Updates from Tweet-land: Say it all in 140 characters…and why not?

Tweet, Tweet! Do you follow me yet?

I just passed the 500 mark in tweeting. That’s not a great number considering how some people tweet a dozen or more times every day. But I’m not into such high volume tweeting – the most I’ve done on a given day, I think, is half a dozen. So it took me several months to clock up 500.

I was a late-comer to Twitter. It was my friend David Brewer, new media activist, who persuaded me to sign up in late 2009. On his Media Helping Media website, he has been showcasing the new tools, platforms and opportunities for anyone to become a global media brand in just 100 minutes (he recently updated this quick guide, reducing the time to 60 minutes).

Since then, I’ve been learning the ropes and having fun. What started off as a way to share weblinks to my blog posts or other interesting online content has evolved – in just a few months – into an outlet where I can express my opinions on social, political or cultural topics of current interest. And as my regular readers know, I can be quite opinionated…

I don’t normally tweet about very personal experiences or impressions. But I do share insights from my frequent travels, and meetings with interesting people and ideas.

The past few months have provided me with ample material. I became single again in January, and am now trying to reboot my personal and professional lives, even as I raise a teen-aged daughter as a single parent. Meanwhile my country of anchor, Sri Lanka, is emerging from nearly three decades of civil war, and the trauma and militarisation that went with it, and is struggling to return to normal, peaceful days again. Both processes are fraught with many challenges, and the journey is also the destination.

Slowly but surely, I’ve realised that a good deal can be expressed in 140 characters or less that each tweet allows. The mandarins of verbosity may not agree, but as Shakespeare himself noted in Hamlet, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. As a writer, I already knew the power of concise and precise expression, and Twitter has only challenged me to be compact, punchy and imaginative.

Looking back, I realise that my tweeting has come at some cost to my blogging. It’s not the only reason, or even the main one, but I’ve been blogging less in the past few months even as I tweeted more. Blogging entails more work, whereas tweeting is really micro-blogging on the run. I can tweet in under a minute whereas an average blog post – at the level of hotlinking and illustrating I like to do – can take between 30 mins to an hour.

As I juggle bread-and-butter with my multiple passions (or the ‘jam’ on top), I’ve had less time for more reflective and leisurely blogging this year. It doesn’t mean that my blog will go the way of the blogger in this cartoon – if anything, it serves me as a caution!

Cartoon courtesy Hugh MacLeod

I started tweeting as an occasional habit, but should have known better. It took me a while to realise that it’s become a habit. And then, when I spent a few days in Beijing in late May this year, I almost developed withdrawal symptoms (Twitter is officially blocked in China). My resulting blog post, Twitterless in Beijing, has been widely linked to and discussed.

On a technical note, I’m still quite old fashioned in that I don’t post new tweets from mobile phones or other hand-held devices – all my 500+ tweets so far have been posted from the web, using my regular browser. I have no immediate plans to go for a fancy new mobile phone or ipad or similar device. I know mobile internet is the new wave, but I don’t yet have the urge to be tweeting on the run – I can hold my ideas and communicative urges until I sit down at my laptop…

But who knows what changes would occur on the road to my 1,000th tweet?

Here’s a collection of spoofs on famous quotes, as they apply to Twitter and tweeting. Some are very funny!

So you want to help develop the media? Read this first!

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about How to become a global publisher or broadcaster in just 100 minutes! That was compiled by my British media activist friend David Brewer , who showed how it could be done using free tools that can be downloaded and activated in minutes.

This week, David has brought out another handy guide — this time aimed at those involved in media development. UNESCO defines it in lofty, technocratic terms, but it basically means strengthening the media institutions, media people (practitioners and managers) and media consumers so that the media can best serve the public interest.

Everyone seems to have their own recipe for media development, and that’s part of the media’s huge diversity. Media Helping Media asked a number of people who have benefited from media development projects what they felt needs to change in the year ahead. The replies have so far come from The Russian Federation, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Macedonia, Ukraine, Bhutan and Nepal. They make up a challenging list of tips for those who try to help media in need.

Its introduction says: “You have as much to learn as you have to give. That’s the message to those offering media assistance in transition and post-conflict countries from some of those on the receiving end.”

Here’s my own contribution to this interestingly crowd-sourced distillation. David had asked for three key points, but you can see below why I was never very good in arithmetic…

Media operate as a business, not charity: All media have a social responsibility, but that must be balanced with commercial viability. This is so with state, corporate or community owned media. Bankrupt media can’t serve any public interest.

‘Media’ is a plural: Media is a basket term for entities with enormous diversity and variability. One size does not fit all, no matter how well intended. It’s crucial to understand before engaging any media.

Follow the eyeballs: If you want the biggest bang for your limited buck, start with the mass market end of media such as FM radio, tabloid newspapers and music TV channels. Leave your broadsheet/classical prejudices out of investment decisions.

Take it easy: Audiences need entertainment as much as information and education. Supporting quality entertainment in the media is just as important for the public good as nurturing investigative journalism or advocating media freedom.

Sparks of hope: Real world is not an all-or-nothing game. Find oases of innovation and resilience, and nurture them to survive and grow in turbulent times. Back media underdogs of today who can become fierce watchdogs of tomorrow.

In responding to David’s request last month, I’d added this covering sentence which sums up my thinking: “All this is common sense that is often uncommon. I really wish media development organisations would listen and reflect more, and also step beyond their comfort zones and romanticised little bubbles.”

The entire collection is well worth reading, for it distills decades of ground level experience and insight. This guide will help many well-meaning organisations (UN agencies, philanthropic foundations, CSR arms of media companies and others) to be more focused, sensitive and ultimately more effective in developing the media.

Read the related 12 tips for international media trainers

Asian Tsunami+5: It’s governance, stupid!

Kalutara beach in south-western Sri Lanka before & during the 2004 tsunami - Satellite image courtesy Digital Globe

This montage of satellite images was taken by the DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite. It shows a portion of the south-western coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalutara, some 40km south of the capital Colombo. The lower image was taken on Sunday 26 December 2004, at 10.20 am local time, shortly after the moment of impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc in South and Southeast Asia that day. For comparison, we have an image of the same location on a normal day a few months earlier.

The tsunami was one of the most widely photographed and videographed disasters in history. In fact, it marked a turning point for citizen journalism in Asia.

For many of us in the media and communication sectors, this was the biggest story of our lives. Because the killer waves hit numerous coastal locations in several countries, this disaster’s ‘Ground Zero’ was scattered far and wide. Not even the largest news organisations could see, hear and capture everything. Everyone had to choose.

And not just geographically, but thematically too, the tsunami’s impact was felt across sectors, issues and concerns. That provided both ample scope and many challenges for journalists, aid workers and others who rushed to the multiple scenes of disaster.

But there was a downside. Because the tsunami’s scale was so vast and its effects spread so wide, no single individual or organisation could comprehend the full picture for months. For many of us in the Indian Ocean rim, culturally unfamiliar with tsunamis, it was as if a Godzilla had stomped through our coasts. Grasping the full, strange phenomenon was hard.

Countries affected by 2004 Dec tsunami - map courtesy BBC

Journalists, professionally trained to hastily produce ‘first drafts of history’, found it a bit like being close to a huge tapestry still being woven: we all absorbed parts of the unfolding complexity. We reported or analysed those elements that held our interest. But we were too close, and too overwhelmed, for much perspective.

Five years on, we can ‘zoom out’ more easily to see the bigger picture. When I do, one overarching factor stands out as the most important and lasting lesson of the tsunami: the need for better governance.

The absence of good governance was at the root of most major stories about the tsunami. It cut across every level in our societies — politics, public institutions, corporate sector, humanitarian agencies, academia and civil society.

This is the thrust of my latest op ed essay, written in time for the tsunami’s fifth anniversary being marked today. I briefly recall three aspects of the tsunami that I covered as a journalist — early warnings, deluge of aid and environmental lessons — to show how the absence of governance aggravated matters in each case.

The lesson is not simply one of academic interest: it holds many practical, survival level implications. I end by quoting Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who argues that democracy and good governance are also the most important elements in climate change adaptation.

Read the full essay online:
Media Helping Media (UK): Tsunami five years on – the lessons learned
OneWorld.Net (UK): The big lesson of the tsunami: better governance
DNA newspaper (India: condensed version): The Tsunami Effect
Groundviews.org: Better governance – The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami
Himal Southasian Online edition: Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka): Better Governance: The biggest lesson of 2004 tsunami

How to become a global publisher or broadcaster in just 100 minutes!


Evolution or revolution?

I was born three years before the Internet (which turned 40 a few weeks ago), and raised entirely on newspapers and radio in a country where broadcast television didn’t arrive until I was 13.

From the time I could read and write, I always wanted to be a media publisher. In that pre-history of the Personal Computer and Internet, my choices were pretty limited: I published a hand-written household newspaper and was its editor, reporter, printer and distributor all rolled into one. But I was obsessive in my work even then, and the newspaper lasted a couple of years in which over two dozen issues were released (all of them now mercifully lost).

My school teacher parents were my first patrons, supplying me with plenty of paper, pencils and ink. But there must have times when they rather wished that I didn’t indulge in my own brand of independent journalism. I loved to criticise and lampoon the ‘management’ in my editorials — even as a kid, I was already critical of the establishment!

Fortunately for me, the ‘management’ left me alone and to my own devices, but most independent editors in history haven’t been so lucky. As the American journalist A.J. Leibling (1904 -1963) once said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In his time, this was perfectly true.

There was a time, until recently, when press barons and media moguls led, and the rest of society followed. In our topsy-turvy times, however, the reverse is increasingly true.

In theory, at least, anyone can be a global broadcaster and publisher in less than two hours using free tools that can be downloaded and activated in minutes.

david brewer photo

David Brewer (photo from http://www.i-m-s.dk)

My British media activist friend David Brewer has just published an online guide on how to become a publisher or broadcaster in 100 minutes. (Okay, the non-geeks among us might need a bit longer than that, but still, you can be in business in just a few hours.)

David Brewer’s journalistic and managerial experience spans newspapers, radio, television, and online, and he now runs Media Ideas International Ltd, a media strategy consultancy with clients in Europe, the Balkans, the CIS, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Central America.

David has worked with what I like to call the A-B-C of global broadcasting. He was the launch managing editor of BBC News Online in 1997, and moved to CNN, as managing editor, to set up CNN.com Europe, Middle East and Africa and CNNArabic.com. He was an editorial consultant for the launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006 and continues to work with Al Jazeera English as a new media consultant.

In his spare time, he runs Media Helping Media , a network and online resource to support media in areas where freedom of expression is under threat.