Thursday, November 30, 2006

Gates Project 22: Mobile Activism Networks

Another section of the report, this one on network-centric activism:

According to Howard Rheingold's book Smart Mobs, network-centric techniques allow people to act in concert even if they do not know each other. Unlike the CRM wheel, where all communication is initiated by the central NGO hub, network-centric models connect the spokes to one another, allowing information to flow freely without any central arbitration necessary. In the diagram above, an organization (represented by a purple circle) has begun the networked flow of information, although initiation could also be accomplished by an individual activist (the orange circles). The communication arrows are both mono-directional and bi-directional, indicating the sometimes members of a network exchange data in a dialogue while at other times a message is simply transferred from one person to the other.

Although computers can be used to communicate within a network, mobile phones offer exciting new possiblilities for the model. The value of a network increases as the number of its members increases, making cell phones a more valuable networking tool in the developing world due to their higher penetration. The mobility of the cell phone increases its value as well, enabling mobile networked action. The result of high penetration and mobility is light-speed mobilization, the political application of "flash mobbing." An excellent example of this technique was the mass protest that led to the downfall of Filipino President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Using text messages such as "Other students are already marching. Where are you?" and "wear red, bring banners" Filipino students organized a mass march that successfully demonstrated the unpopularity of the regime. President Estrada himself called it a "coup de text." Kifaya, a pro-democracy movement in Egypt, also uses texting to organize protests as did students in Chile who were striking for improvements to the education system.

Network-centric mobile activism is seductively simple. Massive events can be created with little or no effort or cost. It will all happen "virally." However, in the context-free world of the SMS message this is not the case. Network-centric activism is merely a digital representation of the zeitgeist. People all have to have the same frame of reference in order for network-centric activism to work. If the recipient or the message "wear red, bring banners" did not already know that a rally to force the ouster of president Estrada was in the works for that day, the message would have been meaningless. For this reason, network-centric activism works best within pre-existing communities. The pre-existing knowledge and shared values of the community ensures that an SMS call to action will be understood and heeded, while the network of relationships within the community ensure that the message will spread. Once again, it is less a question of technology than the human power behind it.
categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_,

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