi­lized activist net­works to care for just a little longer about the issues they share? How can we make them care just one click more? Second Life One unlikely online net­work has emerged via an internet-based game known as Second Life. Second Life, launched on June 23, 2003, is a vir­tual world where users (“res­i­dents”) interact, socialize, par­tic­i­pate in indi­vidual and group activ­i­ties, and travel (“tele­port”) throughout the still growing vir­tual world (“the grid”). Second Life res­i­dents use the vir­tual world as a plat­form to express them­selves cre­atively via art exhibits, live music, and theater. I won’t deny the dork­i­ness sur­rounding cre­ating a char­acter and wan­dering around a 3D time-suck of a world where the real dan­gers involve either wan­dering into a night­mare inducing com­mu­nity or spending real life cur­rency on hair for your vir­tual char­acter. Despite this, Second Life has attracted a sur­pris­ingly large and diverse audience. Legitimate com­pa­nies have set-up vir­tual work­places that allow employees to meet, hold events, con­duct training ses­sions, and pro­to­type new prod­ucts. Religious orga­ni­za­tions, uni­ver­si­ties, news media, and gov­ern­ments have also carved out niches in the vir­tual world. Egypt-based Islam Online, for example, set-up a vir­tual space where both Muslims and non-Muslims can expe­ri­ence the ritual of Hajj, before making a real life pil­grimage to Mecca. A growing trend for gov­ern­ments is estab­lishing a pres­ence in Second Life by opening vir­tual embassies (with many located on “Diplomacy Island”). Maldives was the first country to open an embassy (with its only real ser­vice appar­ently being a vir­tual ambas­sador that dis­cussed visas with res­i­dents). Sweden fol­lowed suit in 2007, using the vir­tual embassy to pro­mote the country’s image and cul­ture rather than pro­vide a ser­vice plat­form. Over the next year, Estonia, Colombia, Serbia, Macedonia, and the Philippines all opened vir­tual embassies. Second Life is also full of thriving internet-based advo­cacy net­works. The SL Humanism group is among the most active in the vir­tual world and holds weekly dis­cus­sions every Sunday. After Iran’s 2009 elec­tion, a net­work of SL res­i­dents was moved to set-up a vir­tual loca­tion ded­i­cated to the struggle of the Iranian people. Residents gath­ered over the course of the months fol­lowing to browse news, read real time Twitter feeds, learn how to get involved, and even watch full-length doc­u­men­taries and YouTube videos as a group in a vir­tual amphitheater. The leading orga­nizers took it one step-further and built-out a “Virtual Evin Action Center” that drives res­i­dents to take real life action by sending elec­tronic let­ters or printing-and-mailing mate­rials to diplo­mats, offi­cials, and leaders world­wide. The self-proclaimed “3D social net­working envi­ron­ment for human rights activism” has effec­tively devel­oped into a vir­tual space where players both raise aware­ness (sharing) and urge real life action (caring). Here are a number of Second Life actions to review: Rev Magdalen’s Blog: Entre Nous Island Blog: Second Life Takes Real Life Action: Global Day of Action on SL – 2009: For a Cause While YouTube has def­i­nitely been para­mount in sharing, a new AV tool has recently emerged known as “Animoto.” This web appli­ca­tion essen­tially pro­duces videos from user-selected photos, clips, and music to convey a mes­sage with the “right bal­ance of infor­ma­tion and emo­tional con­nec­tion.” That is, in lim­iting users’ video lengths, amount of text, and number of visuals, Animoto actu­ally helps activists achieve just this. Animoto, which cap­i­tal­izes on the power of social net­works, helps spread the mes­sage not just via the video, but also with a chance to act at the end. Where YouTube video nar­ra­tives end, and often stay ended, Animoto offers viewers an-end-of-video “Act Now!” button, which the video editor links to a rel­e­vant online action. It’s become an attrac­tive way to create and fur­ther a nar­ra­tive that not only spreads a mes­sage, but also drives actions by taking into account stan­dard atten­tion spans and using the short videos to con­nect the viewer to the issue, evoke an emo­tion, and imme­di­ately offer action at the end of the video when the viewer is – for lack of a better term – most “vulnerable.” Example Videos The (some­times pol­luted) Information Stream The chal­lenge now is not just to invoke emo­tions and make people care for thirty sec­onds, but to har­ness the stan­dard atten­tion span to drive action after the ini­tial Like, Retweet, or Share. How can we BUILD a nar­ra­tive that not only fur­thers the existing plot­line, but also drives people to react to it? How can we har­ness the new energy cre­ated in those online spaces. How do we take a pow­erful tool and fully realize what it can do? How to make it more lasting? How de we not only “Digg” some­thing, but keep it “dug”? How can we, as an ever expanding internet net­work of activists, reach beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of tra­di­tional activism, and the almost too lim­it­less and too clut­tered world of online activism, to find an effec­tive way to take online action in a way that will affect real life change? How can we mit­i­gate the tug of war for our atten­tion, the broad­casts shoved into our faces, the murky, pol­luted stream of infor­ma­tion, and realize that for all our good inten­tions, fas­ci­nating sto­ries, and revs to action, we – our stories, our aspi­ra­tions, our move­ments – remain only as strong as our signal?

Originally posted on Arseh Sevom: