Rob Ackland, a professor at the Australian National University, was able to visit the Quello Center in early May. In addition to kicking off a valuable roundtable discussion of digital social science, he also gave a very useful talk on social media and development at a Quello Seminar on 5 May 2016. His talk, which you can view here, was based on a background paper he co-authored (with Kyosuke Tanaka) for the World Bank. The key contribution of the talk by Rob was his offering a number of competing and complementary theoretical perspectives on how social media might link to social and economic development objectives. While there have been many case studies of the Internet and other new media such as mobile phones in development processes, there is a relative absence of theoretical reasoning about the links between social media and development. Rob is an economist, but his theoretical arguments move beyond economics and merit careful examination by researchers on ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development).
I recently read an article by Hamza Shaban with the provocative title “How Social Media Can Weaken a Revolution.” The primary focus of the piece was a Journal of International Affairs paper with a more scholarly title, “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape.” The article also contained comments from the paper’s author, Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
As its title suggests, Tufekci’s paper examines the evolving dynamic between digitally-empowered social movements and the governments they are attempting to influence (or, in some cases, overthrow). Regarding the former, the paper’s key insight appears to be that:
Social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses… The ability to scale-up quickly using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their horizontalist and leaderless aspirations, which in turn have engendered new weaknesses after the initial phase of street actions ebbs. Movements without organizational depth are often unable to weather such transitions.
As to government’s response to these movements, Tufekci observes that:
While digital media create more possibilities to evade censorship, many governments have responded by demonizing and attacking social media, thus contributing to polarized environments in which dissidents have access to a very different set of information compared to those more loyal to the regime. This makes it hard to create truly national campaigns of dissent.
Contrasting recent developments in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the U.S.-centric Occupy movement with earlier civil rights and Vietnam War protest movements, Tufekci says:
Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements. Working together to take care of the logistics of a movement, however tedious, also builds trust and an ability to collaborate effectively. Consequently, many recent movements enter into the most contentious phase, the potential confrontation with authorities, without any prior history of working together or managing pivotal moments under stress.
Though noting critiques of the Internet’s role in society as leading to “slacktivism—the tendency to click on links or like posts rather than taking concrete actions or steps,” Tufekci takes a more nuanced approach. Referring to Charles Tilly’s four characteristics of successful social movements—worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment—she suggests that digital social media readily support the first three, but that the fourth characteristic, commitment, is more challenging. At the same time, she notes that “street actions are also not magic wands for social movements.” They “can and do falter,” she observes, “often because they lose the fight for worthiness in the public eye.”
Citing her own research, Tufekci notes that:
We had a brief interview with Professor Charles Steinfield before a seminar he presented on the role of information and communication technologies for development, focusing on their role in the agricultural context. Distilling key lessons learned from his field research with Professor Susan Wyche, he touches on the kinds of technologies being used, the implications of their use, and the barriers to further success. This brief overview conveys the substantive areas he addressed in more depth in the seminar that followed. See the short video at: https://vimeo.com/110827930
Professor Steinfield’s work is supported by USAID, which funds MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI). A copy of his report with Susan Wyche on ICTs and development is available from the GCFSI web site at http://gcfsi.isp.msu.edu.
The exponential diffusion of mobile communication across Uganda, and much of the developing world at large, has led mobile to become a testing ground for various ICT agriculture services delivered. Unfortunately, the majority of these early services usually require farmers to follow a strict syntax in order to register and the information is most often provided exclusively in English. Not surprisingly, a majority of the farmers are not sufficiently literate in English to benefit from these services, which dramatically undermines the effectiveness of these services. Against that background, we developed and field tested a mobile-based platform that enables farmers to use their basic mobile phones and to interact with their respective extension agents in their own local languages.
We believe this simple approach has major implications for policy and practice across the developing world. For more information about our study, you can find my paper on SSRN at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2518170.
Quello Center, MSU
Facing the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, the city of Detroit is emerging as a test bed for initiatives aimed at reversing the city’s longstanding decline. These efforts are coming from a range of sources, including federal, state and local governments, major corporations, startups and startup incubators, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, non-profits and citizen-driven community groups. While the depth and dimensions of Detroit’s challenges may be historically unique, so too are the opportunities for revitalization-focused communication, computation and collaboration afforded by today’s information and communication technologies (ICT).
The unprecedented nature of both the crisis and the potential power of ICT-enabled responses to it raise a set of questions with significance not only to Detroit’s citizens and businesses, but also to cities facing similar challenges in the U.S. and the world.
– To what extent and in what specific ways are ICTs being used to support revitalization efforts in Detroit?
– How is such usage impacting the success of such efforts, and which of these impacts were intended and which were not?
– Does ICT usage and impacts vary by type of organization and/or by the specific goals and sectors they target for revitalization?
– What combinations of organization- and project-type seem best suited to leverage the power of ICT to achieve revitalization goals?
– How important are leadership and organizational structure and processes in determining how successful an organization and project will be in using ICT to help achieve its revitalization goals?
– In what ways does the use of ICT impact the structure, function and effectiveness of revitalization-focused organizations and projects, and to what extent does this impact vary by type of organization, project and project goals?
– To what extent are obstacles to ICT usage (e.g., lack of connectivity, affordability, digital literacy) a constraint on the success of revitalization projects? And are these constraints particularly problematic for particular types of organizations, projects and goals?
Our exploratory research is initially focused on the role of collaborative networks in the revitalisation of Detroit. This focused project will enable us to refine our understanding of the range of ICT initiatives involved in supporting effective revitalization efforts in Detroit and to develop a richer theoretical understanding of the potential for collaboration network organisations, among other types of initiatives, to develop and sustain healthy economic, social and political systems.
This project is being developed by Mitch Shapiro, Alison Keesey and Bill Dutton in its early phases.
Do you have any idea what ICT4DAg is? Well, I have had no idea until I attended a fascinating seminar with Professor Charles Steinfield that focused on his projects in sub-Saharan countries. It was the third Quello/Law School VIPP seminar.
So, all of you are familiar with ICT, and ICT4Ag stands for ICT for Development in Agriculture. And in simple words, Prof. Steinfield and his colleagues study the use of new communication technologies and devices – mobile phones in particular – in rural areas in East Africa. However, they do not study merely the social uses; rather, what is more interesting are the uses that aim at improving agriculture (as well as education, for example) in these poor areas and by that improving their standards of life. For example, providing professional advice, market and financial information, weather conditions, and so forth.
There are three main gaps that prevent a more success in these efforts. First is the huge gap between the developed world and the developing world regarding the penetration of new technologies; second is the gender gap regarding access to these technologies; and third is a gap in access and use of these devices between different countries within the same region (Kenya vs. Malawi, for example) and between cities and rural regions within the same country.
Anyway, there is an optimistic angle to this story as well, and it is associated with the old media of radio and television. Professor Steinfield told us about Shamba shape up, a reality TV program in Kenya, which manages to achieve in a very clever and interesting way the same goal of helping these farmers in their daily life in the fields and at their homes. And there are some other similar radio and television programs such as Rukaa Juu in Tanzania.
There is a lot more to tell about the issue, so if you are interested, search for Professor Steinfield’s publications on this topic.
Avshalom Ginosar, PhD, Communication Department, The Academic College of Yezreel Valley
Visiting Scholar, The Quello Center, The Department of Media & Information, The College of Communication Art & Science, Michigan State University
The Quello Center is joined this academic year by Young-jun Choi, a professor in the Department of International Business and Trade at Kyung Hee University in Korea. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Quello Center, focusing on his research. Young-jun received his Ph. D in Economics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His major research areas are applied microeconomics and international economics.
At the Quello Center, he is pursing his research on the economic implications of the emergence of e-marketplaces and his research in international trade in the film industry, which has been supported by several projects with the Korean Film Council. His research interests are centered on telecommunications in economic development and international trade.
Young-jun Choi serves as a member of the Board of the Korea Trade Research Association and the Korea Resource Economics Association.