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.

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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?