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Social Media and Mobilization

June 21st, 2009

Discussion by Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin

Held at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 17th June, 2009

Iran Elections and the Twitter Revolution …

Memes – how and why do some memes become popular on Twitter?

FaceBook – privacy, community, locality, socializing???

Blogs – once, we thought they would revolutionize the world, but how are blogs now placed vis-à-vis twitter and facebook?

Many questions abound concerning the phenomenon called “social media”, particularly in the wake of the protests taking place in Iran and how information has reached out to the world about what is going on in the country. The panel discussion on social media organized by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 19th June, 2009, aimed to understand how mobilizations take place through social media and how memes are engineered and spread across communities. We brought down Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin from Mumbai to share their experiences.

Dina and Peter set up the tsunami help blog in December 2004 (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com) which for the first time showcased the importance of social media tools in coordinating local efforts and disseminating information in the region. What caused them to become involved through this medium? Both Dina and Peter used discussion forums and emails during the formative years of the Internet in India. “The sheer miracle of chat”, as Peter puts it, also allowed them to connect with people. When the tsunami struck, they became nodes through which action was mobilized and information was spread. It still remains to be explored how nodes develop in different circumstances, how spaces of conversations develop and what causes some individuals to enter the space of social media and inhabit them in significant ways, to the extent of becoming nodes for coordination and mobilization.

So, what is social media? Dina says she does not like the term. But, since it is used so commonly, she follows the tide. For Dina and Peter, social media is a set of tools which can be mobilized for various purposes – call to action, response to crisis, persuading people to support a cause, among many other things. What is curious though is that the use of social media becomes more marked and prominent during moments of crisis. This led one audience member to ask whether social media is mirroring some of the behaviours of mainstream media. Dina pointed out that social media does not exist in opposition to mainstream media – both complement each other. What makes social media more powerful during moments of crisis are some of the following factors:

1. Powerful search functions;

2. Tools for aggregating content which helps in picking up the noise;

3. Hash (#) tags which make it easy to search and to connect and contribute to ongoing conversations and mobilizations.

These help to amplify what is going on. Dina also referred to the simplicity of social media tools which enables diverse individuals to participate in their own ways. She cited the recent example of showing solidarity with the Iranian revolutionaries by adding the colour green to one’s twitter image. “I only had to click whether I wanted to show support in this way and a program automatically applied the green colour to my twitter image without my having to do anything. I don’t have to write code to participate in this medium. I can be anyone,” she added.

What is also unique is that unlike newspapers and early television, interactions via social media tend to be two-way. For instance, blogs have made it possible for individuals to become publishers of their own materials whether it is diary like entries or filter blogging. Moreover, in the case of the protests following the rigging of Iran elections, people used their mobile phones to capture images and make videos and post these on the Internet for others to see.

Individuals from the audience raised questions about how they and their organizations could use social media tools effectively to raise funds and to communicate their causes/issues to other people. To this, both Dina and Peter suggested that it is important to find the spaces where conversations about issues are already taking place and to participate in them. They also stated that credibility is built over time through acts of giving to different communities that develop around various issues. Dina also emphasized the need to recognize target audiences, what are the mediums they use regularly and accordingly to develop strategies concerning the use of social media. If the outreach group is more tuned into radio, it is more effective to reach out to them in this way. Dina mentioned that a powerful medium in today’s times is the mobile phone which is often neglected because of the publicity that the Internet tends to receive. She said that in South East Asian countries, people have better mobile phone connectivity and often, political activism has taken place by spreading messages through mobile phones. One of the participants questioned whether it is feasible to move from an existing yahoogroup and start a discussion group to which another audience member responded that it is preferable to stay with existing mediums used rather than to switch. Also, discussion forums require more participation and if the goal is only to send out announcements, a yahoogroup serves the purpose.

The issue of arm-chair activism was also raised – whether social media is in fact leading people to participate in issues only through clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Peter stated that this is true, but the ease of transmitting information on to others enhances the possibility of moving beyond arm-chair activism. “For instance, I am concerned about eve teasing and harassment of women in public spaces, but I may not have the time to participate in an ‘intervention’ or gathering on a particular day. However, I forward the email/invitation my friends who are concerned similarly and they may choose to participate on-site,” he said.

The lack of connectivity to the internet and therefore to social media was referred to in the discussions. An audience member pointed out that according to a recent study, only 10% of the people in India are connected to the internet. Peter immediately remarked that the figure of 10% translated into 10 million people which is still a large number that can be reached out to. Similarly, it was pointed out that English is still the predominant language of the web and therefore social media can be exclusive. In this respect, the issues are developing technologies for facilitating the use of scripts, the extent to which the masses use languages other than English on the internet and also whether people in fact use the internet and other communication technologies as a means to learn English. Anivar Aravind, a participant, drew our attention to a twitter community of 800 people who tweet regularly in Malayalam.

The discussion brought out some interesting nuances to social media which users and novices may not have thought about. Questions still remain about the efficacy of social media, the nature and characteristics of communities that are formed around use of social media, distinctions between networks and communities, etc. Irrespective, over time, these questions will be answered as usage increases and trends are studied in all their complex aspects.

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