Move over for Mobile

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2009 by sim2moon

For centuries mass media has been the carrier of political information from the elaborate parliament buildings to the more modest homes of citizens. Changes in mass media have had a ripple effect on the manner in which audiences consume information. Once again it seems that a new wave of mass communication is forming, one that is said to potentially wash out its predecessors.

Could it really be time for other media to move over for mobile? Based on current research on the mobile medium, it appears so. Moore heralds mobile as the seventh mass media. He claims that mobile’s ability to rule and conquer the media landscape lies in the fact that it replicates the capabilities of all other media, and it is armed with six unique benefits.

However, as this blog focuses on cyber politics, I’ll only be discussing Moore’s more relevant points. Firstly, mobile is personal. Most people rely on these miniscule glimmering screens more than they rely on their fellow man – for communication and information. Here’s an important point for politics. Online mobile sites as well as other mobile services such as text messages, allow for politicians to personally contact their constituencies. Mobile is the portal through which politicians may walk freely into the personal lives of their citizens, and vice versa. Unlike television, that allowed strangers to walk into your homes through a box, mobile lets strangers invade your space every second, anywhere. That should bring a smile to political campaign strategists and perhaps a breath of botheration to anyone owning a cell phone.

This brings us to mobile’s second unique trait. Mobile is carried everywhere, unlike other cumbrous media tools that require more space than most pockets could offer. Having a communication tool on you at all times means that you are always accessible. People can now communicate anytime, anywhere. This means that political mass mobilisation and protests are far easier to achieve.

Mobile is the 21st century answer to the 16th century soap box, although it has a wider scope than its predecessor and is obviously more fragile. Like the soap box scenario however, anyone can use it to voice their grievances to others. It allows for the everyday man to make hinself heard. Like the internet then, mobile online services change the conception of the audience member from a consumer to a ‘prosumer’ (some one who can produce and consume information). Therefore information that is available through mobile services is not spewed only from the elite, but can also be produced by the public. People can therefore express their personal political opinions and grievances as opposed to having to subscribe to particular political views expressed by the mainstream media. Mobile may present many opportunities for increasing democratic public participation.

But how relevant is the potential of mobile in Africa, a continent plagued by poverty? According to research, the image of Africa as a technologically baron land, where efficient public communication tools are as scarce as clean water and competent healthcare, is simply not true. Opera software discovered that mobile usage in Africa is increasing. So much so that Nigeria has become one of the top ten countries worldwide in terms of mobile usage. South Africa is one of the top 12 countries in Africa using online mobile services. It therefore seems that African political figures and citizens should not ignore the mobile’s potential to generate political change. Mobile is a technology that heralds a new way of interacting with other citizens and with public figures. However, just because is bears unique characteristics to other media means nothing until people learn to exploit its novel abilities.

And finally, mobile is not like most other media that run ahead with other first world countries, leaving the African continent behind. This technology can carry African countries at the same pace as its first world counterparts, providing that people are prepared to utilise this prospective tool for prosperity of communication between fellow citizens and their leaders.

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The Net: a garden of possibility

Posted in Uncategorized on August 17, 2009 by sim2moon

The internet is a garden of information that has the potential for political discussion and civic engagement to flourish. However, the wealth of information that is provided on the Net often causes this common garden of knowledge to be fragmented by stone walls that hamper engagement between different sectors of people.

Anderson’s writing on the Long tail explains the idea of the Net as a segregated landscape of opinions and understandings of the world. Anderson explains that the nature of the Internet as an infinite space for people to access and produce information means that many niche groups are created that cannot be accommodated for offline.

The creation of millions of niche groups focussed around marginalised interests and concerns could be noted as an enriching aspect of the Internet. However, the millions of niche groups sprawled across the online landscape could also be described as weeds that may strangle the roots of democratic engagement that have thus far struggle to reach above ground.

Dahlgren discusses in his book, “The Transformation of Democracy in New Media and Politics”, that the fragmentation of audiences on the Net hampers common civic participation. He argues that people are not following digital paths to a common ground where they can discuss national and international political and civic issues. Instead people tend to digress to a spot that shades them from the contesting concerns of others.

Whether the Net can allow for democratic engagement or social fragmentation arguably depends on the choices of individual users. It also depends on the decisions made by online media outlets.

Online media should continue to fulfil the role of traditional media by highlighting important political issues that concern the public at large. In doing so, online media producers could direct the diversified online public to a common space that espouses shared political and social concerns.

For this type of participation to be achievable, online users have to choose to follow the directions suggested by reputable online media outlets. Otherwise the online public will continue to dwindle in a garden of ideas without ever crossing paths with their fellow citizens and political officials.

The Net can’t catch everything

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 13, 2009 by sim2moon

ACID (Anti-Corruption Internet Database) is a website dedicated to uncovering acts of corruption that have rocked many African states. This website is not however orchestrated by local African people, but concerned foreigners. Despite this, the site does address an important African issue.

The tumultuous seas of fraud arguably pose one of the greatest threats to stability in Africa. Many resource-rich African countries have been awash with corrupt government and corporate officials, plundering the countries’ potential to reach democratic stability. Keeping abreast of corruption has so far proved tricky, as by its very nature , it involves diving to the murky depths of secrecy.

But, there now appears a faint light on the horizon, attempting to uncover those in the eye of the storm.

f questionable financial transactions that threaten the livelihood of many African States. The question is how effective are such websites in flushing out corrupt systems of governance. What action is taken once corruption has been exposed in cyber space? What forms of redress can be taken offline?

Here lies the question of online political action – what effect can online action have in the ‘real’ world, specifically when the online action is not coordinated by local people who can apply physical

pressure at home? Foreign hands often come to the rescue of Africastates drowning in financial distress, whether it is a handout of financial aid or policy prescription.

Foreign hands to the rescue

However, in a continent where most civilians do not have access

to the internet, online actions to remedy local political situations are questionable. Surely to make any meaningful contribution to barring corruption, action needs to be applied by local forces.

Until the Internet has the ability to apply any real pressure, attempts by foreign NGOs to solve African problems seems to be washed over by a tide of other more pressing local concerns that foreign Online gurus cannot remedy from their virtual viewing ground.

Putting politics on the map

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by sim2moon

Africa is a continent that has been plagued by political war. The grips of war and violence have infected numerous defenceless communities. These atrocities have traditionally been difficult to detect by the rest of the world, as they has gorged on vulnerable societies like a quiet but imminent disease. But finally, a light has been cast over the shadow of warfare and corruption that has until now left much of the continent in darkness.

Ushahidi is a website that has used online mapping tools and user-generated reports to put militant and rebel violence in Kenya on the map for the rest of the world to see. Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili and has been used thus far to acknowledge the violence happening in the dark belly of Africa’s body, violence that has sprawled throughout the continent without much notice from the rest of the globe.

Mapping out eruptions of violence and converging user-generated reports to gain first-hand accounts of war, allows the rest of the world to be aware of its extent – the severity of its grip on a nation – and begin to work toward solutions to local conflict.

The Ushahidi engine does not only map conflict, although that is how it started out. The website has also mapped out the spread of swine flu. Mapping the spread of diseases on the Internet to a global audience has obvious benefits for citizens who may otherwise struggle to get accurate reports of such information.

The remedy that Ushahidi offers to traditional ways of reporting on war and disease is that information is sourced from the public experiencing the outbreaks of violence and disease. This information is arguably more reliable and immediate than information reported on by media sources that are not experiencing the action as it happens.

Online users therefore have the ability to gain immediate, real-time reports and feedback on political events. Ushahidi is one of many sites that utilises crowd outsourcing technology and digital mapping technologies to highlight political and social issues around the world that have previously often escaped the gaze of mainstream global media. It is time to pay testimony to the traditionally marginalised voices of those who have suffered in the dark.

Hopefully, these sites will increase popularity on the World Wide Web so that the fortunate few who have access to the wondrous abilities of the Internet, can view the world through a grass roots perspective, alongside those experiencing political turmoil, as opposed to viewing these event through the eyes and experiences of traditional mainstream media outlets.

Tweeting to the top

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by sim2moon

Twitter’s function as a social tool is only one rung on the ladder of its technological capacities that powerful people around the world are ascending. And recently to join the scurry to the top is British government, neatly positioned behind the Queen of England and the Queen of talk, Oprah Winfrey – both of whom have recently opened Twitter accounts.

 

A number of events proved that Twitter was more than a portal for cyber-geek communication, but it also had political potential. The political potential of Twitter is believed to be so great that the British government has urged civil servants to ‘tweet’ about live events, or respond to questions from the public.

 

There have been a few big successes that have positioned Twitter at the centre of digital communication. Information about the Mumbai attacks last year made it onto Twitter before many mainstream news channels. Twitter has enabled mass protests against governments and major corporations. It is a way of mobilising people and spreading news, fast. But perhaps more simply put, it is a way of helping people.

 

The fact that Twitter can be used as a space to unite activists, protesters and politicians proves its important capacity in the game of politics. Unlike other first world countries using Twitter, South Africa has a marginal percentage of its population on the internet. But this percentage is set to rise. South African politicians and media producers could be seen to have an advantage unlike their first world counterparts. South African media and politicians can learn how to effectively use new communication technologies, such as Twitter, so that by the time the Twitter buzz caught on among citizens, politicians will not fin themselves playing catch-up with the famous – as has happened in Britain and the United States.

 

South Africa’s low percentage of online users has always been seen as a disadvantage, but perhaps this is not the case. Unlike in first world countries where celebrities ‘tweet’ the loudest, perhaps in South Africa political figures and media producers could make sure that they are not trailing behind local super stars in the communication game, that, judging by global trends, will be played online.

Tweet up a revolution

Posted in Uncategorized on May 27, 2009 by sim2moon

Twitter has played an indispensible role in the recent Guatemalan protests. An online video describing the political assassination of a high-profile Guatemalan attorney sparked a blazing protest against the government, and Twitter, as well as other social networking systems, was there to add fuel to the fire.

The Guatemalan protest has shed light on the symbiotic relationship that exists between online activity and offline action. Firstly, there was a video aired on Youtube that was also distributed to other media outlets by a Guatemalan newspaper. A number of incredulous international internet users viewed the video, creating a global awareness of the situation. Guatemalan President Colom then agreed to an interview with CNN en Espanol. The first sparks of online activity had flown out of cyber space to create a flame in the ‘real world’.

On the same day as the interview, a local man published a comment on twitter calling for Guatemalans to withdraw money from a government-owned bank, which he saw as a branch of a corrupted political core. This tweet landed the civilian in jail. Again, discussions online leaked through the gates of cyber space into the domain of the ‘real’.

A blog was then set up to raise money for his bail. The money was made, the man was freed and the online discussion continued to permeate the physical world.

During a major political protest on May 17th there were over 200 tweets per second as locals and people from abroad gave commentary and mobilised people for the event.

Guatemala has shown the potential of the internet as a catalyst for political action and change. Online activity is a powerful way of sparking offline action because of its immediacy. People can communicate in ‘real time’ to mobilise people for political action. The Guatemalan revolution also saw an unprecedented involvement by youths, possibly because of protest advocating on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Like South Africa, Guatemala is a third world country with minimal technological resources, but like Guatemala, South Africa can manipulate cyber space to yield results in the offline realm even though we have a marginal online community. We may not have a president accused of assignation, but we do face corruption within branches of government, we do have a large portion of our population living in unimaginable conditions, and we do have a neighbouring country that cannot feed itself. We have things to talk about. So let’s start the conversation online where it’s fast, easy and available to an international community.

Let’s start a conversation so that, as they did in Guatemala, we can begin real change in the ‘real’ world.

War or peace on the web?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by sim2moon

Politicians are supposedly people who like control and power (these things do come with the job after all), which is why they may dislike mainstream media. It is a sphere over which they have no control. They may be presented as polygamous fraudsters, or as Botox-pumped dragon ladies. The work of media producers is out of our politicians hands – unlike parties’ political websites which like putty in their palms can be moulded exactly as they wish.

On the web, political parties can create websites to push their particular brand onto the online public. Here, they have ultimate control in shaping their public image. By allowing for interactivity politicians can allow for the public to feel connected to these previously austere political figures.

The web has been heralded by some as a medium capable of fostering an active, participatory citizenry, improving civic debate, and increasing political accountability. Supposedly this stems from the web’s potential to create a channel of communication between the public and government representatives. But is this how things will play out? Will the web serve primarily as a tool of communication or as a battleground for South African politicians?

Judging by the excessive mudslinging that has been going on between politicians recently, particularly between the DA and the ANC, it seems that politicians have forgotten about their role as public servants, and have rather assumed the role of power-hungry warriors ready to use any available ammunition to dismantle the opposition.

The political slandering that has been occupying the media recently is doomed to dominate cyber space too. Online smear campaigns have already assumed an active role on some social networking sites, such as Facebook, where entire groups are mobilised around trashing the reputations of political figures.

Of course, the public is allowed its say, but it is not only the public partaking in childish verbal abuse. It was recently found out that the deputy minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, was a member of a Facebook group that called for the assassination of Helen Zille. Helen Zille herself has been blatant with her personal attacks on President Jacob Zuma, on and offline.

Is this the best we can do?

It would be a shame for the web to become a battleground for irate politicians, considering its potential to enhance democratic values such as an active citizenship and an accountable government.

So when will the childish banter end? When will politicians realise the web as a space to enhance the lives of citizens, whom they supposedly serve? Hopefully this juvenile behaviour will come to an end so that we can avoid having a disgruntled public, a wasted web space and most regrettably a disarrayed democracy.