Why are ‘Smart Mobs’ also very fickle? Looking for an antidote to fleeting activism

Smart but fleeting mobs?

‘Smart mobs’ is an interesting term for like-minded groups that behave intelligently (or just efficiently) because of their exponentially increasing network links.

The idea was first proposed by author Howard Rheingold in his 2002 book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. It deals with the social, economic and political changes implicated by developing information and communications technology. The topics range from text-messaging culture and wireless internet to the impact of the web on the marketplace.

In the eight years since the book first appeared, we’ve seen a proliferation and evolution of smart mobs, fuelled by the growth web 2.0 tools and, more recently, the many and varied social media. In fact, author Rheingold is credited with inventing the term virtual communities.

But the reality is that smart mobs can also be very fickle — their attention can be easily distracted. A smart mob can disperse just as fast as it forms, even while its original provocation remains.

This was demonstrated in dramatic terms in June 2009. Following a hotly disputed presidential election in Iran, there was a surge of online support for pro-democracy activists there who launched a massive protest. A main point of convergence for online reporting and agitation was micro-blogging platform Twitter. Within a few days, mainstream media like TIME and Washington Post were all talking about this phenomenon in gushing terms.

'Rescued' by Michael Jackson?

Then something totally unexpected happened. On June 25, Michael Jackson’s sudden death in Los Angeles shocked the world. As the news spread around the world at the speed of light, it crashed some social networking sites and slowed down even the mighty Google. Online interest on Iran dipped — and never regained its former levels.

As I wrote at the time: “I have no idea if the Ayatollahs are closet fans of Michael Jackson. But they must surely have thanked the King of Pop for creating a much-needed diversion in cyberspace precisely when the theocracy in Tehran needed it most.”

Other recent experiences have demonstrated how online interest can both build up and dissipate very fast. Staying with a single issue or cause seems hard in a world where news is breaking 24/7.

Here’s a current example. Following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started on 20 April 2010, local communities and environmental activists deployed various social media tools to track the unfolding disaster. BP, the giant oil company implicated in the disaster, has also tried to use social media to communicate its positions, but not too successfully. On Twitter, it was not BP’s official account but the satirical @BPGlobalPR that was dominating the online conversation. As one commentator wrote: “It is an object lesson in how social media can shape and control a company’s message during a crisis.”

Beyond PR?

By early July 2010, however, there were already signs that online interest on the issue was already waning — even as the oil continued to leak from this largest offshore oil spill in US history. In a detailed analysis of main social media platforms’ coverage of the issue, Mashable noted last week: “An estimated 100 million gallons or more of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico…Yet on Twitter, Google, blogs and even YouTube, we’re already wrapping up our collective discussion of the oil spill and how to repair its damage.”

Riding the wave can be fun, but waves form and break quickly. Those who want to use social media tools for social activism still need to learn how to hitch a ride with the ocean current beneath the fickle waves.

How I wish I could get some practical advice on this from a certain ancient mariner named Sinbad.

From Michael Jackson to K’naan: Anthems for the Global Family?

A song that will outlive the games?

FIFA World Cup Football enters its final few days this week, culminating a month of international football at the highest level.

Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this is much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.

And one upbeat song has characterised this World Cup more than any other: the FIFA World Cup Anthem, “Wavin’ Flag” (The Celebration Mix). Sung by K’naan (born Keinan Abdi Warsame) a Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist.

It opens with these now famous words:

…Singing forever young, singing songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game,
And together at the end of the day.
We all say
When I get older I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag…

“Wavin’ Flag” is the third official single (eighth single overall) from K’naan’s Troubadour album. He specially recorded a version of the song for the tournament, hosted by South Africa. The remix of “Wavin’ Flag” is part of Coca-Cola’s global integrated marketing campaign “inspired by the joyous dance celebrations familiar to Africa.”

The song is popping up and pouring out from billions of radio and TV sets, mobile phones, websites and other devices. So much so that I wonder if it might as well be our planetary anthem — an idea that some social activists and artistes have dreamed about for decades?

Last year, shortly after Michael Jackson’s sudden death, I wrote a blog post that looked back at his songs that celebrated social and environmental themes. Referring to one, I said: “…the Earth Song had much wider and more lasting appeal, almost becoming an anthem for the global environmental movement in the past decade. But its real impact was not among the converted – with this song, Jackson took the green message to the heartland of the Facebook generation.”

We can argue about that (please do!). For now, here’s the celebrated song, currently the most popular on the planet:

FIFA Wold Cup Anthem “Wavin’ Flag” (The Celebration Mix) by K’naan

Wavin’ Flag lyrics (Celebration Mix) by K’naan

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets are, hands are liftin’, as we lose our inhibition
Celebration, its around us, every nations, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game
And together at the end of the day

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

Give you freedom, give you fire, give you reason, take you higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets are, hands are lifting, every loser inhibition
Celebration, its around us, every nations, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game
And together at the end of the day

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes….

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

WE ALL SAY

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

And then it goes back…And then it goes back…
And then it goes back…And then it goes…

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

And everybody will be singin’ it

Ooooooh Wooooooh Ooooooh Wooooooh

And we are all singin’ it

Avatar: Blockbuster film as socio-political and green allegory?


“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Those words by American film producer and studio founder Sam Goldwyn (1879-1974) sum up Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making for the past many decades.

As I watched James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie Avatar, I kept wondering how the master film maker managed to subvert this so completely. Beneath the 3D, special effects and riot of other worldly colours, the movie is one long (2 hrs 40 mins) and powerful commentary on why might is not right when it comes to exploiting resources — belonging to other countries, people, or as in this case, other worlds.

This is not just another worthy indie movie made by an idealistic movie maker defiant of Hollywood traditions and big money. James Cameron is one of the most commercially successful directors in the mainstream film industry – and perhaps one of the very few who can get away with this kind of stunt. At a budget of over US$ 300 million , Avatar is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the costliest ever for 20th Century Fox.

The big gamble is certainly paying off. On 26 January 2010 came the news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing movie worldwide. According to the studio, worldwide box office total for Avatar at that point stood at US$1.859 billion, beating the US$1.843 billion racked up by Cameron’s romantic drama in 1997-98. Avatar broke that record in a little over six weeks.

Part of the reason for such appeal is the extraordinary special effects: it’s an action-packed thriller where good and evil battle it out on another planet. The strange landscapes give it a video game like feel, but no small screen can match the theatrical experience, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (I didn’t). And for a change, this time the aliens inhabiting planet Pandora are benign, while it’s the humans who are ruthless invaders and brutal killers. Well, at least most of the time…

Here’s the official blurb: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic, first conceived the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.”

And here’s AVATAR – Official International Launch Trailer (HD)

Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…

It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…

But the multi-purpose allegory is apparently working well. Take these two from opposite sides of the planet:

Thomas Eddlem wrote in The New American: “Avatar, is a visually stunning epic that is a perfect allegory for any of a dozen or more Indian wars in American history. From King Philip’s War in New England to Tippecanoe in Indiana to Horseshoe Bend in Alabama — and all the way across the American continent, for that matter — the story was the same. Colonists simply take land from the natives, as the Sully explains: ‘This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.’

Mayank Shekhar wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper: “Between a green worldview and the globe’s war over a natural resource, James Cameron’s twin analogies of present-day politics are fairly complete. They lend his science fiction ‘event picture’ a certain soul, even if not much of a story line.”

So did Cameron set out trying to send a message? Or was it all an incidental byproduct? Listen to the director himself in these two online video stories:

James Cameron’s Vision Featurette

CBS Interview with James Cameron: From Titanic to Avatar

The most compelling social commentary on Avatar I have so far read comes from Naomi Wolf, the American political activist, author and social critic. In an op ed essay written for Project Syndicate, she sees two revealing themes in Avatar: “the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America – for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster – from the point of view of the rest of the world.”

She adds: “In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans’ view of themselves in relation to their country’s foreign policy.”

Does the box office triumph of Avatar make James Cameron one of the most effective campaigners for social justice on the planet (comparable, in some ways, to Michael Jackson having been one of the biggest environmental communicators of his time)?

And is Avatar the most expensive piece of info-tainment or edu-tainment ever made, just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long (even if unintended) commercial for the breathtaking sights and sounds of New Zealand?

Certainly, mixing messages with entertainment is such a difficult and delicate art that most people who dabble in it fall between the two stools. The entertainment value of Cameron’s latest flick is not in question. Granted, it’s not as heart-breaking as Titanic, and the storyline is oh-so-predictable. But 3D and SFX magic alone can’t hold today’s audiences gripped for 160 long minutes. And if the underlying story starts movie-goers thinking and talking about many parallels between the fictional world of Pandora and our own Earth, he’s certainly getting somewhere.

As Naomi Wolf says: “Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans’ suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America’s borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar , the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.”

Perhaps this wasn’t part of the script, but would the executives at 20th Century Fox care as they laugh all the way to their bank?

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone…

I cry, therefore I am

I cry, therefore I am

“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” urged Mark Antony to fellow Romans after Julius Caesar died.

But what if you simply don’t have any tears to shed? That’s what my eye doctor recently cautioned me, after a routine examination. The natural tearing in my eye, necessary for keeping it moist and clean, wasn’t quite working. There is nothing to worry, he hastened to add, for it sometimes happens as our bodies slowly age. He asked me to use eye drops twice a day for a while.

This set me thinking about the value and power of tears. Although most land mammals have a lacrimation system to keep their eyes moist, humans are the only mammal generally accepted to cry emotional tears.

In my circles, I’m known to be an emotional guy. I have never believed in that macho myth of men not crying. I shed tears of joy and tears of sorrow, sometimes in public. I cry when people I know, admire or love leave this world, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. Powerful movie moments of triumph or despair often move me to tears, as do simple joys of life — such as seeing my kid perform well on stage in a school concert.

Despite what my doctor says, I’ve been shedding plenty of tears this year.

I openly wept when journalist colleague Lasantha Wickrematunge was gunned down in broad daylight on a cruel January day. He was Sri Lanka’s real leader of the opposition.

My eyes were completely misty when the news of the original TV news anchorman and broadcast giant Walter Cronkite passed away on 18 July 2009 after an illustrious career spanning decades.

Have tears, will shed...

Have tears, will shed...

Two weeks later, I joined millions of Filipinos in mourning the passage of Cory Aquino, the courageous woman who led the world’s first People Power revolution, toppling one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century.

In contrast, Michael Jackson’s death on 25 June didn’t immediately move me to tears, even though I quickly wrote a tribute. But the live broadcast of his star-studded funeral service on 6 July did. I watched it in the solitude of a hotel room in Amsterdam on a warm summer evening, and cried — as much for the tragic end of the man as what he stood for. Those tears inspired the op ed essay on the two Moonwalks.

I can add more to this list if I think long enough. The point is: my eye specialist’s clinical examination didn’t capture these highlights (lowlights?). There’s a part of our emotional lives that our doctors may never fathom. We ourselves are often barely aware of it.

A recent article in Reader’s Digest (March 2009 issue), titled Big Boys Don’t Cry — and Other Myths About Men and Their Emotions, said new research reveals that a man’s emotional life is as complex and rich as a woman’s, but often remains a mystery to him as well as to any woman who loves him. You can say that again!

Conventional wisdom doesn’t encourage or celebrate grown men crying. One of my favourite poems is ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, which opens with these memorable lines:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.”

My close friends think I’m melancholic by nature, and long ago I came to terms with who and what I am. I don’t spend my days lamenting or weeping, for sure, but I also don’t hesitate to cry when the emotion warrants it.

If that means I weep alone, so be it.

Michael Jackson: A tale of two moonwalks (and a ‘Thank You’ from the Ayatollahs)

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

What a pity that Michael Jackson missed the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moonwalk by only a few weeks.

He was only 10 when Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong took that historic first lunar step on July 20, 1969 and was probably among the 500 million people — the largest TV audience the world had known at that time — who watched it live. Fourteen years later, Jackson would invent his own kind of ‘moonwalk’.

First performed for his song ‘Billie Jean’ on a U.S. TV show in March 1983, Jackson’s dance technique that gives the illusion of the dancer stepping forward while actually moving backward gained worldwide popularity and became his signature move.

Like that historic ‘moonwalk’ 40 years ago, Jackson’s untimely death on June 25, 2009 created ripples that was felt worldwide. News of his sudden death crashed some news or social networking websites, and stalled others. Even the mighty Google, now the world’s largest media operation, slowed down; Google News was inaccessible for a while.

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, inspired by the media and public reactions to Michael Jackson’s sudden death. Titled ‘King of Pop Moonwalks to Online Immortality’, it has just been published by the Asian Media Forum website.

I must admit that I’m more a fan of the original Apollo moonwalk than Michael’s version. I was three and a half years when the first Moon landing happened, which remains my earliest childhood memory that can be traced to a specific date.

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

All the same, as an observer of media and popular culture trends, I have always been interested in the Michael Jackson phenomenon. The crux of my new essay is captured in this para: “He was not the world’s first mega-star — in the zenith of their careers, the Beatles and Elvis Presley were similar globalised cultural icons. But two waves of communication technology, arriving in quick succession, propelled Jackson to unprecedented heights in popular culture: satellite television and the Internet.”

I look back at how these twin technologies transformed far-away Jackson into a local icon across Asia. I also recall a 2001 documentary named Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj. Directed by Indian journalist Nupur Basu, it probed how far and wide satellite television was influencing and impacting culture, society and even politics of South Asia. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed on the film, along with nearly two dozen other South Asians.)

Read Nupur Basu’s own recent recollections of how she came across Michael Jackson in remote parts of South Asia, courtesy satellite TV.

The essay ends noting how Jackson could not quite ride the Internet wave the way he did the satellite TV wave. I share my thoughts on how the world’s online population — now over 1.5 billion people according to one estimate — reacted to the news that King of Pop was no more.

The news created a data tsunami of its own on the web, which incidentally – and half the world away – provided a much need respite for the Ayatollahs of Iran…Read the full essay and find out why!

Read earlier blog post: 26 June 2009: Michael Jackson (1958-2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes

Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes

Did you ever stop to notice...The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Did you ever stop to notice...The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Read later blog post: 8 July 2009 – Michael Jackson: A Tale of Two Moonwalks

Michael Jackson, who has just died aged 50, has been called the Elvis Presley of our times. He certainly was a global cultural icon with an enormous following in the West and East, North and South. And he used this celebrity status for more than mere entertainment (which he did exceedingly well): he had a long-standing history of releasing socially conscious songs that spread public interest messages with great ease and power.

Mixing social messages with entertainment is a difficult and delicate art that only a few artistes manage to get right. Jackson was one of them — his mass appeal or sales didn’t suffer because he occasionally endorsed a worthy cause. He wasn’t overtly political like Pete Seeger, who turned 90 last month, but Jackson did it in his own unique way in songs like “We Are the World“, “Man in the Mirror” and “Heal the World“.

In fact, Michael Jackson’s biggest selling UK single ever was a song about the environment: Earth Song. Released in November 1995, it sold over a million copies and was at the top of the charts for six weeks.

Earth Song was the first of his songs that overtly dealt with the environment and animal welfare. Written and composed by Jackson himself, Earth Song opened with these words:
MichaelJackson-EarthSong
What about sunrise
What about rain
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain.. .
What about killing fields
Is there a time
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine…
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Jackson wanted to create a song that was lyrically deep yet melodically simple, so the whole world, particularly non-English-speaking fans, could sing along. He conceptualized a song that had an emotional message.

As he later recalled: “I remember writing Earth Song when I was in Austria, in a hotel. And I was feeling so much pain and so much suffering of the plight of the Planet Earth. And for me, this is Earth’s Song, because I think nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the Earth. And with the ecological unbalance going on, and a lot of the problems in the environment, I think earth feels the pain, and she has wounds, and it’s about some of the joys of the planet as well. But this is my chance to pretty much let people hear the voice of the planet. And this is ‘Earth Song’. And that’s what inspired it. And it just suddenly dropped into my lap when I was on tour in Austria.”

The video of the Earth Song was among the most expensive ever made – it was filmed in four geographic regions and involved scenes from the Amazon forest, Croatia, Tanzania and New York city, USA. It starts with a long tracking shot through a lush rain forest that then cuts to a scene showing Jackson walking through a scorched, desolate landscape. The environmental imagery then rolls on: dead elephants, evil loggers, belching smoke stacks, snared dolphins, seal clubbing, and hurricane winds. The video closes with a request for donations to Jackson’s Heal the World Foundation.

Watch Earth Song by Michael Jackson:

Although not as widely selling, ‘Will you be there‘ is my personal favourite among Jackson’s socially conscious songs. First released as a single in 1993, it was taken from the 1991 album Dangerous and also appeared on the soundtrack to Free Willy – the charming story of a boy befriending a killer whale.

The song won the MTV Movie Award for “Best Song in a Movie” in 1994. It was also included in the album All Time Greatest Movie Songs, released by Sony in 1999. Jackson also performed songs for the film’s two sequels.

Watch Michael Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’ in Free Willy:

However, Earth Song had much wider and more lasting appeal, almost becoming an anthem for the global environmental movement in the past decade. But its real impact was not among the converted – with this song, Jackson took the green message to the heartland of the Facebook generation.

Few global figures commanded the audience he had – as the New York Times noted: “At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums.”

“The song is a very rare thing: a hit record with a powerful message about our impact on the environment,” says Leo Hickman writing in The Guardian earlier today.

He adds: “What struck me today watching the video was how it is very much the product of an age before climate change had become a mainstream concern. The lyrics and imagery speak of over-fishing, deforestation, and smog. All of them are still huge and legitimate concerns, of course, but they have all now become somewhat dwarfed by climate change, the most compelling and over-arching environmental issue of our age.

“But that shouldn’t distract us from the song’s impact on its fans. Given its universal success and the repeated showing of its powerful video, it is highly likely that it was the spark that made many people – particularly young Michael Jackson fans, which, even in the mid-1990s, would have numbered many millions of people around the world – stop and think about environment for the first time.”

Talk about moving images moving people!

Peace...at last

Peace...at last

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers