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.

7 ‘ups’: A rough guide to engaging social media in the public interest

Depictions of social media: Conversations Prism (left) and Social Media Starfish

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, in the 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.

During his seven voyages in the Indian Ocean, Sinbad had fantastic adventures going to magical places, surviving assorted monsters, and encountering a host of supernatural phenomena. Armed simply with his guts, wits and wanderlust, he sailed to places where no man had gone before, and certainly none had returned alive from!

Preparing for my Beijing session last week on using social media to communicate in the public interest, I did a good deal of web browsing and online reading. I came across many attempts to map or visually depict the social media (including two shown above). I also found some interesting lists and guidelines – my favourite so far is 10 Things Your Grandmother can Teach You about Social Media.

This inspired me to come up with my own rough guide to get you started and keep you going. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

Turn up. As Woody Allen famously remarked, eighty per cent of success is just…showing up. You won’t get anywhere by simply observing or critiquing from the sidelines. You have to wade in and set sail — for better or worse.

• Once we join the planetary conversation, we need to do some catch up. Find your feet – and niche – in the online world. The Internet turned 40 in 2009, and its graphical interface – the World Wide Web – is now 20. So much has happened in that time – and a lot has also been superseded. You need to know what’s on, and what’s not.

What's your winning combination?

• After catching up, we also need to keep up — at least with the mega trends. Large companies like Google – as well as hundreds of individual geeks – keep releasing new applications frequently, many for free use. Popular websites (such as Wired, Mashable and their local equivalents) help us navigate through these depths and currents.

• Next one is harder. We have to give up our baggage of old habits and attitudes picked up over the years. For many Digital Immigrants, leaving the comfort zone of paper was scary enough. How can we let go of complete control over our communication products and processes? But that’s just what the social media demand. It’s not a choice, but an imperative.

• It’s also helpful – though not quite essential – if we are less glum, prim, exacting and academic in how we relate to others in social media. In short, ease up, mate! There are some basic norms for online behaviour, but crusty intellectuals or matronly bureaucrats don’t gain much traction. Keep things short, focused and simple. And hey, it’s okay to be funny, cheeky and irreverent…

• Conversations in this realm can last for weeks, months or longer. Some topics and discussions tend to have ‘long tails’. When we start something online, we have to be clear when to engage whom and how. Equally important is knowing when to shut up. (A bore is a bore, offline or online!).

• And if all this is making you feel dizzy…just cheer up: there are no real experts in this field. No one is an authority. Everything is ‘in beta’. We are all learning by doing. Neither is there a definitive road map to the social media world. In fact, in this partly Undiscovered Country, there is plenty of scope to explore, innovate and be original.

Are you a land-lubber who doesn’t trust any seas? Let me then offer you another metaphor. Think of this as hitchhiking or back-packing online. Take your chances. Be adventurous. Discover a whole new world!

We have some advantages over Sinbad. The virtual world poses no real danger to our lives. But beware: social media can be very time-consuming and even addictive.

You have been warned.

Here, for some edu-tainment, is an interesting video on social media that I found on…YouTube:

A more compact version of the 7-Ups appears in MediaHelpingMedia

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.

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.