Hello from vivacious Austin! I’ve just wrapped up two days of panels and events and already I’ve seen some amazing things. Here are the two best events I’ve attended so far:
Clay Shirky’s “Why Would We Think Social Media is Revolutionary?” was absolutely engrossing. Shirky explained that social media tools can act as leverage in a revolution, that they can allow amateurs access to the public sphere and the free exchange of information. However, information is not a panacea. “Governments aren’t afraid of informed individuals. They are afraid of synchronized action” Shirky said, noting that Muammar Gaddafi banned soccer prior to the revolution to prevent Libyans from having a place to congregate. Social media tools not only allow citizens to exchange information and synchronize their actions, but to document human rights abuses.
Throughout Shirky explained that the “Theater of Collapse” – the blitz of media attention and foreign support and activism triggered by the toppling of a state – is less important than the social and political movements that preceded it. To illustrate this point he showed two pictures from the Egyptian revolution: one of Christians forming a line to protect Muslims at prayer and a protester kissing a soldier who had joined the people in revolution. He explained that the Kifaya Movement (Egyptian for “enough”) had created the revolutionary capital to make organized, peaceful resistance possible.
Rather than clamoring for a democratic society, global citizens want more responsive government. Shirky advised the audience members to invest time and energy into revolutionary action that was more gradual – to play “the long game.” One program he recommended was the United Nation’s Online Volunteering Service, which allows you to volunteer your skills online to assist development projects around the world.
The discussion progressed to whether or not journalists should take a side in the conflicts they cover. Karina Brisby from OxFam asked if journalists felt a duty to the people they put “above the parapet” and a producer from PBS discussed arriving in Egypt and finding out how few secure communication lines there were for her to use and still keep her contacts safe. During the conversation it was learned that Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a cameraman for Al Jazeera, had been killed – Jaber was shot by unknown assailants in an ambush near Benghazi. As one activist pointed out, dictators are learning from other dictators, and there is no guarantee that despots won’t adapt to crack down on their people in more targeted ways.
This has already been one of the most fascinating and transformative events I’ve ever been a part of and I’d like to thank RMJ for inviting me to present with her and the readers of my blog for donating, so I could get the very most out of SXSW.