Monday, October 27, 2008

Twitter Snitches 2

And now, from the "double-edged-sword" school of social media comes a report that Twitter could become the latest terrorist tool for coordinating militant attacks. Check out this October 16 draft report by the Army's 304th Military Intelligence Battalion, posted on the Federation of the American Scientist's Web site. The report offers a number of scenarios and says that Twitter, when used with a cell phone camera/video capability, could help terrorists conduct ambushes or plot supply routes in difficult terrain. A Nokia 6210 Navigator, with its GPS utilities, is particularly analyzed. For more on the report, go to Noah Shachtman's Danger Room blog.

(Photo illustration by Dan Dycus for

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tilting Windmills

Social media don't just help ignite collaboration and innovation for social change. Sometimes, their ability to spread word of a single person or idea from a remote part of the world can help to keep either alive. Consider the oft-told story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawi youth who, at 14, built a windmill for his family after seeing a picture of one in an old textbook. Now 20, Kamkwamba is still building windmills, and he's planning to build a larger one for his village.

This short video about him, below, was shown at last week's Feast conference on social innovation in Manhattan. So far, it has gotten over a million hits on YouTube and other Web networks, and the attention it has brought Kamkwamba continues to change his life. According to the Wall Street Journal, a group of investors who met Kamkwamba at the TED conference last year are now putting him through school so he can make good on his desire to build more windmills for other villages across his country. Here's his story:

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Saturday, October 18, 2008


Twitter is becoming an increasingly relevant, real-time barometer of what people are thinking anywhere, any time. For a fascinating example of this, check out Twitter's Election 2008 page, where tweets (single posts) pop up and start sliding down the page at the rate of nearly one per second—or faster some days, depending on the news of the hour or the day or the minute.

It's like walking into a crowded room of people who are having a hyper-lively conversation about one topic, and then being able to overhear all the bits of it, clearly. In this case, the chatter, after a short while, suggests how Obama and McCain are "playing in Peoria" (or anywhere else, for that matter). Consider it a kind of crowdsourced, informal focus group —a good example of how Twitter can convey a kind of "first-read" of public opinion. Mesmerizing.

(Illustration: Communicating by Miroslaw Pieprzyk for

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Girls, Uninterrupted

If you haven't seen it yet, check out this video, below. It's called The Girl Effect, and it is a video and Web site produced by the Nike Foundation, in partnership with Peter Buffett's NoVo Foundation, to show the positive impact of educating and empowering girls. Shown at The Feast social innovation conference today in Manhattan, the video is one of the more powerful cause "message" campaigns making the rounds of social networks and video-sharing sites:

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008


In his 2002 book, Smart Mobs, futurist Howard Rheingold predicted the next social revolution would be triggered by the ubiquity of mobile phones. Their ability to send text messages, photographs, videos, and other instant data directly to a computer, he predicted, would give people a powerful new way to organize themselves to fight poverty and other social ills on the fly—ultimately reshaping cultures and transforming communities, for better or worse.

Rheingold's glimpse of the future is now—and is being promoted by a rising new crop of mobile activists like Katrin Verclas, cofounder of, a Web site and community of about 8,000 people and NGOs from around the world. The group is meeting in Johannesburg this week to promote the use of cellphones for social change. About 80 percent of the world has cellphone coverage, Verclas says, and more than half of the global population has a cellphone—or access to one. "We're at a tipping point," Verclas told Cause Global.

Here are some of the mobile-for-good projects being highlighted at the MobileActive08 conference this week in South Africa:, the 10-month-old, Web-based, agit-pop protest movement (its name means "noise" or "voice" in Urdu, Hindi, Dari, Persian, and other languages) is kicking off a series of SMS (short message service) campaigns to get rapid signatures on petitions to fight climate change and the war in Iraq. Cofounded in January by, Res Publica, and, Avaaz already has more than 3 million members around the world, and offices in Rio de Janeiro, Geneva, London, and Washington, D.C. Says Graziela Tanaka, an Avaaz coordinator in Sao Paolo, Brazil: “Cellphone videos and instant messaging has the affect of decentralizing old-media control over information. We think SMS and cellphone videos are the new way to mobilize people around the world. The Internet is still restricted in some countries. SMS is not. Everyone, or nearly everyone, has a cellphone.”

The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is using a "bulk SMS" service out of Cape Town to organize demonstrations against sexual violence, chiefly against girls 15 years and younger, and to share health information. The nonprofit sends out thousands of instant messages to a targeted list of members, simultaneously, to mobilize support for its various campaigns, without fear of interference by local governmental authorities or family members. According to WOUGNET's Nora Naiboka Odoi, cellphone use in many African countries is still largely controlled by the men in the family. SMS, she says, makes it easier for word about demonstrations to get out virally and bypass these constraints. Adds's Verclas: “The cellphone in these communities is an empowerment tool, a way for women to reach out to each other as well as to get help in a violent situation."

Alo Cidadao! (Hello Citizens!) is a year-old text-messaging community news service that connects some 450 residents of the low-income section of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with information about jobs, cultural events, classes, and health vaccinations. "People in this neighborhood are afraid to leave their homes," says coordinator Daniel de Araujo. "We are trying to help them feel less cut off and are encouraging them to re-join the mainstream by giving them knowledge about what's going on outside their doors." Each person who signed up for the service gets about 40 messages per month, Araujo says, and most forward these messages on to friends and family members.

The International Youth Foundation's BridgeIT project is using cellphones to boost the quality of education for 5th- and 6th-graders in the Philippines and Tanzania. Science and math teachers there can use their cellphones to download science videos and other content-rich material via satellite to a digital video recorder connected to a television set in the classroom. Videos focus on subjects such as space, ecology, geology, or human anatomy—all part of a special text2teach lesson plan. So far, the program, partly funded by Nokia, is being used by 938 schools in the Philippines and 200 in Tanzania.

M4G, which stands for Mobile for Good, is helping people in Kenya find jobs. For a video on the project, click here. More than 70,000 people now use the service, launched in 2003 and funded in part by the European telcom company Vodafone Group Plc. Some 60,000 have found jobs through the group's job service, Kazi560.

Next? Look for more people bartering their cellphone minutes for other goods and services in Mexico and parts of Africa, including the Congo.

The conference ends today.

(Photograph, Power Line Birds, by Patrick Herrera for

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Saturday, October 11, 2008


I just finished skimming a proof of Michael Kinsley's new book, Creative Capitalism: A Conversation, due out December 2. Kinsley asked Warren Buffett, Oxfam's Elizabeth Stuart, Matthew Bishop and a few dozen others how to retool the global economy to ease poverty.

Say what you will about its timing; the book is intriguing—especially for the way Kinsley got it written. Remember how Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer talked his friends into painting his Aunt Polly's fence (so that he wouldn't have to paint it, himself)? Right after Bill Gates delivered his now famous speech on "creative capitalism" at the 2008 World Economic Forum, Kinsley—the founding editor of Slate—set up, a place where people in his network could debate Gates' concept.

Kinsley made their postings into a book. It's 310 pages and 75 very short chapters long and roughly resembles a comment string at the end of a blog entry. Kinsley makes no apologies:

"We can debate the quality of Internet prose: the suspension of grammar, the cutesy acronyms (not to mention emoticons!), the casual spelling, the half-finished sentences, but it is the language of our time. And people do read it. And write it. So the idea for this book was to find a collection of smart people, entice them into a Web-based discussion of creative capitalism, and by this means trick them into producing a book. The book would have the quality of a blog or a "chat" or one of Slate's email dialogues. The prose would be casual, the organization perhaps a bit chaotic. The experience of 'reading' it would be somewhat like surfing the Web—except without the hyperlinks. Plenty of books have grown out of Web sites. But have there been Web sites started with the specific intention of using them to produce a book? Maybe so, but not many. This may remind you of the way Tom Sawyer got Aunt Polly's fence whitewashed. But rest assured that contributors will be compensated."

Most impressive is the brevity of some of the commentary, considering the sources. Kinsley may be on to something (again). Look for more "fast" books to be created this way, via the mass participation of a social network. It's just another way that social media are reshaping the conversation.

(Bending Globe, above, by Laurie Simmons for Project Globe 2008)

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Democracy Is...

As the economy careens further into recession, more nonprofits are starting to experiment with citizen-made "cause videos" to invite mass collaboration from supporters and rally new ones to the cause. What's key is the community-building and buzz that comes from this kind of crowdsourcing. (Click here to see Part 2—posted today—of the 4-part series on social media that I've been directing and producing with colleagues Cristina Maldonado and Richard Balestrino for Contribute Online and Click here for Part 1.)

Cause videos are one of the least expensive ways to create emotionally resonant engagement with supporters, new media experts agree—and it's no wonder. It's one thing to talk about a problem; it's another for people to be able to share what they see. "A lot of the power of the Web isn't in the technology," says NYU new media professor Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. "It's in the ability that the Web is unleashing for people to come together, to share things together, to collaborate, to take collective action."

One of the most ambitious, recent examples of this comes from TakingITGlobal, a Toronto-based international youth nonprofit co-founded by Michael Furdyk. Last month, he helped to launch Democracy Video Challenge (DVC), a video-engagement initiative, through his nonprofit's new video-sharing network. (That network, called Youth Media Exchange, invites visitors to "make a video in three minutes or less and join the conversation with youth around the world.")

DVC is inviting people from around the world to make a 3-minute video that completes the phrase, "Democracy is..." Submissions are due January 31. For more on the project—itself a collaboration with 10 other nonprofit and educational groups, including the U.S. Department of State—go here. Says Natalie Rodic, TakingITGlobal's video project coordinator: "What's important for us is the discussion that takes place around the videos."

And speaking of engagement, Furdyk's is one of 7,065 sites (as of today) with a collective audience of some 9.7 million readers taking part in Blog Action Day next week, on October 15, for bloggers who wish to talk about relevant issues in the world. This year's topic is poverty. For more information about this annual, nonprofit event, check out this video below:

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

(Illustration: "Paint Hands" by David Franklin)

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

We Feel Fine (?)

The Dow just fell another 508 points today. Maybe it's a good time to crowdsource a little empathy? If you haven't yet, check out We Feel Fine, Jonathan Harris' digital storytelling project. It harvests human feelings, in close to real-time, from the Net. It's a kind of minute-to-minute barometer of social well-being, culled from emotions expressed in everybody's blog postings—whether written from New York, Nairobi, or Vietnam. Harris harvests some 20,000 of these posts per day—just the ones that include the phrases "I feel" or "I am feeling." In the past three years, he's gathered more than 10 million entries. Go here to explore the site. Click on one of the floating dots. It's like taking the emotional pulse of the blogosphere.

Among some feelings expressed within the past hour:

* I am not making great claims for anything although I do feel we need to go for something more radical than state control of failing finance institutions
* I feel like I'm going to break in two
* I was a young volunteer for JFK and even Richard Milhous Nixon is beginning to feel warm and fuzzy compared to these guys
* I feel like a musician looking for a new piano

To see a short video of Harris explaining it all on Pangea Day in May, click HERE.

Organizers of last year's PICNIC conference in Amsterdam called Harris' work "one part computer science, one part anthropology, and one part visual art that seeks to explore and understand the human world through the artifacts people leave behind on the Web." For his part, Harris says We Feel Fine is "authored by everyone" and will "grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, in our hearts, and on our minds...I hope it makes the world seem a little smaller."

Harris' other Net storytelling projects explore human desire, modern mythology, science, news, and language. For more on Harris, go to his Web site,

(Photograph of image on iron door by Knud Nielsen)

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