"140 chars is a novel when you're being shot at"
-courtesy: @chadelund Quote of the day- #iranelection
In a previous blog entry, I wrote about how Web 2.0 is improving governance, with or without the help of the government in question, and irrespective of whether the country is developed or not.
Throwing traditional wisdom to the winds, the Web 2.0 story is continuing to unfold in a way that was not predicted by researchers and experts of the development community and outside. When I last wrote my blog entry on this issue, it was specifically to explore how Bangladeshi citizens, independently of the government, NGOs, or media were sharing their experience of the BDR mutiny and its results. This shone a light into the situation in Bangladesh to many who would have been otherwise left in the dark about the BDR revolt.
Then Iran happened. The situation in Iran has many interesting parallels with Bangladesh and the BDR revolt – both related to the citizen-fuelled proliferation of news, occurring independently of the Government, and in Iran, even inspite of the opposition of the Government.
When Mir Hossein Mousavi alleged that Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad has stolen the election, the situation in Iran flared
up within minutes. There were days of street protests, followed
by the Iranian administration’s clampdown on demonstrations and
rallies. Dozens of opposition leaders were allegedly
arrested. From the start of the situation, social networks played
a role in disseminating news across the world and they haven’t finished
their role yet, as the turmoil is continuing even as I write this
Twitter, Facebook and blogs are providing fascinating live coverage of the uprising in Iran, where supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets. Iranian citizens are managing to circumvent the regime's attempts to block Twitter, and are flooding the site with their accounts of the day's violence. All major social networking tools are in full use, with Twitter leading the attack. Facebook (status updates and groups), Flickr (photographs), YouTube (videos), Blogger.com, and others communicating the ongoing events. Twitter even became a strategic asset for the US when the State Department this week asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance shutdown of its service to keep information flowing from inside Iran amid the growing crisis over its disputed election.
|Examples of the Iran Election Crises and Web 2.0 communication|
Workarounds posted for anonymous Iranian tweeters (Twitter Anonymizer): http://www.openemrhq.com/resist/tweetiran.php
Going beyond the issue of the “how”, namely the different ways that Web 2.0 is being used for improved transparency and governance, it is also important to look at the “why” i.e. what is it about Web 2.0 that is making it so successful in improving governance.
To understand the role of Web 2.0 in improving governance, it may be helpful to look at the factors behind the success of Web 2.0 in tackling governance issues. These factors are, in fact, derived from the fundamental attributes of the web, and for the most part, have simply been amplified with Web 2.0. This amplification has been, to a large extent, responsible for the fast uptake of Web 2.0 to improve transparency and governance.
A fundamental characteristic of the Web is that it is democratic and decentralized. Web 2.0 tools make it even more so. In this environment it is possible for any Joe Blow to “tweet”, or “Digg” content in the web. If the content is appealing to a large number of people, Joe will be able to drive the trend, whatever it may be. The democratization of the web, meaning anyone can create content without much trouble, means that there is a high amount of granularity of information or opinion on a diverse range of topics.
Secondly, with the advent of mobile technology, and the accompanying fall in computing costs, computing ability has become ubiquitous. Whether it is cell phone use in the poorest African or Bangladeshi village, or the Amazon, more and more people have the ability to communicate their thoughts, photographs and news. Mobile technology is being used for public health programs (Aftercare for HIV AIDS in South Africa), local dialogue (post-election in Kenya), humanitarian assistance (food to Iraqi refugees), environment/wildlife monitoring and conservation (Kenyan elephant tracking). Go here to download pdf with more about these examples.
Thirdly, the Web is the modern equivalent of the Wild West – it cannot be governed by any central authority. The nature of Web technology is that any information that is suppressed cannot stay that way for long. Most recently, for example, when China cracked down on use of Twitter and other social media during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, people immediately found workarounds and continued to communicate.
It is also extremely difficult to track Web activity of millions of people. So repressive governments or even companies find that they cannot monitor what people do. To demonstrate – Microsoft is one of the biggest companies in the world. When Bing, their search engine came out, if you set your country as “India” or any Middle Eastern country, you could not perform searches with the word “sex” in it. However if you changed your country to USA (regardless of where you were actually located), you could do the search without any problems. If even Microsoft’s efforts at censorship are so easily overcome, governments face a much tougher challenge.
Finally, and this is not a characteristic of the web, but a Web 2.0 innovation, the “push” technology which, forces or pushes information to the members of the social network, as opposed to requiring users to go to the web pages that they are interested in. For instance if three of my friends think that an Arlington rap video is the best thing in the world, whether I like it or not, I will be “notified” of it through Facebook notification. If I “follow” someone on Twitter, I will get their opinions or news whether I agree or not. This innovation drives more information out faster than it would otherwise have achieved in the pre-Web 2.0 days. The push technology thus accelerates the impact of the three factors mentioned.
So, when you combine the democratization of the web, mobile technology/falling costs of computing, the decentralized nature – and hence the independence of the Web, with the push technology, it creates the perfect storm for increased transparency. It can be as simple as - every Joe Blow has a cell phone and can tell the world how he or she feels without much fear of exposure, and if every citizen did this, you would have the transparency you wanted, and through it, improved governance.
In the rush to celebrate Web 2.0 tools, it is easy to forget to acknowledge the risks that go hand in hand with the advantages of social networking. If mobile technology, low costs and a widely dispersed and decentralized web can translate into citizens communicating and receiving information as they never did before, it can also mean that there is a lot more information out there that is not relevant or accurate. The “trust” factor becomes all the more important, and this is an issue that the social networking tools have not, as a collective unit, resolved. This could potentially be the single biggest challenge that Web 2.0 will have to overcome, along with a host of other issues such as access to all, security/privacy, the use of web 2.0 to propagate hate/criminal behavior, etc.
Nevertheless Web 2.0 continues to be a tool in advancing governance, and in the best manner possible, with the thrust coming from the bottom rung (citizens) to drive change at the top (government), taking academics and development professionals by surprise with every new turn.