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.

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

Children of Heaven: Appreciating the sound of silence

Courtesy Wikipedia

What’s it with children and shoes? Those who have none dream of owning their first pair. Those who have one, or some, still dream about a better, or perfect, pair. Shoes are worth dreaming about, crying (even fighting?) over, and running races for.

Like Ali did, in Majid Majidi’s superbly crafted 1997 movie Children of Heaven. For 90 minutes this afternoon, my team and I ran the race with little boy Ali, sharing his dreams, sorrows and eventual (albeit bitter-sweet) triumph.

I had seen this film before, but this time around, the experience felt even better than I remembered it. I already knew the story, but I was spell-bound by the film’s culmination – the children’s race where Ali wanted to come third, but ended up winning. I followed the last few minutes with tears in my eyes and the heart beating faster.

This is what good story telling is all about.

Read Children of Heaven synopsis on Wikipedia

Of course, Majid Majidi didn’t work this miracle alone. The superb cinematography of Parviz Malekzaade was well packaged by its editor Hassan Hassandoost. His work is uncluttered and elegant: the story flows in a simple, linear manner with no flashbacks or flash-forwards; no special effects to jazz things up; and the scenes are so seamlessly meshed together with hardly a second being wasted.

And the soundtrack played a vital part in shaping the whole experience. It’s not just the music. As my colleague Buddhini remarked, it also made clever, strategic use of silence.

We might call it the sound of silence – and never underestimate its power in the right place.

All this reminded me of what our Australian film-maker colleague Bruce Moir often said when we worked with him: “We’ve got to remember that film appeals to people’s hearts more than their minds. The way to people’s heads is through their hearts, from the chest upwards — and not the other way round.”

A year ago, I invited him as my special guest to a talk I gave at the University of Western Sydney in Australia – in his home city. There, he once again made the point: “Our fundamental job is to tell a story – one that holds an audience’s interest and moves their heart, regardless of language, cultural context or subject….I have always believed that film achieves its optimal impact by aiming to ‘get at the audience’s head via their heart’…”

April 2007 blog post: Moving images moving heart first, mind next

As I then wrote, I hope this was an ‘Aha!’ moment to some in our largely academic and activist audience. Many who commission films or even a few who make films tend to overlook this. Especially when they set out trying to ‘communicate messages’.

Bruce never tires of saying: “Film is a lousy medium to communicate information. It works best at the emotional level.”

Children of Heaven is living proof of this. It has no lofty agenda to deliver information or communicate messages of any kind. Yet, by telling a universal story set in modern day Iran, it brings up a whole lot of development related issues that can trigger hours of discussion: not just the rich/poor or rural/urban disparities, but other concerns like how a country like Iran is portrayed in the western news media.

As a colleague remarked after today’s film, she had no idea of this aspect of life in Iran — the version we constantly hear is of an oil-rich, nuke-happy, terror-sponsoring theocracy that, to the incumbent US president at least, is part of the ‘axis of evil‘. And the Al Jazeera International channel, packed with BBC discards or defectors, has done little to change this popular perception.

We watched the movie as part of our monthly screening of a feature film. We are lining up critically acclaimed films from different cinematic traditions of the world. And then we discuss its artistic, technical and editorial aspects.

As for me, I totally agree with the famous movie critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times at the time of the movie’s first US release: “Children of Heaven is very nearly a perfect movie for children, and of course that means adults will like it, too. It lacks the cynicism and smart-mouth attitudes of so much American entertainment for kids and glows with a kind of good-hearted purity. To see this movie is to be reminded of a time when the children in movies were children and not miniature stand-up comics.”

As he summed it up: “Children of Heaven is about a home without unhappiness. About a brother and sister who love one another, instead of fighting. About situations any child can identify with. In this film from Iran, I found a sweetness and innocence that shames the land of Mutant Turtles, Power Rangers and violent video games. Why do we teach our kids to see through things, before they even learn to see them?”

Note: The film, originally made in Persian, was named Bacheha-Ye aseman . It was nominated for an Academy (Oscar) Award for the best foreign film in 1998, but lost out to a worthy competitor, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.