social networks

Roma rights, social networks, molotov cocktails

I was very disturbed to read about the recent attacks on Roma camps in Italy . The report says:

"Young Neapolitans who threw Molotov cocktails into a Naples Gypsy camp this week, after a girl was accused of trying to abduct a baby, bragged that they were undertaking "ethnic cleansing". A UN spokeswoman compared the scenes to the forced migration of Gypsies from the Balkans. "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy," said Laura Boldrini."

I'm pretty obsessed with how the web and digital technologies can advance human rights , and whether they can prevent gross violations and genicode, so I started wondering how useful they could be in this situation.

I remember the launch of the Roma Information Project (RIP) back in 2002, a great project using the erider model to support Roma groups in Central & Eastern Europe. But there's also potential for defending Roma rights using social web & mobile technologies through cloud campaigning. Obviously, the communities are going to be using mobiles to coordinate their self-defence. But maybe there's a role for using mobile to report human rights abuses in the way that Fahamu tried with Rural women in KwaZulu Natal. And mobile video can be uploaded to the Witness Hub (a "YouTube for human rights") which allows people to create campaigns around them by adding context and joining discussion groups.

I think the other critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. The digital space is a cultural space and racism towards Roma & travellers online will affect what happens in real life. And likewise, a healthy online culture would respond with outrage to the kind of attacks that happened in Italy.

One pioneering project that's trying to create a positive cultural space online is Savvy Chavvy where young Gypsies and Travellers in South East England are being trained in podcasting and video blogging skills ('Chavvy' is a Romany word for a young person). Many of the participants report having been abused on other social networks so the Ning network is just for Gypsies and Travellers and there's a strong debate within it about the presence of 'Gorjas' (non-Travellers). One of the public videos produced by the young people is called 'You've been logged', a story which challenges schools to think about how they deal with bullying, specifically the bullying of young travellers.

As a truly transnational cultural community, the Roma are well placed to leverage the international nature of the net despite all the obvious obstacles of access and tech skills. In fact, the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the transnational experience could make them one of the demographics of innovation. And (given that necessity is the mother of invention) this could first kick-in in the defence of their rights, in the same way as for other diasporic communities. Check out another Savvy Chavvy video called A Better Life In Gravesend where young Slovakian Roma students in Gravesend describe why they fled Slovakia (and the moment where the very young boy says "my house back home - broken windows...")

At the crowdsourcing & transparency training in Prague I met a very tech savvy Roma from and I really hope the Roma will get it together with digital activism. But what about the rest of us? I don't want to pick on Italy because racism and fascism lurk everywhere, but the stuff that happened there a couple of weeks ago is a clear precursor to some really bad human rights violations. We'll know that there's a human rights culture online when the digital space is plastered with responses to attacks. It was some comfort to read katrinskaya's tweets from South Africa about the first demonstrations against the xenophobic attacks on immigrants there. It's tricky to report a whole demo in 160 character snippets, but she reported a speaker paraphrasing Niemoller ; "First they came for the Zimbabweans, but i did nothing, because I am not Zimbabwean"...

membership & social networking

A freelance journalist asked me a bunch of interesting questions about social networking and membership organisations. I've posted my answers here. I'll point him to this link - if you've anything to add, feel free to comment!

Is Facebook a great means of building online communities, or a fad?

Neither. It's a laboratory.
How can membership bodies exploit social networking sites to build online communities?
Via tools like Facebook groups and Facebook Causes, which can cluster like-minded non-members around the organisation.
Can social networking sites add value to membership organisations?

Yes, by providing a more sociable(!) environment where people can explore what brings them together as members.
What are the pros for a membership body to use a site like Facebook to host an online member community?
They've done all the technical work, and they deal with all the terms of service.
What are the cons/pitfalls? (isn't Facebook unpoliced, isn't it hard to co-ordinate discussion?)
It's harder to coordinate discussion. The main problem is the time-intensive nature of this work, and the uncertain return on investment. Other pitfalls include the terms of service (see also 'pros') and privacy.
Is there a risk for organisations that don't embrace social networking sites, and whose members actively do, that they become increasingly irrelevant? Could they potentially lose their grip on their membership base?
Examples of membership bodies that have used Facebook as part of its member comms strategy, or even examples of where members have formed splinter groups on social networking sites.
Oxfam springs to mind. For splinters, see the famous Barack Obama example.
What lessons can sites such as Facebook teach membership organisations looking to set up/develop/improve their own online communications?
Start from the places where the people already are.
Is the technology behind Facebook something that can be adapted and adopted by membership organisations? If yes, how?
Yes, via the increasing trend for whitelabel social networks.
What are the positive ways in which the model can inform a membership body's web strategy?
The web strategy is no longer about the web site.
Are there any cautionary lessons that can be learned from Facebook?
I'm also looking for a pithy list of dos and don'ts – maybe 10 ways to make the most of social networking, and 10 ways to avoid cock ups.
Beth's interview with Carie Lewis has 5; and there's the Ten Commandments of MySpace Advocacy .
Also, not to neglect other social networking sites including Delicious, Digg, Reddit and StumbledUpon. How do they differ from Facebook and do they offer anything different to membership bodies?
They are social, rather than social networking as such (more 'collaborative filtering'). They can be useful .
Finally, what's next? As Friends Reunited has been superseded, what is the future for Facebook?

widgets for action: the 'Make Your Mark' Facebook application

The Make Your Mark Facebook application helps people to make their ideas happen. At least, we hope so. A chance collision with the Facebook app developers at Inuda set us wondering how we could make the most of people's networks in a way that turns enterprising ideas in to actions.

The basic idea is simple; fill out a form for 'I want to...' and 'I need...' and your wants/needs will feed through to your friendship network, and out from there. The viral part should kick in when someone reading your idea thinks 'i can't help with that but i know someone who can' - so we made it easy to share wants/needs with your friends. Networking and connecting is at the heart of making ideas happen.

MYM Facebook app screenshot 1

We've been through several (rapid!) iterations while developing the app, and our guiding mantra is 'share your idea, get help with the things you need, help others make their ideas happen'. We've now decided to open it up via a global view that's visible to all Facebook users. Because the app is being developed for the Make Your Mark campaign we want to inspire the kind of mentoring that research shows is so critical to getting an idea off the ground. The evidence also suggests that it's important for people with an enterprising idea to take small steps quickly (before getting overwhelmed by all the reasons it would never work :), so the app is designed to encourage folk to act on an idea one step at a time.

MYM Facebook app screenshot 2

So far we haven't promoted the app - it's spread itself from our beta test group of 20 or so to about 250 users. It's been a useful experiment, but the results so far suggest we need to re-tune / rethink before it hits the bullseye. In theory, we should have more suggestions than needs, and more needs than users - but the usage graph slopes the other way (although that puts us in good company judging by the long, long tail of Facebook Causes). The quality of ideas and responses is very variable, and we need to work on our pitch because it looks like a chunk of people don't 'get' what it's about.

I was heartened to read about the RSA Networks Prototype which is trying to work the same kind of trick for the long-established RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce). That process adopted similar principles of "propose, discuss, and support" to lie behind their social networking experiment, which is so far restricted to the Society's Fellows. There's a common drive in the two projects to surface ideas and draw others in to making them happen by a mixture of pledging and leveraging of the social graph (as you might say).

But can we emulate the scale of the Stanford Facebook class teams who reached 1 million users in 30 days! ? The interview with the 'KissMe ' and 'Send Hotness ' team members is fascinating, with talk of maths formulas and viral tuning, and i certainly wish i had more of those kind of skills. And (of course) one of the main themes is 'simplify, simplify , simplify'. So simplicity and hotness are great - but is it possible to design something that goes viral yet delivers real world impact? As an early step in the evolution of social action networks , the Make Your Mark Facebook application has some way to go. Please try it, if you're a Facebook user. And all comments and suggestions about our strategy and technique are welcome!

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?

We need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0


This is a call for a Freedom of Expression league table for Myspace, Youtube and other Web 2.0 spaces. Privacy International has shown the way with their Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies, which lists the best and the worst privacy practices across the full spectrum of social networking, email & search sites. But with the emergence of web 2.0 sites as spaces for civic dialogue there's a critical need to test their commitment to free expression and the exchange of ideas.


The problem lies in the radical difference between the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the realities of the Terms of Service agreements we sign up to when using online services. Article 19 of the UDHR says "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers", whereas a service like YouTube will assert the right for the company to remove content that it considers to be 'inappropriate'.


Despite the way that MySpace and YouTube are marketed as communities they are actually corporate spaces. As I pointed out in my post on social networking and social change: "Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners". Of course, the role of commerical companies is to make a profit, and they also have legal liabilities to content with around issues like copyright. But the debate around the role of internet companies in China has shown that it's not OK for these powerful corporates to ignore the human rights consequences of their commercial decisions.


In my opinion, the Privacy International report gives us a great model for how to tackle these issues. Their analysis employs a methodology comprising around twenty core parameters and was compiled using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives. Although they say that "we have been surprised by the number of social networking sites which are taking some of these issues quite seriously" it's notable that "not one of the ranked organizations achieved a 'green' status" (where green means privacy-friendly and privacy enhancing).

privacy rankings


Although it's fascinating to read the detail of the differences between, say, Bebo and Hi5, i think the most worrying aspect of their report is the overall trend of a 'race to the bottom' in corporate surveillance of customers. In their Key Findings they report The current frenzy to capture ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim, and the opportunity to create market differentiators based on responsible privacy may diminish unless those avenues are explored immediately.


I fear that the same threats exist to legitimate free expression in the Web 2.0 spaces, where commercial imperatives could drive companies to summarily remove 'objectionable' content, especially if they are pressured to do so by governments or other powerful corporations. This could also throttle the use of these spaces for any campaigning, which is a trend led by the users themselves (see for example the innovative uses of YouTube & MySpace for human rights work and social organising ). The recent Open Net Initiative conference on global internet filtering highlighted the growing privatisation of censorship; as the BBC's Bill Thompson says "Perhaps it's time for the Open Net Initiative to have a look at filtering policies at Facebook, Bebo and MySpace as well as Burma, Iran and Saudi Arabia".


In the longer run, the anwer may come from angry users who expect to be able to freely express themselves in the social spaces that they helped to create. After all, it's the users who add the valaue and revenue potential to these sites via their content and participation, yet no user has ever received a dividend from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid for YouTube or MySpace. But for there to be mass pressure in favour of internet rights, we need to raise the free expression issues in the way that Privacy International is doing for privacy and data protection. As P.I. also point out, the critical issue is not what's on paper but what the company's actual (privacy) practices. Who's going to lead the way on this for Freedom of Expression?


In my opinion, it's no coincidence that the title of the Privacy International report ('A Race to the Bottom') is the same term used by Human Rights Watch in their report on Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. The overt political censorship of the Chinese authorities and the invisible loss of privacy and fair expression in the commerical enviromnent of the West are two sides of the same coin. Defending the internet against one implies defending against the other, especially as the same corporations are often the critical actors in both.

social networking and social change

It's hardly a surprise that large NGO's are starting to experiment with social networks, given the sheer numbers of people using them and their high media profile. But, judging by comments on the eCampaigning Forum wiki , there's some uncertainty about how non-profits should approach social networks, and especially how to get an effective return for the time that has to be invested in these relationship-spaces. NGOs are also anxious about the loss of control - in a participative space, what happens to the brand and the carefully crafted messaging?

Of course, some groups have already leveraged a lot from these space, such as the Genocide Information Network (see also my previous post ). Despite the fact that there are now some decent initiatives from larger orgs such as Oxfam's Oxjam and Amnesty's Make Some Noise (both MySpace, and both focussed on youth + music) I still think that the agility deficit of large organisations means that smaller groups or non-profit start-ups like GI-Net will find it easier to get to grip with social networks.

A parallel dynamic comes from what i call the first law of web 2.0, which says that people will do it anyway. Community groups and grassroots activists aren't waiting for large NGos to decide whether social networks are kosher - they're just going ahead and using them (for better or for worse).

Another and newer issue for NGOs is the potential fragmentation of social spaces, as niche communities start to spring up. It's hard enough for a traditional org to decide what to do about MySpace or YouTube, so the multiplication of spaces must seem like a dizzying kaleidescope. The flip side of this is the emergence of social networks focusing directly on activism, which could give non-profits a direct route to interested audiences and cut out a lot of the noise. Right now this seems like a growing trend, with examples like & Project Agape , but there's also some scepticism about whether this is a good thing. Perhaps they'll be complementary - you go to an activism community for a guaranteed response and to a global pool to filter out new constituents. A recent development is the extension of the LinkedIn business network to support charities .

It's also useful for Western organisations to remember that social networks are a global and growing phenomenon, despite the digital divide. This also complicates the picture for BINGOs because (of course) different cultures use (different) social networks in different ways. The majority of Orkut members are in Brazil, and it is also popular in India. China has QQ , Japan has Mixi and Cyworld originated in South Korea. Youth in Kosova and the Kosovan diaspora use Hi5 rather than MySpace or Bebo. Across the Middle East the picture seems varied; while there are Iranian MySpace pages with thousands of friends, Saudi Arabians seem keener on Orkut, and there are MySpace look-alikes like MuslimSpace.

Despite the attraction of numbers in the dominant global communities like MySpace and YouTube, they are corporate spaces that could pose problems for sustained ecampaigning. Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners. NGOS should take note of reports that Yahoo shut down many anti-war Yahoo Groups. We may assume the carry over of internet freedoms like free expression, but where does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stand in relation to YouTube's terms of service? (more on this in a future post).

So should NGOs thrown up their hands at the complex and time-hungry nature of these spaces, with their in-world cultures and hard-to-define returns? I think that would be unwise. Whatever the shake-out that follows the new web boom, these spaces hint at emerging online behaviours that aren't simply going to go away. And if the next generation are flooding in to these spaces, perhaps NGOs have a duty to be there, even if it costs them in the short term. For if, as Danah Boyd says, young people are

using the sites to present themselves to a small group of friends and get their recognition and feedback. The sites are an opportunity to define in public who they are. By providing an audience, and the tools to interact with that audience, the social networks are satisfying that need. Boyd calls this behaviour “identity production” and, employing a favourite phrase of hers, says that young people are trying to “write themselves into being”

then shouldn't NGOs be ensuring that the causes they represent are part of that mix?

From a human rights perspective I think the social networking phenomena may have a deep significance. Events like Rwanda have shown the relative impotence of international legal frameworks to prevent mass human rights abuses. We certainly need the values of the UDHR to be embodied in activists that are part of social networks (locally and internationally) and who, by being in communication with one another, feel more empowered to to take action on the ground.

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.

UPDATE: Mass Digging as Virtual Activism

I see from the Avaaz blog that they're calling on people to digg their Stop the Clash petition. Looks like the digging is going to have to increase by a factor of 10 to make much of an impact - but as shown by the 'gaming' articles linked to in my earlier post on Mass Digging as Virtual Activism , the best tactic may be to target the key diggers for some help.

p.s. Human Rights Watch have also added a 'digg this' link to their news articles.

Track My Fakes: an idea for social network privacy protection

Here's a possible privacy mashup (in the form of a Gedankenexperiment) that combines a tool and a service to protect users of social networks from automated surveillance and data-profiling.
Firstly, the genuine privacy tool TrackMeNot, which protects web searchers from surveillance by search engines (which we could call "adveillance" - is there such a word?).

It does so not by means of concealment or encryption (i.e. covering one's tracks), but instead, paradoxically, by the opposite strategy: noise and obfuscation...TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users' actual search trails in a cloud of 'ghost' queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.

Secondly, the a version of the decidedly 'iffy' service Fake Your Space, which
"allows unpopular people on MySpace, Facebook and Consumating to buy hot friends. For just $.99 per month, you can buy a good-looking friend who will leave 2 comments on your profile every week".
That should give the Pentagon's software developers something to scratch their heads about.

my 3 minutes at NESTA Uploading

UPDATE: see this talk on YouTube (tx to Lloyd Davis.) a post of the rough notes from my 3 minute 'provocation' at today's NESTA Uploading Innovation Event.


not amnesty's official view

architecture of participation for campaigning amnesty, greenpeace, witness

disruptive innovations, bypassing and displacing

move-on, avaaz, genocide intervention network

post-deferential era people will do it anyway

youtube and human rights; wael abbas; first ever prosecutions of egyptian police for torture

ice cream flash mobs of belarus


chance social media will lead to conformity privacy invasion

google & yahoo - everything about us and our relationships

privacy backlash


you know social media is making a social difference when people start getting arrested for it

blogger kareem amer,

critical comments, protected freedom under int'l law


Internet Governance Forum - titanic clash, aggressive IPR & copyright versus Freedom of Expression

make a big difference to what innovation we can do with social media

Joichi Ito - remixing is a new form of freedom of expression


Q. how do we shape policy to optimise social media innovation?

best hope for human rights activism in C21st

not just social media for human rights, but human rights for social media

how to preserve that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity'

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

policy & law: we need more than creative commons code:

psiphon: anonymity - also spread via social networks culture:

providing a safe space for people to network and campaign c.f. hispanic kids in LA using myspace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation

maybe org not doing the campaign, but providing campaigning context provide a safe space for collaborative innovation and say to people: 'be part of the change you want to see'

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