You are probably familiar with social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and many others. What they have in common is that they enable individuals to stay in contact through virtual networks. Users can also post content such as text, images, videos, or they share a link to other websites. Lastly, users can interact with content or links by re-sharing them or by adding their opinion - for example by clicking “like”. A post or message can in a short time reach many other users. The amount of data increases quickly, and so it is up to these services how to save their users from drowning in a flood of information.
The most important task of social media is therefore - similar to search engines - to act as a filter: They identify relevant content and suppress 'noise'. We all know from our emails that automatically separating relevant from irrelevant messages is not straightforward and it becomes increasingly difficult the more messages we receive. At Facebook, for instance, this filtering (known as EdgeRank) considers four main criteria:1)
You may have noticed that all mentioned criteria function like positive (i.e. amplifying) feedback loops that disproportionally prefer and promote a small amount of items, while risking to miss out many relevant ones. 2)
This capacity to predict what might become the favourites of the crowd and to amplify them to an avalanche makes these types of social media particularly powerful tools to mobilize masses. They have therefore prominently figured during the events known as Arab Spring. Here it was crucial to spread news and announcements in short time to many people without being dependent on communication channels that could be controlled or blocked by the authorities; neither could the activists risking to lose their core messages in the noise of daily communication.
The Arab Spring has inspired many thoughts about possible applications of social media for Burmese activism. Different than in many Arab urban centres, however, the technical infrastructure in Burma is still comparably underdeveloped. While since 2012 the connectivity and prices for Internet usage - in cybercafés, via modem or mobile - facilitate access by more people, the aforementioned types of social media that are able to create avalanches of tiny information pieces lost their purpose in a society where change is effected by - partly controlled - evolution, rather than revolution. Instead of mobilizing masses, online networks are now required to connect people and to share information for sustainable cooperation.
Past reforms in Burma have undoubtedly created a general feeling of increased freedom. There is, however, probably not a single activist who is not fully aware about the fragility, reversibility and superficiality of these changes. It is clear that there is still a long way to go from a visible facelift to tangible changes in all parts of the country and for all people. Police forces and the Burmese army still control the power with largely unreformed mindsets, politicians often show only limited sympathy for bottom-up democracy, judges don't always observe equality before the law, and the developing economy continues to favour crony businesses. Citizens will need to understand their rights and how to claim them, they will need access to relevant information, the possibility to connect with like-minded people, and to form communities of interest.
The accelerated technical development in Burma will make it necessary that networks
The need to connect activists and to enable them to exchange relevant information still prevails, but a network that is able to find relevant content for individual users requires now a new set of criteria for filtering:
Different from the approach used on Facebook and Twitter, information does not “degrade” in the course of time. A document that is one month old has therefore the same chances to be found as one that is one week old. Similarly, a less popular item can still be considered relevant for particular people. The proposed solution would furthermore have to respond to the following specific requirements:
We decided to name the proposed software solution mycitizen.net, with the double meaning of “my” as indicating a personal network for citizens and a project that is being developed for the particular case of Myanmar 3). The output will be developed for Burma, but also available at a later time for other countries and communities. Mycitzen.net, therefore, stands both for
This twin-constellation of development and deployment will allow us to test and assure the applicability.
While the platform seeks to support activism and other typical forms of civic engagement, it actually doesn't prefer any particular activity. A typical application of the platform could be exemplified by these user cases: