Web2.0 Mobilization and Institutional Inertia

A flyer at Netsquared for the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net) caught my eye, because the front page listed spaces on Flickr and MySpace tagged with 'genocideintervention'.


GI-Net is a formal organisation rather than an informal network, so how come they're so quick to embrace the social web? I think it's because their constituency is students, and they're naturally going where the students are (MySpace , Facebook and so on). So it was interesting to talk to Heddy Nam at Netsquared because she's got a foot in both camps; by day, she works on operational stuff in Amnesty-USA, but outside of work she's part of an international youth network called Never Again which aims to prevent a repeat of a genocide like Rwanda. As Britt Bravo already pointed out, the Never Again network are using almost every social web tool available e.g. wikis, blogs, tagging & webchats. Like Heddy, I've also had experience of both large organisations and activist networks, and it makes me wonder whether big human rights organisations can really be agile enough to take full advantage of social web tools, or whether they'll be prevented by their own institutional inertia. Maye big organisations should stay out of the social web and just let the kids and the activists get on with it.

Netsquared write-ups

A colleague at work stumbled across a write-up of Netsquared on MSNBC: "Can Web 2.0 change the world? Nonprofits embracing technology that built MySpace and YouTube". It's a pretty good summary of conference issues, i think, and there's some relevant quotes from my stuff. I'm glad for Amnesty's sake that we're quoted as critical of the way "MSN, Yahoo and Google aren’t complying with human rights guidelines";. And it was important for me that there's some wide coverage of the message that “The way you build technology has human rights implications that must be considered right at the start.” The writer also picks up on some of the positive aspects for an organisation like Amnesty: “We have an aging, Western-based demographic,” says McQuillan of Amnesty International. “This is our opportunity to build a true global architecture of participation.” Our netsquared human rights workshop has also been blogged nicely here . All in all, it reminds me that I promised some folk to write an article about my own conclusions from netsquared. I'd better get on with it!
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Surveillance of Social Software

The week after i got back from talking about the potential human rights threats of web2.0. a colleague at work circulated an article by Paul Marks from the New Scientist entitled 'Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites' which bears out a lot of that threat.
It reveals software being developed with NSA support to datamine social networking sites by, perversely, harnessing the semantic web technologies of the W3C. Then email brought in a link to this article by David Freedman: "Why Privacy Won't Matter - Google, Yahoo and Microsoft desperately want to know every last thing about what you do, say and buy. Here's how they'll do it—and why we'll let them ". It does a nice job of highlighting the way that the drive for revenue from targeted advertising is eroding privacy and turning search engines in to Big Brothers. Whereas Google enables it's panopticon by seducing you in to using it's tools for all of your online life, Yahoo is researching social network analysis as a way to target ads at friends and colleagues. Although the general picture it paints is of inevitability, and it's very negative about the compliance of the younger generation (wrongly, in my opinion), it does highlight some developing techniques for prtecting privacy, and more importantly the possibility of a 'privacy backlash' against all this market-led surveillance. For me, the most chilling effect is the potential for self-censorship; as people become aware that their preferences and opinions are tracked they will become "afraid to engage in any behavior that others might find controversial."

web2.0 & human rights

Here's my session notes for the workshop on 'Human rights and new communication technologies: building an architecture of participation' at the NetSquared conference (held May 30-31 2006).

web2.0 & human rights
the benefits & threats of an architecture of participation

If you haven't heard of 'an architecture of participation' it's one of the original web2.0 buzzwords. (I picked it up from the O'Reilly article that started a lot of the hype. So that's what web2.0 mostly means for me: a chance to up the level of human rights activism by riding a wave of user participation. In the first place this is about increasing people's engagement with Amnesty by giving them ways to contribute; beyond that, it's about matching the social network side of web2.0 to the task of building a movement of activists. We don't yet know what this will look like, except that it will be different to Amnesty's traditional activist model (e.g. local letter writing group). Most of our ecampaigning is really just online letter writing - actions taken by individuals. If we use web2.0 ways to connect these people we open this out to a social network which can spread. Perhaps, for Amnesty, the social network is another route to solidarity. Certainly we hope it will lead to new forms of activism, especially ones that connect the online to the offline, empowering people to do something small but extraordinary for human rights.
Web2.0 will also challenge the way that big NGO's like Amnesty relate to their supporters. There's a great post by Ethan Zuckerman (From representing to pointing: some thoughts on the future of advocacy) where he describes how the online voices of people on the ground will modify the way that big advocacy organisations approach their mission. I think this is a timely development; to make the most use of the Internet we will all have to realise that we're in the 'post-deferential era', where people are not content to simply listen to the authoritative voice, but want pluralistic and direct sources so they can make their own minds up, and have their own say.
Of course, web2.0 can also be fun! It was the creative possibilities that first grabbed our attention: the potential for putting together exciting mash-ups that help visualise Amnesty's work, such as a 10x10 for human rights. And, being web2.0, this isn't only (or mainly) about the creative things we can think of - it's about giving other people a chance to be creative around human rights work in a way that will spread the messages way beyond our core of dedicated supporters. The question for organisations like Amnesty is whether we can let go enough to tap in to the web2.0 attitude; the hacker ethic that remixes content in a concrete display of 'semiotic democracy' i.e. people taking the stuff we put out and making their own meanings from it.
But an architecture of participation can also bring risks. The first risk is that people won't participate! I'm wondering how relevant we can make web2.0 to non-Western constituencies who are often the ones at the forefront of human rights struggles. On the other hand, by inviting people to participate wherever they are, we run the risk of endangering those who live under the most repressive regimes. So we also need to work out how people can participate safely. A good start here is the RSF Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents ). And then there's the dark side of web2.0 itself; that we are entrusting more and more data about ourselves and our social networks to tools which are increasingly owned by large corporations (c.f. the recent purchase of MySpace by Ruport Murdoch). The indirect risk is that a culture of advertising-led surveillance can still lead to stifling conformity. The direct risk comes when corporations hand your data over to hostile authorities. For me it is important that we embed human rights awareness from the start, without getting carried away by the cool grooviness of the latest Google application. I am excited by the potential of web2.0 to amplify and mutualise human rights activism. But the Internet itself is becoming a terrain of human rights struggle; how do we ensure that our web2.0 work will embed and strengthen human rights values?"

Second Life and Bare Life

The last session i attended at the netsquared conference was a demo of Second Life , "a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents...inhabited by over 200,000 people from around the globe". Blow me down if there wasn't a conversation straight away about a 'Camp Darfur' that some people had built to draw attention to the Darfur crisis (& which, apparently, some other people tore down - 'virtual vandalism'). It so happened that i'd just got an email from my office alerting us to the imminent stepping up of our Darfur work, including the online presence. So this virtual Camp Darfur got my attention! How strange, that a prominent subject in this second world (which is essentially a luxury extension to a wealthy western technosociety) should be those who are stripped by displacement to the state of 'Bare Life' articulated by Giorgio Agamben. SecondlifeSecondlifeThen folk started discussing how people streamed music in to Second Life and even hold gigs there , as my new BBC acquaintance confirmed. (She also gave me the skinny on the controversy around the virtual Camp Darfur, which Ethan Zuckerman has pitched in on; he's always got something worthwhile to say so i must check out his blog on it). Whatever the nascent politics of Second Life, it does seems like a platform for remixing and creative intervention. Then I get back to my desk at work and discover that the American Cancer Society run a virtual version of their fundraising run online (Second Life Relay For Life). I'd already been chatting to Erin from ACS at netsquared about their adoption of Drupal so i know they're up to speed on the tech front. I passed the info on to Amnesty's fundraising crew & we'll see what they make of it. In the mean time it seems a no-brainer that, one way or another, Second Life is ripe for some kind of experimental intervention by Amnesty. Closing thought: one of the things I had heard before about Second Life is the size of it's economy, and how Linden dollars are traded for real dollars. Any place with an economy has the potential for economically-related activist interventions, no?

Advocacy in the Post-Deferential Space

I find that working for a traditional advocacy organisation like Amnesty International throws up some interesting challenges now that the Internet allows so many people to speak on their own behalf. As Ethan Zuckerman suggests in his blog post From representing to pointing the smart advocates will move away from telling you what people need and will point at what people are saying about their own situations. globalvoices: globalvoicesglobalvoices: globalvoices According to Ethan, the role of the advocacy organisations will shift to adding context. I agree with the spirit of the post but I think it needs to be hooked up to a change model. At least Amnesty, for all it's pre-Web1.0 ways, has an idea about how to create change i.e. through lobbying and campaigning. Pointing, by itself, won't force any changes.
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