New Social Networks With Old Technology - What The Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media


Egypt is the latest in a series of countries to witness the powerful potential of modern social media to catalyse and mobilise people around social issues. The Egyptian government response was to have the internet and mobile networks completely shut down. This was, however, not the end of the role that social media ideas played in the events that followed. People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio.

This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in social networks will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures.

In this paper, I use the internet shutdown in Egypt to raise issues that I believe need to be considered in analysing the influence of social media on social movements. I discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology, especially the future creation of alternatives to the corporate internet. In conclusion, I analyse the phrase 'Egypts Facebook Youth' as the emblem of social media's impact.

Social Media and Activism

The role of social media in enabling social protest has been the subject of significant commentary, especially since the so-called 'Twitter Revolutions' in Moldova in April 2009 and in Iran in June 2009. Widepsread coverage was given to Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker which dismissed the role of Twitter in Iran ('Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted') and to Evgeny Morozov's book 'The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom' which articulated a number of reasons why social media is potentially more useful to autocratic regimes than to citizens or activists. Researchers like Ethan Zuckerman have attempted to resolve the debate in specific cases through an analysis of relevant Twitter data sets without being able to draw definitive conclusions.

I've been involved in spreading both practical social media skills and a critical framework for their deployment in social change. In 2009 I led a workshop in Riga where Sami Ben Gharbia, a leading Tunisian exile and online activist, shared his skills and experiences with civil society activists from across Central and Eastern Europe. Sami is co-founder of nawaat, a Tunisian collective blog which was a key online aggregator during the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. As a participant in the eCampaigning Forum I see the frustration of practitioners who feel that their nuanced efforts to use social media for positive social change are overridden by the aforementioned cyber-skepticism or recuperated by the State Department to be used as a tool for US foreign policy My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it's impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.

Events in Egypt

The young opposition in Egypt as been using social media to organise since the 'Kifaya' (Enough) movement in 2004. According to researcher Jillian C. York of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard,

“demonstrators were seen pre-planning online strategy nearly a week prior to January 25. Egyptians on Twitter discussed the best hashtag to use days in advance, settling on #jan25, while the hundreds of thousands of members of the “We are all Khaled Said” group on Facebook collected e-mail addresses in a Google Doc in case of a Facebook ban. As the demonstrations got underway, members of that same Facebook group posted updates from around the Web, sharing videos, photographs, and first-hand accounts.”

At the time of writing 659,627 people had signed up to the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page and 35,995 were signed up to the “January 25 Revolution Day on torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” which was also used to organise for the demonstrations. On January 25th hundreds of thousands of people gathered for peaceful protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other cities around Egypt.

According to activist and technologist Ahmad Gharbeia “The role of the internet was critical at the beginning. On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew where everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police.”

The Cut-Off

On the first day of protest on January 25th 2011, reports began to emerge of interference with the online social networks that were being used to coordinate the demonstrators. Despite denials from an Egyptian Government spokesman, Twitter put a message on its official PR stream saying that use was being restricted:

"Egypt continues to block Twitter & has greatly diminished traffic. However, some users are using apps/proxies to successfully tweet”.

Indeed, some people in Egypt were quick to discover ways to circumvent the blocks. It emerged that the mobile version of the Opera browser used a proxy server to reformat web pages, thus enabling people to evade the block on specific sites. The first pragmatic deconstruction of the social web was visible, as people circulated direct IP addresses for Twitter and Facebook. For people in the central Tahrir ('Liberation') Square, the situation was more difficult, as reports came in that mobile reception was also being blocked and Vodafone subsequently stated that they complied with an order from the Egyptian authorities to to suspend services in selected areas. It was reported on social media that residents around Tahrir square removed the passwords on their wifi routers so protesters could reach the outside world.

Over the following days the circumvention efforts became more systematic, building on the base of knowledge within the human rights community about tools like Tor (a network of virtual tunnels that hides the connection between a user and the website they are viewing). By keeping some of the network entry points hidden, Tor is also able to evade many internet censorship systems. The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.

However, on 27th January 2011 the government of Egypt took the unprecedented step of shutting off internet access for the entire country. In a statement that day, the internet monitoring firm Renesys reported:

“In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet...At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide”.

The graph of Globally Reachable Egyptian Networks against Time on Jan 27th shows Egypt falling off the the Internet. Examining the above data in detail, the Renesys analysis concludes “this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced”. As the former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer (& former Google executive) Andrew McLaughlin wrote:

“Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt's reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime's brutal and hamfisted response to last week's emergence of citizen protests”.

Google's own Transparency Report (which provides information about traffic to their services from around the world) shows the drop off late on Jan 27th and the flatline on Jan 28th in a graph which has uncanny similarities to the signal trace on a cardiac monitor.

The only ISP to stay connected was Noor Group, the connection provider for the Egyptian Stock Exchange. A few people connected via Noor were able to provide some net access to their fellow citizens until Noor, too, was taken completely offline in the evening of 31st January.

The Response

People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio. The mainstay of this effort was analogue: setting up international numbers for users in Egypt to connect via dial-up modems. Some ISPs, like FDN in France, offered free access to Egyptians specifically in response to the government's actions, and internet activist groups like Telecomix set up modem links and circulated lists of dialup numbers. On their blog they report their experiences:

“No data was flowing. As the phone lines were working, this was the solutions: Modems. Technology form the last millenium lying dusty in some boxes. We built them in our computers and reactivated them. Some of us still had them working. We set up servers which could answer modem calls via landline. Many of the Telecomix agents who were setting up this were even not born when this technology was considered modern and they had to do many hours of try and error till they got them up and running. Some touched their first modem on these very days.”

Telecomix was also at the forefront of experimenting with much older technologies as a way to re-establish horizontal communications with people in Egypt, such as ham radio:

“#SOS Please avoid #hamradio transmissions near 7080.8 kHz #cw transmit frequency, esp. region 1. Listening for #egypt. #dx #swl #hamr”

They established a fax-to-web bridge which would receive faxed messages from Egypt, remove header lines which might identify the sender's location, and publish the content to their main web page. While it is not clear if any faxes were received, it seems clear that the ham radio option wasn't viable for the situation in Egypt.

Another pre-web technology being used during the internet blackout was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. This system for exchanging news and messages allows users to connect and log in directly over a phone line using a modem, and uses different technical protocols to the TCP/IP of the internet to network BBSs:

Block web 2.0 - counter with Net 1.0 - BBS networks springing up in #egypt to connect people - it's the 1980's all over again.”

Even when a part of the Internet is shutdown, the social web can give agency to the savvy user. John Scott-Railton is a graduate student at University of California with a network of personal friends in Egypt. When their social media was shut off, he phoned them for updates and posted them online at his Twitter account @Jan25voices. When the mobile networks were blocked, he drew up a list of people he knew with landlines. Even when many journalists were struggling to report from the ground there were live updates from Jan25voicesas Scott says

"Some of the updates I was getting were from people's aunts standing at the window, holding their phone out so I could hear what was happening"

A parallel piece of corporate innovation was the speak2tweet collaboration between Google and Twitter. On January 25th, Google acquired SayNow, a company with a set of services that connected phone calls and social media. Following Egypt's Internet shutdown, engineers from Google and Twitter collaborated to create speak2tweet which allowed Egyptians with phone access to leave a voice message on the SayNow site. A link to the message is automatically tweeted on the Twitter feed @speak2tweet.This also spawned a crowdsourced translation effort – people entered the translations on a google doc and they were posted on the site 'Alive in Egypt'.

The Internet in Egypt crackled back to life on February 2nd 2011, the day after Hosni Mubarak's first defiant post-protest broadcast. Quite why Internet services were restored at the same time that the regime was implementing a violent crack-down was a source of confusion to many observers. This chart of Egyptian Internet traffic from Arbor Networks shows the return as being as dramatic as the cut-off.

The Lessons

Even when the backbone supporting the social networks had been stripped away, people inside & outside Egypt strove to sustain sustain social communications with determination and creativity. Indeed, they sought to craft point-to-point analogue technologies like modems and landlines (and even fax & ham radio) in to a substitute, as well as a bridge back to the rest of the Internet. This approach suggests a radical change in people’s perceptions of their entitlement to connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies, flying in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.

There are parallels with the unfolding impact of open source software, where the practical affordances of a technology form leveraged a wider impact for ideas of 'openness' (such as open innovation and open data). Internet scholar Wendy Seltzer comments on the Egyptian shutdown by drawing a parallel with the layers model of the Internet protocol.

“We also see that the Internet is not any particular means of data transport. The independence of layers means that applications don’t care what the route underneath looks like, so long as there is one. That meant that even cutting off Internet service providers couldn’t stop information flows: while Egyptians could call out from the country, they could tell their stories at @jan25voices, and through the Google-Twitter-Phone service, @speak2tweet, that automates some of the voice-Twitter connection.”

On the basis of Egypt and other examples, one can say that the social media model of communication now has a social or cultural layer that exists over and above the actual technical platforms that normally facilitate it. This is a generalisation to wider culture of the tendency observed several years ago by anthropologist Jeffrey Juris in his book 'Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization' that networking practices

form part of an innovative mode of radical political practice that has to be understood in the context of an increasing confluence between network norms, forms, and technologies. It is important to point out that, when I talk about networking practices, I am not only referring to the use of digital technologies, but also to new forms of organizational practice. Activist networking practices are both physical and virtual, and they are frequently associated with emerging political imaginaries. It is precisely the interaction between network technologies, network-based organizational forms, and network-based political norms that characterizes radical activism”.

For those of us who have experience of both community mobilisation and social media, this doesn't come as a surprise. Networks are common to social media and to every aspect of social and business life, and it is the disruptive interplay of networked technology and business & social networks which is opening up new possibilities of social impact. The elements of participatory innovation observable in events following the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt have characteristics in common with Crisis Camps (e.g. the crowdsourced and social web-enabled response to the earthquake in Haiti) and our Social Innovation Camps (which bring together interdisciplinary self-organised teams to hack web-based solutions to social problems in 48 hours).

Future Research

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in current social network platforms will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures. What follows are issues that we believe need to be considered in analysing the impact of social movements. We also discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology.

The first challenge is the fluid online-offline way these networks work. Restricting an analysis of relationships or dynamics to an online data set neglects the 'dark matter' of offline interactions that are necessary to make sense of the whole. While this is true in general, it becomes even more so when the trajectories of interaction leap from Twitter to mobile phone to street and back again.

Grasping social media in the context of social change also means appreciating the intent of the participants. In the same way that the embedded ethnography of Danah Boyd (PDF) cut through the haze around youth and social networks created by the collision of Pew Research and media punditry, there's a need for participant observation at the interface between social media and social impact. The overlap of social movements and the social web has generated is a tendency for near-real time reflexivity, where participants reflect openly on their experiences and tactics, as exemplified by the Twitter-based debriefs of the UK Uncut activists organised around the hashtag #ukuncutdb. Jeffrey Juris reports that

contemporary social movements are increasingly “self-reflexive,” as evidenced by the countless networks of knowledge production, debate, and exchange among global justice activists, including listserves, Internet forums, radical theory groups, activist research networks, etc.”

I have observed similar reflexivity in the online movement of #jan25 (the hashtag for the Egyptian uprising).

Retrospective studies of situations like Egypt and Tunisia also need to address the framing bias of pseudo-public spaces like Facebook and YouTube. Technology and policy choices strongly affect the way they are used in community mobilization. This ranges from citizen media videos being removed from YouTube due to 'violent content' that violates the Terms of Service, to the repeated suspension of activists by Facebook for not complying with the “real name” policy for their own safety.

All these challenges may converge if trends catalysed by the Egyptian shutdown come to fruition. Galvanized by the shutdown, a group of tech entrepreneurs started the OpenMesh Project which aims to create with ad hoc mesh networking solutions in a city where the Internet backbone and mobile networks have been silenced. Conversations along similar lines can be observed across blogs and social media (see, for example, the comment thread in the aforementioned Tor post). These initatives and the use of BBS in Egypt echo the call by author Douglas Rushkoff to abandon the current Internet on the basis that it has been surrendered to centralised corporate control. Presciently, he called for a new net of 'the commons' that learns from BBSs and deploys overlapping meshes, ham radio and telephony.

Recognising that if any of this happens it will be as part of a convergence of technology with cultural forms, we can propose that critical frameworks drawing on mesh models will be useful to future analysis. For example, de Landa has developed the idea of meshworks (PDF), influenced by the theoretical work of Deleuze and Guattari. “Meshworks are based on decentralized decision making...self-organization, and heterogeneity and diversity... It can be said they follow the dynamics of life, developing through their encounter with their environments (by “drift”), although conserving their basic structure.”

Conclusions from Tahrir Square

The mis-translation of a protester's sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is 'FACEBOOK', in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as 'Thank you Facebook'. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is 'Thank you, Egypt's Facebook youth'. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them 'Egypt's Facebook youth' it also recognises that they're acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.

And therein lies the visible impact of social media. It doesn't create uprisings or anything else, but it opens up ways of thinking and behaving because it makes thinking and behaving in those ways (horizontally, self-organised) more effective than before. It opens up new fields of possibilities.


Digital Kung Fu for Civil Society

My slides from the civil society workshop in Tbilsi in May 2009. Questions, suggestions and comments welcome!

Twitter activism in Tbilisi

Next weekend I'll be doing some training for journalists and NGOs in Tbilisi alongside Kevin Anderson (blogs editor for Our mission:

  • To popularize and legitimize new media in Georgia for both journalism and civic activism purposes
  • To fill the niches that are currently unfilled by both mainstream media and current bloggers
  • To create at least one showcase local project - defined by the local audience/blogosphere and designed by the local participants

We've only got two days to achieve all this(!) and I don't want to parachute in with irrelevant training. I've posted below about the background and opportunities and I'd be happy to get any tips here or off-list.

The time is ripe?

According to the project brief "The time appears ripe for new media projects in Georgia, as the situation with the mainstream media continues to deteriorate. Throughout the region, blogs are underdeveloped - even as Internet usage continues to rise - and knowledge of worldwide trends regarding citizen media is largely missing. Few blogs can be characterized as locally driven and influential, as members of the Diaspora or other Caucasus-watchers operate the majority from abroad".

Decreasing media freedom

Freedom of the media in Georgia is on a downward trend. "Significant problems still remain with press freedom advocates pointing to murky media ownership structures, oppressive Internet policies, restricted information access, harassment of journalists, self-censorship, and the cozy interdependence of the state authorities and media outlets...The media in Georgia are relatively free when compared to neighboring countries; however, international organizations have noted the authorities’ creeping control - both direct and indirect - since the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003".

Potential for new media

On the other hand, both the recent war and opposition demonstrations have revealed some of the latent potential for social media to have an impact: after the war with Russia over the disputed region of South Ossetia "many Georgians turned to the Internet to find information not provided by the country’s three major stations. Youtube, for example, provided video of Gori being bombed and other shots unavailable on Georgian media, some of it filmed by normal people with their mobile phones - true citizen journalism". And "the Resistance Georgia blog was launched one day after the Georgian authorities forcibly broke up the 7 November opposition demonstrations, and subsequently attracted numerous citizens with diverse opinions. The discussions, impressions, rumors, and analysis posted on the site helped to better shape on the ground coverage of the unfolding events, and after only a week, even The New York Times was quoting it".

Online civil society

There's a strong interest in developing an online civic space where there can be level-headed discussion of controversial topics across communities. Ahgain, there are positive signs: "another interesting blog, run by a Georgian refugee from Abkhazia, attracts an average of 1,261 visitors a day. Showing the strength of the interactive blog format, the blogger Sukhimi is able to discuss issues surrounding the frozen conflict in Abkhazia with Abkhaz, Russians, and Georgians, all at the same time. The discussions are generally lively and vibrant, and provide valuable insight into what the dialogue between the conflicting sides looks like".

But like most other places the existing NGO sector seems poorly prepared to make the most of the digital opportunities: "many throughout the civil society and NGO sector are unfamiliar with these new technologies, do not understand how to use them effectively, or lack tools for their particular setting. Despite the growth of new media in recent years, NGOs have yet to adjust their outreach strategies, ignoring the possibility of using platforms such as blogging and social networking sites to promote their activities and research, in the process attracting members of the younger generation".

Looking for impact

My starting point for digital impact is to match the memes (patterns) of the social web to the faultlines of the social situation. In other words, how can the power of the web to increase transparency or organise mass collaboration be used to strengthen civil society.

Of course the best way to do this is with inspiring examples, like the ones we used in the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' in Riga a few months ago. I want to show how straightforward it can be to assemble an online campaign from the giant toolkit that the web has become.

Mashups and Mobilisation

Mashups are great next step because they combine compelling visualisation with the potential for engagement that we also explored in 'Crowdsourcing for transparency'. Here in the UK, initiatives like Mash the State and Tony Hirst's Googledoc ninja skills are starting to put the power of mashups in the hands of the non-programmer. (Tony's gone in to overdrive recently with the data on UK Members of Parliament's expenses).

And it's the potential for engagement and mobilisation that the social web offers to nascent social movements, especially in an environment where discontent is high. I want to shift the conversation in Tbilisi from 'websites' to the social web as a cloud of possibilities for participative campaigning. How much that applies to the online and offline situation in Georgia is something I hope to learn when I'm there.

Twitter activism and repression

The spectrum of online campaigning was well represented in our Riga workshop, from the sophisticated probing of MySociety projects to the guerilla activism of the Tunisian blogosphere. But in Tbilisi I plan to explore more about Twitter activism, examples of which are breaking out all over the place. Those sterling folk at DigiActive have produced a Guide to Twitter for Activism which is a good starting point. The reality becomes more complex when contesting claims that recent protests in Moldova were a Twitter Revolution. And Guatemalan police recently arrested someone for a tweet they claimed was "inciting financial panic" - in reality, the twittering was part of a widespread & outraged response to the assassination of a lawyer for threatening to expose government corruption.

Social innovation and civic futures

Although online campaigning is of interest to both journalists and NGOs, the real innovations will come from people thinking outside of those disciplines. If the web is going to catalyse in Georgia then people need to to think differently and feel more empowered.
In the UK we've pioneered SocIal Innovation Camps to unlock the potential of the internet to deliver different solutions to social problems. I'm co-organising a SICamp for CEE countries in Bratislava in September, and while there's no space in Tbilisi for that, it'd be good to run a version of the 'SICamp express' that we use at meetups.

Journalism and tipping points

One big win of doing the training alongside Kevin is that we'll be able to cover the blurred zone where mainstream & social media collide with online activism. The events around the G20 protests in London are an interesting case study which has challenged the previous dynamic of police impunity on protests. It sounds like civil rights in Georgia may be approaching a critical point and there's a chance that new media can help tip the balance the right way. At the very least I hope the participants in the training come away with an idea of what's possible, feeling inspired and feeling able to act on that. Your thoughts, as ever, very welcome.

Tbilisi by pazavi There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

The Unbearable Lightness of Mashups

I was excited to discover, a mashup tool for people who witness acts of violence in Kenya. You can report the incident that you have seen, and it will appear on a map-based view for others to see. I'm a long-standing mashup fan, & I bet loads of other web-obsessed activists like me were thinking of something exactly like Ushahidi while watching Kenya disintegate on the news.

But another side of me is getting grouchy and cynical about mashups and social change. I can't help thinking 'so what?' - so what happens now, now that the violence has been mapped, or the corruption of representational democracy has been graphed? It's a funny feeling to have, because I can see how the simple power of visualisation could jolt people out of apathy. And it's awkward, because I need to vote in Netsquared's Mashup Challenge before the end of tomorrow - and Netsquared is an initiative that has inspired me a lot.

I think my gripes with mashups are both evolutionary ("we should go to the next level") and foundational ("there's a fundamental difference between the action of assembling data and the reality of social change").

IMHO, mashups would evolve by being more actionable. Many are collaborative, (people can contribute data) but not actionable - there's no clear plan for how the aggregation of data is going to change the reality it describes. Will the data in Ushahidi be used to hold the perpetrators to account, via the kind of analysis Patrick Ball did for Kosova?

And is there a realistic connection between mashups and social change anyway? I love the way a mission-based geek can pull together a proof-of-concept overnight. I love the sense of possibility that comes from an internet overflowing with information and data. But, chatting to a street activist friend from wayback (who's also turned geeky) I found we were both uneasy about the contrast between coding and community activism. Coding a mashup can be fast and frictionless - community activism is usually time-consuming, sometimes boring and occasionally confrontational.

But I can dredge up a memory from those days that would've made a good mashup. Hackney Community Defence Association supported many local people who had been wrongfully arrested by police. It was via a thorough correlation of incidents with the shoulder number of the officers involved that HCDA exposed drugs trafficking, planting evidence and perversion of justice by police at Stoke Newington in north-east London. An HCDA mashup could've combined a web-based reporting tool like Ushahidi with thorough cross-checking and statement recording by legal volunteers.

I think that, as more geeks overlap with people close to social issues (a la Social Innovation Camp), there will be more mashing up of tech and gritty social impact. In the mean time, mashups stand up for transparency and that's one of the web's most powerful memes. And probably, as I plough my sleepless way through Netsquared's Mashup entries I'll have to eat my cynicism because loads of creative people will have innovated beyond my limited idea of what mashups can do :)

Hat tip to Pete Cranston for putting me on to Ushahidi and apologies to Milan Kundera for mashing up his book title.

the evolution of social action networks

social action networks

I get a real sense that we're due for a step-change in the evolution of social networks, and I think the momentum is towards networks that enable action.

causes - so what?

What an odd experience it is to be recruited to so many causes on Facebook. I've joined with hundreds of others on what feels like dozens of causes. And i'm left with the feeling - so what? What does it mean to have joined a Facebook group for issue X? What level of active participation comes from 'friending' an issue on MySpace? I'm not dismissing the real world impact that social networks are already having (see my earlier post on 'social networks for social change') but they're acting as networks of communication rather than as engines of active collaboration.


At least Project Agape's Causes application for Facebook is adding a network-effect to fundraising by encouraging (and tracking) virality. But it's still about donations, not about enabling people to directly contribute to the activity of their chosen cause. Nothing wrong with that, except the risk that it could eclipse the potential for more active participation (see also my post 'chuggers in cyberspace' ). Surely one of the most exciting potentials of the social web is the way it could enable new forms of collaborative organisation and action - possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing.

purposeful groups

The difference of social mode I'm talking about is described in Beth Simone Noveck's paper 'A democracy of groups' as the shift from 'virtual communities' to purposeful groups:

"Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig's List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have ... A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the 'illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship' that characterizes virtual community."

aggregated action

How could social networks support change by becoming enterprise and action networks? Maybe we need to look at business models for web-enabled collective action. When Allan Benamer emailed me about his startup 'socialmarkets' he described how they embedded an action model in the site that goes beyond connectivity:

'I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.'

I think the same logic can be applied to evolve social networks - iterate functionality that aggregates useful behaviours in to some kind of concrete change.

network-centric widgets

What would this look like for social networks, and how would it come about? Certainly that 'how' is not going to be in the mainstream functionality of the social network platforms but via their application APIs - the actionability of social networking will emerge via widgets like Pledgebank's Pledges app . My first guess at the 'what' is apps that distribute a major task in a way that can be directly actioned, and then aggregate the results. For example, the MediaVolunteer project described on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog . Each volunteer was assigned two reporters to call, out of which the project aimed to assemble a national media list of media contact details:

"To influence media coverage our groups need a good press list. The communications people for these groups need to be able to jump online and find all the reporters that cover health in Georgia or who covers veteran issues across Pennsylvania. The groups need to be able to work the media as with the same tools as Madison Ave. P.R teams hired by Halliburton. To update and develop lists of tens of thousands of reporters would eat up staff time. However, a few thousand volunteers could update the list in a week with just a few calls each."

collaborate at scale

Imagine the MediaVolunteer example as a Facebook app, using Skype to make the calls directly from the computer. This could have the same virality as the Causes app and give the same kind of visible feedback (e.g. calls made, friends recruited). As Charlie Leadbeater says in 'Social software for social change' :

"The rubric of the social web is: contribute, connect, collaborate, create...Under the right circumstances, people can collaborate and coordinate their activities at scale, without requiring much of the top down hierarchy of large organisations...As a result, large scale collaborations can create quite reliable, robust and complex products ranging from open source computer programmes such as Linux to compendiums of knowledge such as Wikipedia."

Will social networks evolve beyond 'connect' to 'collaborate', or will the disruptive potential of network-centric collective action spring from elsewhere?

UPDATE: Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

'How Drupal Will Save The World ' by Lullobot's Jeff Robbins has three key ideas that resonate with my post on Drupal and the Dot Org Boom .

1) Tools for the grassroots

My plan for Amnesty was that a switch to open source would allow the main web technology to be rolled out to the smallest section or activist group, anywhere in the world. Jeff's is also excited about the potential of tools like Drupal for grassroots activists and quotes a great example from the netsquared conference:

"My favorite story from the NetSquared conference comes from Kim Lowery of Kabissa who talks about a village in Nigeria that had agreed to let an oil company access their land and resources in exchange for clean water and school buildings. After a few years of letting the oil company get what they wanted, it became apparent to the people of this village that the oil company was not going to fulfill its end of the bargain. Ten years ago, these villagers would have had no recourse. But these days, they have their own website and the leverage that goes with it. They scanned the original contract and posted it on their site and followed up with a few emails to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the like. And before long they had a campaign going to bring people's attention to the oil company's failure to deliver on its promises. A few months later, the oil company began showing up to the village, taking more interest in their needs, and began delivering on some of their promises".

2) usability for activists

His second major theme is usability, and how it's critical if these tools are to be any use to people at the grassroots. As he says about some of the social activists at netsquared

"These are not technical people. And they want to build sites for even less non-technical people. They want to bring Drupal to third grade teachers in Indiana, church-basement activist groups, street orphans in South Africa, or Vietnamese farmers. These people may have very little experience on the web. The idea of "filtered HTML" is likely beyond their concern. And administrative idioms such as "node", "taxonomy", "vocabularies", "terms", even "menu items" and "blocks" are usually only understood after some conscious effort".

Jeff contrasts the clunkiness of Drupal with Apple products like iMovie and Automator which show "how even very complex operations and configurations can be simplified into a friendly user interface that the average user can begin to grasp".

3) drupal distributions

This is a simple idea that could pack a real punch;

"Drupal should have maintained, funded distributions (pre-configured packages of Drupal with add-on modules and themes) to act as a quick-start launch pad for various common website types".

Having specialist server-side distributions would extend the existing idea of operating system distributions (various Linux distros) and application distributions (like tactical tech's NGO-in-a-box series ). Instead of a community group spending months getting up to speed on Drupal, experimenting with various modules and wiring things together, there would be tailored Drupal distributions for specialized purposes e.g. a community events management system with discussion boards and event-related photo galleries and mailing lists.

footnote: linux live CDs and community translators

Part of my enthusiasm for easy-to-use distros comes from running a web project that delivered vital advice in community languages to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I needed non-technical tranlsators to be able to generate Unicode text in languages like Bengali, at a time when this was not possible in Microsoft Word. The tech side could be done with a combination of Linux and OpenOffice, but there was zero chance of the community translators being able to install this on their own computers. Then along came Indic language live CDs like Indlinux . They cut right through the problem; simply ask the translators to pop the CD in their computers at start-up and bingo - urgent translated text in the correct technical standards for web delivery.

Netsquared - the European Remix?


I think Europe badly needs a Netsquared conference and online community, or something like it. NetSquared's mission is 'Remixing the Web for Social Change', and it does this though a framework that includes community blogging, case studies, major conferences and local monthly meetings. It has just held its second major conference , where 350 invited participants gathered to accelerate 21 Projects that were selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.


I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Netsquared conference, which was a buzzing mix of geeks, activists and tech philanthropists. For me, some highlights included Howard Rheingold discussing the way hispanic youth in LA used MySpace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation encountering the Genocide Intervention Network, which is such a good example of a web 2.0 enabled NGO start-up seeing Camp Darfur in Sercond Life and, of course, the workshop on Human Rights and New Communication Technologies where i was a presenter :) (MSNBC published a good overview of the first conference called Can Web 2.0 change the world?)


Of course, there are already some great tech & society conferences in Europe. I recently did a workshop at the eCampaigning Forum which covers a lot of the key issues, but is very tightly focused on professional ecampaigners. I was also impressed by the LIFT conference which had a great diversity of content - but although they were kind enough to give us a platform the 2006 conference to talk about human rights & web 2.0 most of the event lacked any kind of activist edge.


Those of us who have been part of the Netsquared experience can see the need for a similar incubator for web-enabled social change in the UK & Europe. The proposal is to establish project like Netsquared that hits the sweet spot at the overlap of technology & social innovation. The goals would be

  • To stimulate web-enabled social innovation
  • To create a an online-offline community for learning skills, sharing experiences and developing expertise
  • To sustain socially progressive activity through alternative business & organisational models



Creativity and innovation are fundamental to the social web, not least because it empowers initiative at the grassroots level through an architecture of participation. This is attracting a lot of interest and engagement from groups and networks with a social mission. A Netsquared Europe would be well-placed to channel this dynamic and support some strategic development of this field. Tapping in to European movements for social change would also bring a more activist strand to the event.


The conference and community could also address 'the organizational question' i.e. the challenge that Web 2.0 raises for traditional NGOs and non-profits. The many dimensions of this challenge have been spelled out recently by Michael Gilbert in The Permeable Organization , Steve Bridger in Whose cause is it anyway? and Katrin Verclas in Online Communities Redux: Why They Matter to You. Perhaps, like the second Netsquared conference, it could aim to incubate a new generation of web-enabled non-profits that use new forms of organising to deliver more directly on their missions.


Like many other radical innovations, Netsquared Europe will have open source embedded in its genes. Not only because much of the innovation would be impossible without open source tools, but because the DIY attitude of open source software communities is the best innovation paradigm for web-enabled social change. As Karim Lakhani says, the open source model is about "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities". I think a conference & community like the one proposed in this post, that brings together developers and social change activists, would be a prime site for another open source principle described by Lakhani: "the intersection of firms and communities and the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that blend and blur firms and communities".

I'd like to add a tip from the new programme at NESTA who's strapline is Innovation is a Contact Sport. NESTA Connect "will focus on creating new, unexpected or extreme collaborations - blurring the traditional boundaries between disciplines, organisations and places. We believe such collaboration has the potential to generate radical, transformational innovation." At their Uploading Innovation Event I highlighted the reasons why online innovation and human rights are closely intertwined . A conference like Netsquared Europe could be a great opportunity to creare unexpeted collaborations by mashing up the new wave of social entreprenuers with dedicated networks like The Association for Progressive Communications and young upstarts like the Web Activist Collective .


The success of a project like Netsquared Europe will depend on the collaboration of organisations and networks that already reflect facets of its goals. Take the original Californian tech-visionaries of Netsquared and remix with the professsionalism of the eCampaigning Forum, the European activist focus of Total Tactics, the open source know-how of the Tactical Technology Collective and the enterprise of The School for Social Entrepreneurs and what do you get....?

Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

The news that Amnesty Seeks a Drupal/CiviCRM Vendor signals a move in to open source that should benefit Amnesty and have a wider impact for NGOs and the open source movement. I started advocating for open source at Amnesty's International Secretariat more than two years ago, but anyone who has been a change agent within a large organisation will know that it's a big challenge to get a strategic commitment to FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software). Of course it helps if a like-minded organisation has already taken the plunge, and we got a lot of support from Andrew H. and Romilly G. who had already steered Oxfam's adoption of Plone. This made the case that serious NGOs were adopting enterprise-ready open source and also, through Oxfam's participation in the Plone Foundation, showed that a large NGO can be an active member of an open source community.

The best way to keep pace with the rate that web tools evolve is to be part of a community of innovation. So I was excited by the buzz of community activity around Drupal at the Netsquared 2006 conference, where I could see an emergent sweet spot for web activism at the confluence of FOSS developers and social activists. A stream of developments confirms this trend, from CitizenSpeak's free email advocacy service for grassroots organizations to the fact that Drupal is a leading contender as the platform for development of the WITNESS video hub (a human rights portal).

For me, the increasing adoption of open source tools for real-world impact validates several years of commitment to bringing together FOSS & NGO communities. This work has been inspired by organisations like Aspiration in the USA and the Tactical Technology Collective here in Europe. In the UK we formed a small collective of volunteers which organised the Social Source events in 2004 and 2005, and it's great to see how many of the participants have made important contributions to the common DNA of open source and social change.

One of those groups was Mute Magazine, who became early UK adopters of CiviCRM. and full credit should be given to the CiviCRM community for the way their software has risen to enterprise level. When I looked at it 12 months ago it was hard to see it competing against off-the-shelf CRM solutions by ASP providers like Kintera, Convio and so forth. But such is the pace of development that it is now a credible solution, especially if your criteria include internationalisation and the potential to interface with mobile channels, both of which should be important for international NGOs who want to engage constituencies in the global south.

I think there's an underlying dynamic at work here that goes deeper than the pragmatics of ecampaigning, and I like Juha Huuskonen's notion of the Dot Org Boom "referring to the same development as Web 2.0 but from a different perspective. Dot Org Boom is proposing that the current wave of development is heading to non-profit direction,something that Web 2.0 promoters would probably not want to agree with". Propagated through the PixelACHE festival the notion of the Dot Org Boom is actually a non-web idea, drawn from a study of social entrepreneurs from around the world and focusing on the activities of Ashoka Foundation, but Juha says

Our version of Dot Org Boom consisted of independent media, open source community and NGOs. Considering the fact that all these three areas share the same basic principles - open, non-profit activities based on volunteer contributions and grassroot organisations - it's striking how little collaboration there has been between these areas. The tactical media/indymedia/activist networks used to be very different from the sourceforge/slashdot/geek camp and the NGOs were mostly left out of the loop, happily using their Microsoft tools. What I find essential in the Dot Org Boom is that these three components - open content, open tools, open organisation models - are starting to find each other. Web 2.0 people would like to ignore the organisation component of this transformation.


198 Methods of Online Activism

In the run up to the eCampaigning Forum 2007 there's been some interest in how to integrate online and offline campaigning. I like the way that Alexandra Samuel draws comparisons between offline & online activism, as part of establishing her definition of hacktivism .


Different activist repertoires: some examples
  offline online
conventional Activism:
Non-violent protest marches
Online activism:
Online voting
Online campaign donations
Online petitions

Civil disobedience:
Political graffiti
Wildcat strikes
Underground presses
Political theater

Web site defacements
Web site redirects
Denial-of-service attacks
Information theft
Site parodies
Virtual sit-ins
Virtual sabotage
Software development

What I'd really like to see is an online equivalent for Gene Sharp's amazing list of 198(!) Methods of Nonviolent Action , which was published back in 1973. (Thanks to Ian Chandler's Effective Campaigning course for pointing me to that).

I know that some won't have any online analogue, but the process of figuring that out may throw up some new ideas for online activism, and we're sure to end up with a full spectrum list of ecampaigning techniques.
So there's the challenge for the eCampaigning Forum (and beyond). If you can think of an online tactic for any of the offline ones from the list, please add them as a comment or send them directly.


(from Gene Sharp, The Methods of Nonviolent Action, Boston 1973)


1. Public speeches
2. Letters of opposition or support
3. Declarations by organizations and institutions
4. Signed public declarations
5. Declarations of indictment and intention
6. Group or mass petitions
7. Slogans, caricatures, and symbols
8. Banners, posters, and displayed communications
9. Leaflets, pamphlets, and books
10. Newspapers and journals
11. Records, radio, and television
12. Skywriting and earthwriting
13. Deputations
14. Mock awards
15. Group lobbying
16. Picketing
17. Mock elections
18. Displays of flags and symbolic colours
19. Wearing of symbols
20. Prayer and worship
21. Delivering symbolic objects
22. Protest disrobings
23. Destruction of own property
24. Symbolic lights
25. Displays of portraits
26. Paint as protest
27. New signs and names
28. Symbolic sounds
29. Symbolic reclamations
30. Rude gestures
31. "Haunting" officials
32. Taunting officials
33. Fraternization
34. Vigils
35. Humourous skits and pranks
36. Performances of plays and music
37. Singing
38. Marches
39. Parades
40. Religious processions
41. Pilgrimages
42. Motorcades
43. Political mourning
44. Mock funerals
45. Demonstrative funerals
46. Homage at burial places
47. Assemblies of protest or support
48. Protest meetings
49. Camouflaged meetings of protest
50. Teach-ins
51. Walk-outs
52. Silence
53. Renouncing honours
54. Turning one's back


55. Social boycott
56. Selective social boycott
57. Lysistratic nonaction
58. Excommunication
59. Interdict
60. Suspension of social and sports activities
61. Boycott of social affairs
62. Student strike
63. Social disobedience
64. Withdrawal from social institutions
65. Stay-at-home
66. Total personal noncooperation
67. "Flight" of workers
68. Sanctuary
69. Collective disappearance
70. Protest emigration (hijrat)


71. Consumers' boycott
72. Nonconsumption of boycotted goods
73. Policy of austerity
74. Rent withholding
75. Refusal to rent
76. National consumers' boycott
77. International consumers' boycott
78. Workers' boycott
79. Producers' boycott
80. Suppliers' and handlers' boycott
81. Traders' boycott
82. Refusal to let or sell property
83. Lockout
84. Refusal of industrial assistance
85. Merchants' "general strike"
86. Withdrawal of bank deposits
87. Refusal to pay fees, dues, and assessments
88. Refusal to pay debts or interest
89. Severance of funds and credit
90. Revenue refusal
91. Refusal of a government's money
92. Domestic embargo
93. Blacklisting of traders
94. International sellers' embargo
95. International buyers' embargo
96. International trade embargo


97. Protest strike
98. Quickie walkout (lightning strike)
99. Peasant strike
100. Farm workers' strike
101. Refusal of impressed labour
102. Prisoners' strike
103. Craft strike
104. Professional strike

105. Establishment strike
106. Industry strike
107. Sympathy strikeRESTRICTED STRIKES
108. Detailed strike
109. Bumper strike
110. Slowdown strike
111. Working-to-rule strike
112. Reporting "sick" (sick-in)
113. Strike by resignation
114. Limited strike
115. Selective strike
116. Generalised strike
117. General strike
118. Hartal
119. Economic shutdown


120. Withholding or withdrawal of allegiance
121. Refusal of public support
122. Literature and speeches advocating resistance
123. Boycott of legislative bodies
124. Boycott of elections
125. Boycott of government employment and positions
126. Boycott of government departments, agencies, and other bodies
127. Withdrawal from governmental educational institutions
128. Boycott of government-supported institutions
129. Refusal of assistance to enforcement agents
130. Removal of own signs and placemarks
131. Refusal to accept appointed officials
132. Refusal to dissolve existing institutions
133. Reluctant and slow compliance
134. Nonobedience in absence of direct supervision
135. Popular nonobedience
136. Disguised disobedience
137. Refusal of an assemblage or meeting to disperse
138. Sitdown
139. Noncooperation with conscription and deportation
140. Hiding, escape, and false identities
141. Civil disobedience of "illegitimate" laws
142. Selective refusal of assistance by government aides
143. Blocking of lines of command and information
144. Stalling and obstruction
145. General administrative noncooperation
146. Judicial noncooperation
147. Deliberate inefficiency and selective noncooperation by enforcement agents
148. Mutiny
149. Quasi-legal evasions and delays
150. Noncooperation by constituent governmental units
151. Changes in diplomatic and other representation
152. Delay and cancellation of diplomatic events
153. Withholding of diplomatic recognition
154. Severance of diplomatic relations
155. Withdrawal from international organisations
156. Refusal of membership in international bodies
157. Expulsion from international organisations


158. Self-exposure to the elements
159. The fast
a) Fast of moral pressure
b) Hunger strike
c) Satyagrahic fast
160. Reverse trial
161. Nonviolent harassment
162. Sit-in
163. Stand-in
164. Ride-in
165. Wade-in
166. Mill-in
167. Pray-in
168. Nonviolent raids
169. Nonviolent air raids
170. Nonviolent invasion
171. Nonviolent interjection
172. Nonviolent obstruction
173. Nonviolent occupation
174. Establishing new social patterns
175. Overloading of facilities
176. Stall-in
177. Speak-in
178. Guerrilla theatre
179. Alternative social institutions
180. Alternative communication system
181. Reverse strike
182. Stay-in strike
183. Nonviolent land seizure
184. Defiance of blockades
185. Politically motivated counterfeiting
186. Preclusive purchasing
187. Seizure of assets
188. Dumping
189. Selective patronage
190. Alternative markets
191. Alternative transportation systems
192. Alternative economic institutions
193. Overloading of administrative systems
194. Disclosing identities of secret agents
195. Seeking imprisonment
196. Civil disobedience of "neutral" laws
197. Work-on without collaboration
198. Dual sovereignty and parallel government

Chuggers in Cyberspace

I'm starting to get a bit bothered by the innovative fundraisers in BINGO's who are pushing in to places like MySpace & Second Life, because I'm afraid that hunting for donations in the new virtual spaces will put people off the other things an NGO can offer (like opportunities for activism). It's ungrateful, I know, considering the fact that fundraisers bring in the money to pay my wages. And I feel quite ambivalent about it, because at least the fundraisers are agile enough to know that MySpace & Second Life are important developments, which is more than can be said for many campaigners!
So I applaud their drive to innovate, but I'm concerned about face-to-face fundraising leaking over in to experiments with social networking. (According to the Guardian newspaper, face-to-face fundraising "is the name given to the fundraising technique where teams of cheery, bib-wearing young people in the street sign up passers-by to give money regularly to charity via a direct debit. But people who are not fans of the fundraising teams have been known to refer to them as "charity muggers" or "chuggers".)

The participative nature of the social web makes it a place where people can go beyond a passive role, and potentially become part of the solution they want to see. Of course I understand that many folk don't have much time to give, and sometimes giving money is all that is possible (hey, i've got a family too). But what happens when folk in Second Life start to teleport past the office of the human rights organisation, because they don't want to get hassled for a donation? Or when people reject MySpace friend requests from campaigns because they can sense it's just a sting?

I know I'm pointing the finger at the wrong people. It's not the fundraisers' fault that they're being creative - that's a good thing! But it would be a shame to see NGO's written off because something as interesting as Save the Children's virtual yak gets hammered in the same way as Heifer's water buffalo (a critique that resulted in widely-watched YouTube video, BTW). The root of the problem is the strategic failure of non-profits to embrace the disruptive nature of the Net. Perhaps, as some suggest, the corporate model is no longer well suited to public benefit work, and the internet itself will play a part in the emergence of new structures for organising around social impact.

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