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.

Olympics on TV: How the World is One

When Lopez Lomong led the US team into the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympics as its flag-bearer, he was completing a journey that started eight years earlier, on another continent. And under very different circumstances.

In September 2000, as a Sudanese refugee, he walked eight kilometers from a refugee camp in Kenya, and paid five Kenyan shillings, to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. There, he saw Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400 meters, and that gave him a dream.

Until then, he’d not even heard of the Olympics. From then onwards, he wanted to be an Olympic runner. In Beijing, he is competing as a 1,500-meter track runner. Just as important, he is a leading member of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

According to his website, at age 6 he was abducted from a Sudanese church by a militia faction that wanted to turn young boys into child soldiers. He eventually escaped the militia camp through a hole in a fence with three older boys who carried them on their backs as they walked for three days until they reached Kenya, where police arrested them and sent them to a refugee camp. He spent 10 years in the camp, living on one meal a day.

Read Lopez Lomong biography on his website

Read New York Times profile of Lopez Lomong, 2 July 2008

Through a combination of persistence, determination and luck, Lopez came to the United States through the help of Christian charities. There, he could pursue his dream – he became a naturalised citizen only about a year before the Beijing Olympics.

“I come here to inspire kids who are out there watching this Olympics, as I did watching the Sydney Olympics,” Lopez told the media in Beijing. “All the countries and all the nations are out there watching. I’m very honored to be here and I am very honored to lead the American team into the opening ceremony.”

Indeed, the summer Olympics have become one of the most widely watched events in the world. An estimated four billion people worldwide watched the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on 8 August 2008. (Even if two complete spoilsports – Russia and Georgia – started a little war that very day, many news media outlets didn’t pay them much attention until the Beijing opening ceremony was over.)

And for the first time, that viewing was not confined to television alone: a small but growing number followed the event online, heralding the arrival of another distribution medium for this global event.

Olympic broadcasts go back to nearly half a century, when the 1960 Rome games became the first to be covered live on television. Olympic games have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with television, with the medium popularizing the event to the point that the global audience is now counted in billions of viewers.

As I have commented in another blog post, this close relationship between the Olympics and television does have its downside. The medium’s showbiz driven demands for style over substance can and do sometimes distort reality and even threaten the integrity of the Olympics movement as a sporting event.

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) tries hard to strike a balance between revenue optimisation and safeguarding the Olympics ideals. This is why, for example, the IOC has often declined higher fee offers for broadcast on a pay-per-view basis or because a broadcaster could reach only a limited part of the population, as this is against Olympic Broadcast Policy.

As the IOC explains on its website: “This fundamental IOC Policy, set forth in the Olympic Charter, ensures the maximum presentation of the Olympic Games by broadcasters around the world to everyone who has access to television. Rights are only sold to broadcasters who can guarantee the broadest coverage throughout their respective countries.”

This is extremely important. It’s impossible to put a dollor or Euro figure to the inspirational value of television (and now online) coverage of the Olympics. For the couple of weeks that the summer Olympics are held, moving images from the host city captivate the world’s eyeballs in a way that few other events can.

Among the Beijing 2008’s billions of viewers might well be the next Lopez Lomong. We have no way of knowing that yet…but if not for the worldwide broadcasts and webcasts, the global event in Beijing will not be shared by most members of the Global Family.

Read more about Olympics and television

Blog post on 13 Aug 2008: Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

Blog post on 8 Aug 2008: Olympics 2008 Campaign: The Best of Us