Sinbad in Beijing: How to tame the many-headed hydra called Social Media

Sinbad: The legend endures, entertains...and inspires!

I have always been intrigued by the tales of Sinbad the legendary sailor. My interest is heightened by living in Serendib, destination of Sinbad’s sixth journey, which is modern-day Sri Lanka.

Being a professional story teller, I always try to connect the old world with the new. So in Beijing this week, I proposed: In the brave new world of social media, we need to be as daring and adventurous as Sinbad.

Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we must rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

And we have to be prepared for a potentially perilous journey where we may be lost, shipwrecked or even sunk. On the other hand, with careful planning, hard work and some luck, we may well sail into calmer seas and discover new lands and treasures – just like Sinbad did.

One thing is for sure: it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are no guarantees of success, and certainly no travel insurance…Are we ready to take the plunge?

This was the thrust of my opening remarks to a panel on social media that I moderated at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The panel was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010.

L to R: Pauline Couture, Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking), Chutharat Thanapaisarnkit and Minna Epps

My enthusiasm for social media was not dampened by the fact that some key social media platforms were not accessible from the Chinese capital because they are officially blocked. Ah, if we aren’t allowed to walk the talk, we story tellers can still talk the talk, right?

In my opening remarks, I added:

Those of us working on development, humanitarian or social issues always have plenty of public interest messages to communicate. We are also keen to amplify grassroots voices so that policy-makers and business leaders would get a reality check.

The social media present many opportunities for all this. They offer us the potential for not just outreach, but sustained engagement. The development community has long wished for more interactive and participatory communications tools. The social media do precisely this! There’s no longer any excuse for not jumping in…

I then added the caution: It’s a big pond, and keeps getting bigger and deeper by the day. Social media is a basket that includes a lot more than (the more visible and controversial) Facebook and YouTube. According to the Wikipedia (itself an example), social media is a collective term to describe online media that is based on two key attributes: conversations, and interactions between people.

One of the many strange creatures that Sinbad encountered on his journeys was the Hydra — a many-headed serpent (or dragon). Chop one off, and two would grow instantly — a bit like how new social media applications are popping up these days!

Modern-day Sinbads have plenty of new horizons and uncharted waters to explore. Yes, it can be cacophonous, confusing, dizzy and even a bit frivolous at times. Hey, so is the real world! We need discernment in both worlds.

Social media started with the geeks, but soon spilled over to involve the rest of us. How can we — the non-geeks — come to terms with this new realm? How do we find our niche that makes us more effective communicators and agents of social change? The key to engaging this bewildering world of social media is to…just do it. And see what works.

I also introduced my own rough guide to get started and keep going in using social media for communicating public interest content. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

MediaHelpingMedia has just published my 7-Ups Rough Guide to using social media.

Appeal to climate reporters everywhere: Don’t follow the Climate Circus!

L to R: Sam Labudde (EIA); Eric Soulier (Canal France International); Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking); and Durwood Zaelke (IGSD)

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, a big Climate Circus takes place. The venue city keeps changing, but the process is always the same: it attracts thousands of people – from government officials and scientists to activists and journalists – who huddle in various corners, chat endlessly and gripe often during two chaotic weeks. Then they disperse, rather unhappy with the process…only to return to more of the same a year later.

This is how I see the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention, or UNFCCC. Their last big ‘circus’ was in Copenhagen, Denmark — when the world held its breath for a breakthrough in measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that warm up the planet. But, as with many previous conferences, Copenhagen over-promised and under-delivered.

The next COP is to take place in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2010. We can expect more of the same.

I’m not always this cynical. I’m certainly not a climate skeptic or climate change denialist. But I came to this conclusion after covering climate change stories for over 20 years, and having seen the kind of distraction the annual Climate Circus can produce on the media coverage and fellow journalists.

My contention: COPs were intended for treaty-signing governments to come together, bicker among themselves and make slow, painful and incremental progress on what needs to be done to address the massive problems of global climate change. While the core of these conferences remains just that, over the years they have gathered so much else — side events that now completely outweigh the political conference, and often overshadow it. I’m not convinced that this is where the real climate stories are, for discerning journalists.

I made these observations in some plain speaking done during a panel at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The occasion was the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010 — and the only one on an environmental issue or topic.

I was on the last panel for the day, which looked at the next “hot” ozone and climate related stories. We were asked to give our views on: what are the great stories on the road to COP16 in Mexico at the end of the year?

Forget Cancun, I said. We already know how little it’s going to change the status quo. Why bother with that promises to be a non-event? Must we be this concerned with non-stories in our media coverage? In fact, I suggested: we should give the entire UNFCCC processes a couple of years of benign neglect. The real climate stories are not in the unmanageable chaos that the annual Climate Circuses have become. They are out there in the real world.

In the real world where frontline states and communities are already bearing the brunt of extreme weather…where green energy is making rapid advances…where communities and economies are trying to figure out how to live with climate change impacts even as they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

There are plenty of climate stories out there, covering the full range of journalistic interests: human interest, human enterprise, innovation, scientific research, community resilience and others. The challenge to journalists and other climate communicators is to go out there, unearth the untold stories, and bring them out in whatever media, forum or other platform.

I have nothing against climate COPs per se, and hope they can be restored to their original purpose of climate negotiations and working out acceptable, practical ways forward. (And this is certainly not a case of sour grapes: I’ve turned down all-expenses-paid invitations to COPs more than once.)

But we need to be concerned about the Climate Circus Effect on media, activist and educator groups, who seem to dissipate a good deal of their limited energies and resources in turning up at these mega-events. Copenhagen is said to have attracted over 17,000 persons (over 3,000 among them accredited journalists). How much of fruitful interaction and sharing can happen in such a setting? And when all the major news networks and wire services are covering the key negotiations and activities in considerable detail, what more can individual journalists capture and report to their home audiences?

Living as we do on a warming planet, we are challenged on many fronts to question old habits, and change our business-as-usual. The media pack has been running after the Climate Circus for over a dozen years. We need to pause, take stock and ask ourselves: is this the best way to cover the climate story?

And while at it, here’s something else for the UN, conveners of the annual Climate Circus. On World Environment Day 2008, whose theme was ‘CO2: Kick the Habit’, I asked the UN to kick its own CO2 habit. I suggested: “Adopt and strictly observe for a year or two a moratorium on all large UN gatherings (no matter what they are called – Summits, conferences, symposia, meetings, etc.) that involve more than 500 persons. In this day and age of advanced telecommunications, it is possible to consult widely without always bringing people physically together….Practising what you preach has a strong moral persuasive power — even if it goes against addictive habits formed for over 60 years of the UN’s history.”

PS: A global, comprehensive and legally-binding agreement on climate change is unlikely to be delivered at this year’s (Cancun) conference as well, the outgoing head of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, was reported as saying on 27 May, just a few days after our Beijing seminar. See what I mean?

Twitterless in Beijing: Talking aspirationally about social media…

Under Chairman Mao's watchful eyes...

“Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software!”

This is one of the less known, but more entertaining, dicta by Arthur C Clarke – he called it ‘Clarke’s 64th Law’, and I personally know he used to bring it up when meeting with particularly crusty or glum intellectuals. (Not all were amused.)

Clarke’s words kept turning in my mind as I moderated and spoke at a session on social media at Asia Media Summit 2010 held in Beijing China from 24 to 26 May 2010. The country with the world’s largest media market is not exactly the world’s most open or free – and certainly when it comes to social media, it’s a very different landscape to what we are used to…

These days, International visitors arriving in China discover quickly that access to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is completely blocked. Apparently the brief ‘thaw’ in restrictions, seen before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is now over — the current restrictions have been in place since the spring of 2009.

This doesn’t mean there is no social media in China. In fact, I heard from several Chinese friends and colleagues that there is a very large, dynamic and fast-evolving social media scene in China. For the most part, however, it’s not based on globally used and familiar platforms, and is happening in a digital universe of China’s own — under the watchful eye of the government.

Jump in...but some conditions apply!

For example, I found from this March 2010 blog post by Merritt Colaizzi that:
* 221 million people have blogs, largely in a diary-style.
* 176 million Chinese connect via social networking system (SNS) with their “real” friends and online networks.
* 117 million connect anonymously via bulletin board system (BBS). These interactive online message boards are the heart of social media in China. They’re where people go to find topic-based communities and where consumers talk about products and services.

There are lots of other blogs, mainstream media reports and research commentary on social media in China — just Google and see (now that’s another thing with limited – and uneven – access in China: Google itself is available, but search results come with lots of links that simply aren’t accessible). Much or all of this interaction happens in Chinese, of course. It’s a significant part of the web and social media landscapes, but if you’re in China on a short visit and want to stay connected to your own social media networks, that’s not at all helpful.

And, of course, it undermines one of the key attributes of a globally integrated information society: the interoperability of systems and platforms.

Luckily for me, perhaps, I can survive a few days without my social media fix: I have an appalling record of updating my Facebook account: days pass without me even going there. For the moment, at least, I’m also taking a break from regular blogging (well, sort of). But I’m more regular in my micro-blogging on Twitter, and visit YouTube at least once a day, sometimes more often. I could do neither during the few days in Beijing – and that was frustrating.

So imagine having to talk about social media as a new media phenomenon in such a setting. That’s only a tiny bit better than reading computer manuals without the hardware…But this is just what I did, with all the eagerness that I typically bring into everything I do. I planned and moderated a 90-minute session on Social Media: Navigating choppy seas in search of Treasures?

The session was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, so our context was how to use the social media to raise public awareness and understanding on the somewhat technical topics of ozone layer depletion and climate change (two related but distinctive atmospheric phenomena).

With access to key global social media platforms denied, we visitors and Chinese colleagues in the audience could speak mostly generically, theoretically and aspirationally. I didn’t want to place my hosts and seminar organisers in difficulty by harping on what was missing. Instead, we focused on what is possible and happening: how development communicators are increasingly social media networks and platforms to get their messages out, and to create online communities and campaigns in the public interest.

The thrust of my own opening remarks to the session was this: In the brave new world of social media, we all have to be as daring as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we have to rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

More about the session itself in future blog posts.

For now, I want to share this TED Talk by American watcher of the Internet Clay Shirky on how cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history. Shirky shows how Facebook, Twitter and TXTs help citizens in repressive regimes to report on real news, bypassing censors (however briefly). The end of top-down control of news is changing the nature of politics.

PS: All this holds more than an academic interest for me, because there have been media reports in recent weeks that the Sri Lankan government is working with Chinese experts in formulating strategies for censoring internet access from Sri Lanka.

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