Posts Tagged 'internet'

Social media: Taming the dark side

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By Harry van Versendaal

About a quarter of the global population is now on Facebook, yet only a small fraction seem aware of the world-shattering implications of this reality. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have irreversibly transformed the landscape of human interaction to an extent that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

They have changed the way we do things.

It’s not all good. In a new book called “Look At Me!” (Iolkos, in Greek), Athens-based journalist and new media analyst Manolis Andriotakis discusses the pitfalls of our increasingly wired world: distraction, obsession, fabrication, ruthless self-promotion, addiction to the dopamine rush, dwindling attention spans (the average time spent on any web page is now down to eight seconds, so chances are that few people will read beyond this point).

Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, couples his warnings with pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the challenges of virtual living, the lessons of the recent US election, his regular digital detoxes and about how posting too many cat pictures can be bad for your career.

In a recent article for The New York Times, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport said that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media, he argued, weaken this skill because they are engineered to be addictive. Have we perhaps overestimated the role of social media in building a career?

Social media are indeed engineered to distract your attention. You need the tools, the critical ability and the skills to regulate their use so that you do not end up hostage to them. This book is about taking control. Engaging in social media is not some form of meditation; it’s not some daily habit to which you can let yourself go completely. If you allow that to happen, you can be completely sucked in. It happens to me too. Whenever I let my defenses down, I lapse into obsessive use that is very hard to escape.

Career-wise it can be a useful tool to promote your work, to enrich and distinguish your professional identity. But, again, it’s easy to lose focus and indulge in shallow self-promotion.

Is it not elitist to place an arbitrary sense of purpose on people and social media? One person may like posting cat pictures while someone else may enjoy looking at them. Is it imperative that they have a strategy?

Sure. But Newport is talking about career-building. And if you are being screened for a job, having too many cat pictures on your wall could prove bad for your career. You need to build up your defenses, yet the average user doesn’t do that. My point is: Take a step back and think. It’s the case with every new technology. You can hurt other people. You can also hurt yourself.

Are social media nurturing a new type of man? A narcissistic, distracted and hypersexual man at that? Or is this a case of old symptoms manifesting themselves through a new, potent vehicle?

Social media are certainly a new vehicle, but they can also cultivate new symptoms. We are dealing with a new technology that accelerates, empowers and stimulates. It presents us with a challenge. And the manner in which we – as individuals and as a collective – choose to deal with this challenge will determine whether social media will drag us down or help us evolve.

Why do people feel an irresistible urge to share their lives online?

There is something both sick and healthy in the need to share. The healthy part is rooted in the act of sharing, in the need to feel that you are a member of a larger community, and you want to reach out to people. People can, for example, share a health problem because it could help others prevent it.

But there is also a dark side which usually comes in the form of narcissism, self-promotion, or the urge to manipulate other people. I couldn’t say on which side the scale is weighted or whether you can always tell between good and bad.

It seems that “likes” have become a new social currency. How problematic is that?

Likes are the result of a complex psychological mechanism. The shallow, first level is certainly dominant – particularly on Instagram. However, although the volume of likes is not always a safe indicator of actual value, this is by no means exclusive to the realm of social networks. In any case, social media give you the opportunity to make sophisticated content more accessible.

Are people’s online identities the same as their regular identities?

No, you are not the same person. You construct a persona. It may even be a better version of yourself, a sexier, a sharper, more interesting self. Ultimately, the way you communicate your message, the attitude, often says more about you than the message.

Does it concern you that online interaction often eclipses face-to-face interaction?

You might as well be a hypocrite out there in the real world and an honest person in the virtual one. If you wish to construct a lie, you can do so in either world.

Facebook is accused of winning Donald Trump the US presidency by propagating fake news and helping generate the bulk of his campaign’s 250 million dollars in online fundraising. The tech-optimism of liberal pundits seems dead in the water. Are social media value-free?

Well, social media did not help democratize China, where you still rely on VPNs [internet connections that bypass the country’s firewalls and online censorship] to get round its “Great Firewall.” In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. Authoritarian governments can shut down the internet or build bot armies. In fact, it looks like the bad guys can make a more effective use of social media. Trump played dirty and he won. The lesson of his campaign was that playing dirty can be very effective. It’s as if the right to play dirty has been democratized. The question is, how can you outplay these guys? It’s a machine of war.

You like to take a break from the internet about once a year. What do you gain from staying unplugged?

My digital detox, as it were, helps me protect my mental health and my relationships. It helps me refocus. The internet feeds addiction, grandiosity, narcissism. You cannot wipe these out. They exist in all of us, and they exist in me too. The break allows me to reboot and clear my head.

In your book, you raise the issue of the need for digital education. You are basically recommending a way of doing things on the internet. That could raise eyebrows among those who cherish the disorderly nature of the online world.

I am not suggesting here that everyone should conform to a common purpose. I too celebrate the fluid nature of the internet. I would hate to be in a world full of predictable people or people who were serious all the time.

What I have in mind, rather, is a more holistic approach. You need to understand that most of what you do online is build connections with other people. You are not just talking to yourself. What you say can have an impact on other people, it can hurt other people, or it can backfire. Your words are not balloons floating up into the sky.

It would be better not to sleepwalk into the internet. But this is unfortunately how most people immerse themselves in social networks. Inevitably, they fail to see both the risks as well as the opportunities.

You can find out more about Manolis Andriotakis’s at www.andriotakis.com.

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Too big for his garage

By Harry van Versendaal

In a recession-wracked city where one is constantly being told that the crisis is an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is refreshing to actually meet someone who has succeeded, with little means but plenty of drive, to create something out of nothing.

In the span of just two years, blogger Manolis Andriotakis, has published a new book, created a weekly webcast presenting fresh publications and, most recently, launched an independent online channel called GarageTV. To top it all off, Andriotakis just finished a documentary – his third – about what has been one of the most useful tools in the process: Twitter. “#Followme. Exploring Twitter,” a 33-minute film on the pioneering microblogging website, features interviews with media experts and local tweeps, and which premiered at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Speaking from a bare, soft-white lab overlooking the capital’s former entertainment mecca, Psyrri – now a scruffy, derelict neighborhood filled with empty shop fronts – Andriotakis, a cheerful, soft-spoken man in his late 30s, talks about his efforts to create a platform that will encompass all his concurrent interests and activities. “The big wager is to make all this financially sustainable. We are in the middle of a broad-scale redistribution of power with the Internet operating as a vehicle for change. I think that one of the biggest challenges that everyone, including those who still have a steady job, has to face is the need to adopt new sustainability models that do not rely on traditional channels of power,” he says during a break from a class on online video journalism that he is teaching. With Greece locked in its sixth year of recession and unemployment hovering well over 26 percent, it all makes perfect sense.

Born in downtown Athens, Andriotakis spent most of his childhood years in Kypseli, one of the capital’s densest and most congested neighborhoods. He and his wife moved to a suburb north of Athens a few years ago, mainly to find some peace and quiet. “The thing is I do need quiet,” he says. He recently published his seventh book, “I was Black and White,” a collection of sketches, texts and poems inspired by the Greek crisis. After turning his garage into a makeshift studio, he went on to launch “GarageBooks,” a weekly online program where he presented new books and interviews. More than a year and 44 shows later, “GarageBooks” is probably still the only book show out there but to his disappointment, it’s something that most local publishers do not seem to appreciate. Andriotakis, who depends on translation and video work to make a living, still needs to dig into his own pockets for most of the preview copies. He and the growing number of people behind the new channel are looking for ways to make the project sustainable without giving in to online ads and product placement.

“Sure, you need to support yourself. However, I am trying to do this without compromising my values. That is very important to me. I want to be flexible, but it is very important. It’s a more difficult path, but it is more in line with what we are going through. If it does not work, I am always willing to re-examine my options,” he says. He knows that some critics will always be waiting around the corner. But he remains optimistic, and there are already signs that it will become sustainable.

Andriotakis was still working for Eleftherotypia newspaper when he started to blog in 2004. He logged on to Twitter five years later. The move from blogging to microblogging came naturally, he says. But it came at a price. As with most bloggers, Twitter took his time and energy away from lengthier, more analytical blog posts. “But it was also a more interesting place to be in,” he says.

Twitter, as well as Facebook, are always open on his computer screen. His interpretation of them is utilitarian, almost technocratic. “They are tools for achieving objectives,” he says, adding that he uses them selectively, taking advantage of the strengths of each service. But he makes no secret of his preferences. “Twitter is more dynamic, more direct, but also more demanding. Its 140-character limit means that you have to be laconic, but that is also its comparative advantage because it forces you to be more precise,” he says. “Twitter is also more versatile. It is more receptive to social change, to the entrance of new users,” he says, with recent data showing the San Francisco-based network has surpassed half a billion members – about a third of the active global Internet population.

We are introduced to a tiny yet diverse sample of these users in “#Followme.” In the film, Andriotakis discusses how Twitter has changed human interaction with Greek twitterati, as well as with renowned cyber-skeptic Evgeny Morozov, tech writer Jeff Jarvis, former Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, and a self-styled anarchist troll sporting a dragon’s head mask. One of the first things he did when he started shooting was to have some of them meet offline in the same room. It didn’t work. “Interaction among them left a lot to be desired. Offline communication follows very different rules,” he says.

Most studies suggest Twitter is not a reliable indicator of public opinion. But does that mean it is an overrated, deceptive microcosm? Or can it not become more than the sum of its parts? Does it not, as many techno-optimists would like us to believe, have the power to mobilize toward a superior, offline end? “#Followme” inevitably discusses the role of digital technologies in propping up popular protest movements – a view made popular after pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. “I used to think that Twitter is value-neutral. But it seems like I was wrong,” Andriotakis says. He quotes a metaphor first used by Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” who compares the Internet with a car on an icy road. No matter how good your brakes are, he says, the car will not stop. What counts most, Andriotakis says, is the conditions in which you act and react. “Twitter has a democratizing, liberalizing potential but it really depends a lot on the overall level of media literacy, on how educated and well-trained people are,” he says.

Such concerns are clearly reflected in the issue of online etiquette. With commenters able to hide behind a veil of anonymity, Twitter and other online forums habitually degenerate into arenas of vitriol and hate. For Andriotakis, withholding your identity on the public domain defeats the purpose. “You should by no means ban anonymity, but you should not encourage it either. There is great benefit from being public. Sure, there are risks, but living in constant fear and mistrust will get you nowhere. Putting an issue out in public gives you, or perhaps somebody else, a better chance to deal with it,” he says. Andriotakis, who produced a documentary about the safety threat posed by illegal billboards along Greece’s highways, says the grassroots campaign for their removal, which included road accident victims and their families, would never have been as successful if it had been anonymous.

While some Internet users choose to disguise their identity, others work extra hard to feed and promote it. Several studies have established a link between social media and socially aggressive narcissism. Skeptics say narcissists have simply found a new outlet to vent their inflated egos. “We all want to be loved, we all want to be noticed and to be attractive. Make no mistake, we are interacting in the midst of an attention industry and we are naturally acting a bit like children, always seeking a bit of attention. But you should at least try to draw attention in a way that is true to yourself – even if it sometimes comes out a bit angry or nervous.”

@andriotakis for one, does.

Tweeting to the converted

By Harry van Versendaal

Next time you want to get an idea of who is going to win the elections, make sure you log out of your Twitter account first.

“I was led to believe that Drasi would easily gather more than 4 percent,” says journalist Dimitris Rigopoulos, who followed Greece’s recent election campaign through social media.

He was not alone. Stories and discussions trending on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook ahead of the May 6 polls convinced many that the pro-reform, free-market party led by former minister Stefanos Manos would put on more than a decent showing.

In the end, Drasi collected a scant 1.8 percent of the vote, a result that killed its ambition of making it into Parliament. In fact, none of its political kin — Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) and Democratic Alliance — cleared the 3 percent threshold which would grant them seats in the House. Opinion polls, a more traditional tool for measuring voters’ intentions, had safely predicted the failure.

Are people reading too much into social media? Yes, some experts suggest, arguing that the political content of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter is by no means representative of the general population.

“I do think Greece’s liberals are over-represented in the social media, particularly on Twitter,” says Manolis Andriotakis, a journalist, author and social media expert.

Drasi currently has more than 4,800 followers on Twitter (about 4.2 followers per 100 Drasi voters), which is more than half of the 8,140 (about 0.7 followers per 100 ND voters) following New Democracy, the party which came first in the polls.

“Liberals have hijacked Twitter, so to speak, because they realized from early on that social media are basically a platform for debate — and debating is something they like,” says Andriotakis.

Studies suggest the phenomenon is not exclusive to Greece. Scientists at the Pew Research Center in Washington recently found that Internet users who identify themselves as moderate or liberal are more likely than conservatives to be involved in social networking sites.

The blogosphere, on the other hand, has pretty much remained property of leftists given their soft spot for long-winded theories and analyses, says Andriotakis, who is the author of “Blog: News From Your Own Room.” But sites like Facebook and especially Twitter — the revolutionary microblogging tool that limits content to 140 characters — are encouraging bloggers to leave some of their habits behind.

“Social media have pushed these people to become more concise,” Andriotakis says.

The last elections saw Greek parties and candidates embrace social media like never before. Prompted by a lack of cash that took a toll on costly communication campaign tactics such as television ads and leaflets, Greek parties went online to share their message ahead of the vote. Driven by a dedicated crowd of mostly young, tech-savvy staff and supporters, smaller parties in many ways outdid their bigger but slower-moving rivals.

However, some analysts say, if Greek liberal parties enjoyed a strong presence in the social media, it was not because of the ideas they stand for, but because they were alone in openly discussing issues seen as crucial by the local intellectual elite, such as the need for immediate and far-reaching reforms.

“Liberal ideas as such have little influence in Greek society,” journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos observes.

Limited influence

Pro-liberal or not, the overall influence of social media in Greece should not be overestimated. Quite the opposite in fact, as figures show that the penetration of the Internet in Greek homes is surprisingly low. Around 40 percent of people here use the Internet compared with 80 percent in the UK. Less than 2 percent are on Twitter. Using these sites as maps for political behavior is, well, wrong.

“Social media are like a distorting mirror. Those who are most active are part of a self-loving intellectual elite,” Georgakopoulos says. Perhaps you could draw some conclusions from the more mainstream networking sites like Facebook or even from user comments on YouTube, he says, referring to the popular video-sharing site — but again, “they would hardly be representative of society at large.”

Part of the problem is that even those users who do surf the Internet don’t grasp its potential. “A lot of people still browse the Internet in a linear fashion, just like they do with television or a newspaper,” Andriotakis says, meaning that people tend to navigate the Internet in a linear pattern — on click at a time, like it’s a TV or radio broadcast. Users are not the only ones sticking to old habits. While the country’s traditional media have increasingly occupied space on the World Wide Web, they have clumsily used it as a noninteractive, Web-based mirror of their existing content. That said, one should one underestimate the influence of traditional broadcasters on social media. Figures provided by the Harvantics social media metrics website show parties and candidates trending on Twitter and Facebook after appearing on TV.

But while techno-optimists praise social media for providing us with more diverse sources of information — take, for example, the indirect exposure from retweeted messages — skeptics insist that the Internet can, in fact, narrow our horizons.

Businesses try to sway us by tailoring their services to our personal preferences; Twitter tells us who we should follow based on our existing contacts; Amazon recommends books based on our buying history; iTunes suggests songs we might like based on our music library. We, in other words, run the risk of getting trapped in a “filter bubble,” missing out on information and stimulants that could challenge and expand our worldview. Similarly, our Twitter feed can feel more like an echo chamber of like-minded friends.

“You pick your own sources so you are selectively exposed to information. You only see a part of reality. You create your own microcosm. And this is something you need to always keep in mind,” says Katerina Petraki, a public sector food inspector who casually uses Twitter to access views and information that are filtered out of mainstream media outlets.

Not all is bad, of course. It may be that the idea Facebook or Twitter can change your mind-set is an illusion, Rigopoulos admits. “But thanks to the social media, I discovered there are a lot more people out there who actually see things the way I do,” he says.

“It’s not that this community of like-minded people is expanding. It’s just that we get to know each other.”

Jobs for the future

By Harry van Versendaal

Frankie is 3. The other day, he was trying to scroll down an old family photo, swiping his fingers on the print.

This, of course, is all thanks to a charismatic guy from California with a queer penchant for black turtlenecks — quite a surprise from the man behind some of the sleekest gadgets produced over the past decade.

Millions of people out there received the news of Steve Jobs’s death on one of the devices that he invented. His death, following a long battle with pancreatic cancer, sparked a frenzy in the social media — even the resurrection of the Greek prime minister, who saw fit to tweet about the news.

Public reactions to the news were, in many cases, grossly out of proportion. But again, there are people out there who put their names on months-long waiting lists and camp outside Apple stores through the night hoping to be the first in line to put their hands on every new iPhone or iPad. But Jobs was not to blame for the madness.

Apple’s co-founder was a technological and marketing genius, for sure. But the key to the company’s success lies elsewhere. Jobs understood that a soulless device can be cool but also functional. Apple products became the digital reincarnation of the Bauhaus “form follows function” principle. Navigating cyberspace on an iPad touch screen is so natural and intuitive, the machine feels like an extension of your fingers. Jobs invested in building a personal relationship between the human and the machine, elevating use into an “experience.” According to a recent BBC study, Apple imagery causes a religious experience in the brains of devotees.

More importantly, perhaps, Jobs turned an entire business paradigm on its head, forcing giants in the media and music industry to adhere to his whim. By launching the iTunes and App Store, he redefined the music and smartphone markets. Turning a deaf ear to criticism, he killed the floppy disk drive and went on to ring the death knell for the DVD and the mouse. Jobs put the Internet into our pockets. And, yes, he created new needs, by always being a step ahead. As he, somewhat provocatively, put it, “it isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Was Jobs a narcissist and an authoritarian? Most probably. But he did manage to acquire cult leader status without making the promise of an afterlife — quite a unique achievement in human history.

Did he change our world for the better? People will never agree on that. Did he change it, however? A 3-year-old boy holds the answer.

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

Fortune cookies

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Google “democracy” and “China” and you get Google. Following a series of highly sophisticated, government-guided attacks on its network, the world’s largest search engine has indicated that it might pull out of the world’s fastest-growing market. The Chinese may not quite have succeeded in nailing jello to a wall, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, but a shutdown of Google.cn would nevertheless be a setback for cyber-optimists who think that digital technology can increase the power of individuals fighting against authoritative regimes.

Google entered the Chinese market in 2006 on the condition it would accept official censorship. Google, of course, is a corporation; and corporations do not behave philanthropically. Nevertheless, the company’s decision was seen as being, at least partially, driven by its “don’t be evil” motto – an overriding belief in the liberalizing effect of information. Some evil, its owners suggested at the time, was unavoidable – or at least necessary if Google were to become the west’s Trojan horse behind China’s so-called Great Fire Wall.

The assumption was typical enlightenment optimism fanned by a faith in universal human progress powered by science and reason. More sober observers have denounced such dreamy optimism as an illusion – what British philosopher John Gray calls “the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Modernity has made us more effective, but it has not made us better humans.

The fact is technology is neutral. History is full of applications that have been used for benign as well as evil purposes – nuclear power, biotechnology, drugs and, now, the Web. The Internet carries in it neither despotism nor freedom. The unprecedented expressive capability and subversive potential of self-documenting bloggers and free-rights activists has come hand-in-hand with unprecedented state power to document, filter and identify dissidents as they leave their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace.

But even pessimists should agree that although the experience of Iran, Burma and China has exposed the weaknesses of twitter revolutionaries in the face of a ruthless regime, the mere crushing of these cyber-driven protests and enhanced reporting across the globe has exposed the cracks in official depictions of reality. Iran’s mullahs are feeling the heat.

Google’s purportedly ethical concerns in the China standoff have prompted praise as well as skepticism. “Google’s motives may be mixed, but it has, at last, done the right thing,” an editorial in UK’s Guardian noted, while John Gapper, a business writer for the Financial Times, said that “it takes some guts to walk away from the world’s largest potential market.”

With only some 17 percent of search queries and 33 percent of revenue, Google’s share was dwarfed by that of home-grown rival Baidu. Doing business in China, some analysts insist, was simply not worth it.

Like Sarah Lacy, a columnist for TechCrunch, a Silicon Valley site. “I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business,” she said. For Bill Thompson of the BBC, Google’s decision is inconsequential. “Threatening to pull out of China is like threatening to spit on a whale,” he said.

What many commentators seem to miss is that, in a capitalist world, economic and moral arguments often coincide. Even if Google is not interested in democratization per se, it still has a stake in the free flow of information. Google’s objective – providing easy and fast access to comprehensive and unbiased information – is best served in an open, uncensored environment. “Openness for China is a means to an end – prosperity and development – but not a value,” wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times. It’s pretty much the same for Google.

Another point lost in the haze of China-bashing is that, again much like China, Google is itself a greedy, monopolistic behemoth, an egregious privacy-violator. For every term or phrase fired into its search box, the company will keep track of time, date, cookie ID, Internet IP address, and search terms (hence the rise of so-called “interest-based advertising”). Benevolent as the current owners of Google are, or claim to be, no one can be certain what the future holds – and not just for the simple reason that the company, like any company, may change hands. Technology is by nature unpredictable. The Industrial Revolution destroyed Britain’s social fabric but also provided the tools of Empire.

The unprecedented level of interaction makes the Internet the most powerful of media. Gloomy futurists have often warned against an Orwellian-type digital dystopia. What they, and Orwell, probably never imagined is that we would one day voluntarily feed Big Brother with our private information. As one of the Party slogans flashing on the walls of 1984’s Ministry of Truth noted, “Ignorance is strength.”


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