Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 9 June 2013“Don’t we need permission to blog?” asked a bright and eager grassroots development worker during one of my new media training sessions in Sri Lanka a few months ago. When I assured her that none was required, she still didn’t seem convinced.
All her young life, she had played by our society’s hierarchical rules and looked for somebody’s consent (parent, teacher or boss) before expressing herself. She couldn’t believe it was now possible to do so online without any!
Indeed, thousands of Lankans already do, and our blogosphere – cyber space made up of all blogs and their interconnections — is alive with the voices of people from all walks of life (more diverse than you’d think).
Lankan bloggers regularly speak their mind, and discuss all sorts of issues both profound and mundane. They use English, Sinhala and Tamil – and sometimes hybrid lingo. They don’t let technology or language get in their way.
Oh sure, it’s a highly contested and contentious space – but isn’t that what ALL media is supposed to be? In reality, some of our most interesting and intense social, political and cultural debates are now unfolding on the web, while our self-censoring, deferential or indifferent mainstream media watch from the sidelines.
As Internet spreads in Lankan society – currently estimated to be used by around 20% of population – people are turning to dozens of platforms and applications.
Blogging is just the tip of the social media (SM) iceberg. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…these and other forms are fast evolving. They have become key outreach and engagement tools for business.
With over 1.5 million Facebook accounts and an estimated 14,000 Twitter accounts in Sri Lanka (and counting), social media now occupy a significant part of our public and private discourse. The success of youthful satirists like Jehan R – the most popular Lankan on YouTube – indicates how individuals can leverage these with imagination and innovation. New brands and campaigns are being built in unlikely ways.
Riding the Wave
How can social activists, researchers and development workers ride this wave for their awareness raising, public education, advocacy and campaigning purposes? Which SM tools offer the best outreach and engagement potential in the South Asian and Lankan contexts? What should be the key elements of a new media strategy for development and social sector organisations?
We just spent some time discussing these and other questions at a three-day workshop that I was involved in running last week in Colombo. Titled “E-Outreach and Engagement: New Media for Strategic Communication in Development”, it was organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) India and TVE Asia Pacific.
For development communicators, we agreed, SM tools are means to a greater end: how to spark off good conversations and interactions between people. In this context, ‘media’ can mean anything digital — words, sounds, pictures, video, or any combination — shared via the web.
The challenge for advocacy groups and activists is to find the right mix of tools, engagement methods and messages to inspire social change. Given Sri Lanka’s analog-digital co-existence, they must straddle the two spheres of old and new media. Relative emphasis depends on intended audience.
Their first challenge, however, is within: to shed intellectual baggage. Many development activists are still sceptical – if not outright suspicious — of new media. At best, anything to do with computers and web still evokes some hesitation, usually from people on the other side of 40 (‘Digital Immigrants’). Obsolete statistics are being cited in discussions on the ‘digital divide’.
Yes, the web can be cacophonous, confusing, distracting and even frivolous at times. But then, so is the real world! We need discernment both online and offline.
Colonising the Web
Lankan-born Anuradha Vittachi, a pioneer in tapping the web’s power for social activism and community building, recalls the time when the web first rolled out in the early 1990s. It was seen — and quickly branded — as a place for geeks, paedophiles and the military.
Instead of complaining, and without getting trapped in endless debates on the digital divide, Anuradha moved in to ‘colonise’ the new medium with relevant content and created a space for discussion and sharing. In 1994-95, she co-founded OneWorld.net, the world’s first portal on human rights and sustainable development. Others quickly followed.
And if the original web during the narrowband era opened up new vistas, the rolling out of broadband Internet in the mid 2000s unleashed much more potential. Collectively called web 2.0, the second generation web tools and platforms have spawned many and varied social media. The end is nowhere in sight.
These SM enable easier networking and content sharing, and, most notably, spurs collaboration among users. For those in development, humanitarian and social sectors, they offer the potential for not just outreach, but sustained engagement.
The development community has long wished for more interactive and participatory communication methods. That wish is now within reach.
But be careful in what you wish for. Like a tsunami, the new media wave can sweep away much in its path and flatten structures sooner than hierarchies would like or organisations could adapt.
What’s to be done? The only coping strategy: to learn by doing.
Beware of those claiming to be new media experts, I told the Colombo workshop, for everyone is climbing the learning curve and surfing the new wave. Everything is experimental. No one has all the answers.
In this new and uncertain world, we need to be daring and adventurous, perhaps a bit like Sinbad — the legendary sailor of Baghdad. As he did, we too must take our chances and venture into the unknown, relying on our guts, ingenuity and intuition.
I’ve been blogging for over six years, tweeting for three, and am still trying to make up my mind about Facebook (is it the shallow end of the SM pool?). I learn something new every week, while making mistakes that rather amuse my ‘Digital Native’ daughter, 16.
The American academic and writer on Internet technologies, Clay Shirky, describes how he has to do ‘more weeding than planting’ – spending more energy trying to forget the irrelevant than learning about the new.
For the open-minded activist or researcher, meanwhile, social media offers many opportunities for learning, exploring and influencing. They can collaborate across time and space, solving problems or promoting reforms.
Change is a slow process, and digital tools aren’t a magic wand. Each society must define its own course and narrative in today’s always-on, endlessly-chatting world. The new tools come with their own nuances, complexities and contradictions.
In post war Sri Lanka, those promoting a progressive, egalitarian and equitable society confront the formidable forces of entrenched feudalism, state authoritarianism and new forms of extremism. For simply holding a different point of view, they can experience not only verbal threats, but often violent physical attacks.
In recent months, such intolerance has spilled over into social media. Racists, religious bigots, conspiracy theorists and assorted rabble rousers have taken cover behind the web’s anonymity and pseudonymity to indulge in widespread vilification and demonisation. Facebook, in particular, has become a space for spewing venom and hatred.
Those advocating rule of law, respect for human rights and clean, transparent government have been particularly targeted. Simply marching – or having a candlelight vigil — for racial harmony has elicited dire threats to citizens peacefully expressing themselves.
In such a charged setting, Lankan activists must carefully choose their words, images and platforms, and stay their course while ensuring personal safety, online security, systems redundancy and exemplary conduct.
They have been here before, even if the cyberspace dimension is somewhat new.
In January 2009, as the Lankan war was in its final stages and shortly after newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally killed, I wrote in my blog: “Whether they are active online or offline, committed activists in Sri Lanka have their work cut out for them…More work needs to be done in strategy, unity, networking and technology choices. The old order needs to pause, reflect and change their ways. If they can’t or won’t, at a minimum they must get out of the way…”
After all, I added, harmless, herbivorous dinosaurs also went extinct.