Recent events in the Middle East have made the word ‘revolution’ almost synonymous with the term social media. Realising the power of citizen journalism, the US Consulate and some sponsors organised Pakistan’s first ever international social media summit called Network! on Saturday.
The summit invited five bloggers from Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia along with many local bloggers who have garnered significant online traffic through their activities, updates and opinions. Two bloggers, one from the US and the other from the Netherlands, participated via Skype. It was an interesting choice to have included Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia which are also Muslim countries like Pakistan. When it comes to following trends, there seems to be a robust online presence in countries with oppressive regimes, something that has further fuelled the blogging community. Thus, it did not surprise many that the talk of revolution coming to Pakistan, followed by Egypt, was brought up by several participants during various sessions in the day-long summit.
The introductory phase included a welcome by Consul General William Martin. The USCG compared valiant and selfless journalists in Pakistan to soldiers on a battlefield — paying with their lives for stories that deserve to be told.
Education and good governance
Is it enough to initiate the movement for change but not see it through to its natural conclusion? Or does it suffice to simply get the ball rolling and leave it up to others while moving on to the next cause? These are just some of the questions that were generated in this discussion.
Egyptian blogger Mohamed El Dahshan shared the uprising of his people and the successful removal of president Hosni Mubarak. “About 18 million people participated in the national referendum after Mubarak’s removal which is a significant turnout as before people didn’t really trust elections,” he said. Dahshan then pointed out many technical blunders in the execution of the referendum. “In many cases the mainstream media does not know or report on these matters that is where bloggers come in. Is our job done with the removal of Mubarak?” he asked.
Part of the panel was Dr Awab Alvi, the dentist by day and Teeth Maestro by night. His blogs seem to have their finger on the pulse of political and social injustices. However, when asked if the local blogosphere was strong enough to walk the talk he resolutely replied, “No”. When asked for a clarification, he shrugged his shoulders. “People blog and are very aggressive in their comments but when we hold rallies only 0.5 per cent of the online community turns up.” On a similar revolution in Pakistan, he said, “Egyptians had a few triggers. One of them was the picture of the body of a young boy who had been tortured. Here just a couple of days ago a brutal murder was caught on tape of a boy being shot at point-blank range and… nothing!” Alvi did suggest though that text messaging has proven to be a stronger tool in Pakistan to rally public support as opposed to the web in Egypt.
Women and social activism
A great deal of interest was generated over Egyptian activist Rebecca Chiao’s HarassMap, an online forum for (wo)men who have been sexually harassed. The independently funded initiative also offers security and safety tips through video demonstrations.
In a later session titled ‘An interactive workshop on HarassMap’, founder for the site Chiao shared details of the tool’s functionality, reach and response. “Egyptian society wasn’t used to women, especially from rural areas, speaking so explicitly about their experiences, using harsh language to describe their ordeal and naming specific body parts that had been violated. So it was encouraging to see that women across the social strata had decided enough was enough.” When asked about the follow-up through legal channels, Chiao said, “First public attention will come then the government will and eventually the police will be on board as well. But we need to get the public motivated first. Our goal is to change the social acceptability of harassment.”
When questioned whether women activists feared repercussion of being outspoken, another avid blogger Jehan Ara commented, “What is worse? To keep quiet and remained scared or to speak up and face the consequences? If I don’t speak up then I deserve the society I live in.”
Monetising your social media space
“Blogs are the most explosive outlet, and are now no longer a business elective but a prerequisite,” said AJ Shirazi, a blogger. Blogger Imran Hussain added that monetising should not be a priority right from the start rather the main focus should be on getting more and more followers or users. Country consultant for Google in Pakistan, Badar Khushnood, agreed. “First it was Orkut now it is Facebook. One needs to focus on content first. The users will follow as will the money.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2011.