Social Networking for Civil Society

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Common social networks and beyond

The potential of social media for civil society

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)

  1. newness: The latest posts are at the top of the page and they subsequently decay, i.e. move down (similar to the structure of blogs).
  2. popularity: The most viewed or most liked posts have better chances to be visible again to other users so that their popularity even increases, amplifying the gap between a huge number of unpopular and a small number of popular posts.
  3. affinity: You see more posts from people who have similar interests.
  4. recent activity: You see more posts from pages that you have recently visited, working like an aperture that masks a huge number of items from previously neglected sources.

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.

From revolution to evolution

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

  1. are tied across larger dimensions - e.g. by forming an association across several towns of the country
  2. are able to cope with an increased volume of information - e.g. a database of all clinics providing HIV treatment
  3. can react in shorter time - e.g. making available a new law in a matter of hours.

A different approach

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:

  1. interests: People are able to find other people and their activities if they match their own interests and needs.
  2. proximity: People are able to focus on what is happening close to their own places.
  3. language: People are able to search for content in a particular language.

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:

  1. Burma is a multilingual country Currently, languages of commercial social media are provided according to the spending power of their target groups. This discriminates not only the Burmese language but also smaller ethnic languages of Burma and excludes everyone who is not confident in using English. The solution should therefore provide the major languages of Burma and should be extendible for further languages.
  2. Internet connectivity is still developing Most established social media services rely on multimedia content and sophisticated website design that require high-speed connections. Only some few offer slimmed-down website versions for mobile access or even mobile applications that run as software on smartphones and reduce the data flow to a minimum. Unfortunately, even those applications usually stop working at the moment when the network connection breaks down. The solution should therefore provide both a web platform and a smartphone app that uses an intelligent adaptation of data streams to the available bandwidth and caching in order to be functional to some extent even with bad or interrupted connectivity.
  3. Privacy protection is crucial People should be able to engage in civil society activities without having to fear reprisals by authorities and without feeling inhibitions to make their engagement public. They should therefore be able to conceal their identity or personal information, usage should not be tracked or recorded, and the software must be available for local hosting by a trusted provider.

We decided to name the proposed software solution, 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., therefore, stands both for

  1. a software that consists of a web-based part and a mobile application and that can be used for any country or community; and
  2. a platform where this software is deployed for people in and from Burma.

This twin-constellation of development and deployment will allow us to test and assure the applicability.

Possible user case scenarios

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:

  • The family of a man who is addicted to alcohol needs the advice and support of companions. As they live in a small town and feel embarrassed, they cannot ask for help in their environment a may consult only close friends. In a network that provides anonymity, however, they can find help anonymously and in their own language. Perhaps they discover that another family in their town has successfully managed to solve the problem.
  • A lawyer is investigating in the possibilities to defend a client who has suffered through forced labour. In an online network she does not only find the relevant laws, but also advice of fellow lawyers and their reports how they successfully established the defense and the addresses of the International Labour Office.
1) neglecting here paid posts and modified to reflect my experience (To some extent speculative). Posts and other objects are called “Edge” on Facebook.
2) Imagine how important it is which posts get initially seeded. Of course, not all social media apply these criteria. At Twitter, for example, it is enough that relatively fresh messages easily get retweeted again.
3) as the country is called in Burmese written form and also in official language, avoiding the impression of an implicit opposition that might deter some users
about/concept.txt · Last modified: 2014/03/06 20:33 (external edit)