New Internationalist

Moving beyond the blog

Egypt’s bloggers have been arrested and harassed by President Mubarak’s security forces for the past three years. Three years ago blogger Alaa was arrested twice, in October 2005 and again in August 2006. Since then Egyptian pro-democracy activists and bloggers have been fighting to stay online and using every technology tool possible to campaign and disseminate information. In a recent interview, Alaa who describes himself as a:

A geek, Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) advocate, programmer, blogger, activist, free speech militant forever struggling to keep up with an extended family of over-achievers...

discusses the imbalance between people’s expectations of both the technology (and the associated ability to disseminate information in bringing freedom) versus the reality.

There is this prevalent notion that ‘information will set you free’, that if just the word comes out things will get fixed.

Unfortunately the political reality where I come from is that people are so dis-empowered most of the time, it doesn't actually matter what they know and what they say. The problems are not always about lack of awareness or inability to express an idea.

What I'm really excited about is not the use of information technology to spread information but rather how it helps people organize themselves. I think we should focus less on information and more on organization.

In other words neither the technology nor the information will liberate you. What you need is good organization with effective strategies and a flexible set of tactics. This informs the technologies you may need and how you use them. Tools such as blogs are excellent as the primary medium for underpinning the ‘information’ that activists wish to publish. However things like the so-called ‘micro tools’ which can be integrated with a blog or alternatively stand alone are some of things that can really make organization and mobilization work.

Egyptian blogger, Arabawy on his other blog, Lenosphere has a great post on ‘microblogging’ and the spread of information. He uses Del.icio.us, a web-based social bookmarking system, Twitter and Jaiku both microblogging platforms, in addition to his own blog for disseminating information especially when it is for urgent updates.

One important advantage of the microblogging platforms is because they are a web-based service and not fixed to a particular domain bloggers can continue irrespective of whether their host is down or up. For example, recently the host for many Egyptian bloggers, Arabist.net was down but bloggers were able to use these three microblogging platforms as alternatives. Arabawy explains:

The readership of 3arabawy ranges from roughly 18,000 to 40,000 visitors a month, so it makes more sense to post urgent updates on the blog. But besides my blog, I already had set up accounts on Del.icio.us, Jaiku and Twitter. These are all important social networking tools with millions of users around the world…

As soon as I received the news of the crackdown on Friday, I started bookmarking news about the arrest of the blogger <a href="http://allthegoodnameshadgone.blogspot.com/2009/02/kidnapping-of-philip-rizk.html">Philip Rizk</a>, giving the bookmarks the usual tags, like: ‘HumanRights’, ‘Egypt’, ‘Activism’, ‘Gaza’, ‘Police’... but I made sure to add a specific tag, which is ‘6FebProGazaMarch’. This in effect meant that I created a del.icio.us page, devoted to news about Philip and the crackdown.

Delicious Page 6FebProGazaMarch

By creating a Del.icio.us page the information could then be spread throughout the blogosphere as well as on Twitter and Jaiku and if there were any additional photos or videos these could then be linked to Flickr or YouTube. I am constantly trying to explain to non-bloggers who use email to spread information of any kind, that the one feature they are missing is a web link causing limited info spread.

The great thing about microblogging platforms such as Twitter and Jaiku is that you can post and receive content via mobile phone SMS in a one-to-many distribution. This is particularly useful if you want to mobilize a large number of people at a short notice or publish updates in a crisis situation. Traditional blogging then becomes the foundation for your campaigning and activism with microblogging, social bookmarking, Facebook, video and photo tools acting as multipliers. Key to all of these different tools are tags or keywords. Once you have selected a main tag such as ‘DemocracyEgypt’ you can add any set of secondary tags but because the main Tag can be linked it is easy for anyone to pick up all the posts whatever the platform by searching under the primary tag. Adding an RSS feed from the Delicious tag ‘DemocracyEgypt’ means you can automatically receive any post with that tag through any application that supports RSS feeds (such as browsers, other websites, mail programs, etc).

Finally for any campaign the purpose is to mobilize and disseminate information widely, therefore it makes sense to send your information to as many tools and spaces as possible.

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