On Lorites and Long Tails
A haven for press freedom on Iceland?

Social media start-ups as agents for social change

What are the best ways to use social media to change the world, and could there possibly be a business model in doing just that?

I recently had the pleasure of being in the jury when participants of the Swedish Institute’s Young Leaders Visitors Program (#YLVP 2010) presented projects aimed at meeting global challenges - such as cultural prejudices, censorship and lack of democracy - through social media solutions.

The projects ranged from creating a social media academy for activists, to using various social media platforms to find, collect and present artists from a specific region to counter cultural prejudices (the #YLPV participants came from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, West Bank-Gaza, Yemen and Sweden).

All the projects were presented with great zest and flair, and even thought most of them were perhaps a bit too ambitious, a bit too complicated – I think the beauty with social media, and what make these tools so effective, is the how they enable you to start small with a shoestring, or even non-existent budget – the event was a great reminder for me as well of how powerful an agent of change social media has the potential to be.

One of the other judges, Mikael Ahlström of Sprout Park, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur in digital media, also told me he would consider investing in some of the projects presented – which I took to mean that he saw business potential there.

Another thing I was reminded of during the event was an interview I did with Fareena Alam in 2003 when she was editor of the now defunct Q magazine. She said part of the problem with the way media represents Muslims is how they’re always interviewed in connection with issues such as Islam, immigration or cultural integration and rarely presented as normal people with ”normal” problems such as housing or transportation.

I don’t have the interview before me now, so I don’t remember her exact words, but this, the way immigrants or ethnic groups are presented in mainstream media was also an issue which at least one project was aimed at improving. I think social media can be a great tool in this respect, as it’s a great arena for building an online identity on your own terms. There are of course lots of challenges as well: access to and knowledge of these tools are in no way universal, but through them more people than ever have access to the equivalent of their own printing presses, and it’s interesting to see how this e.g. can be put to use to improve democracy in various parts of the world.

But I must admit I’m not so sure this will be a mass endeavour. Even though I recently read that Facebook users outnumber newspaper readers in The Middle East and North Africa – perhaps not surprising when you consider all the restrictions on free press in the region – I think we’ll probably see the 90-9-1 law played out here as well.

Incidentally, I happened to spend my last school year before university attending an experimental college with "complete student democracy" (a coincidence, sort of). The college was started by students in 1967 and was, at least in theory, run by the members of the school: all students and teachers had one vote each.

A lot can be said, both good and bad, about that experience, but even in this sort of setting – at a school (in)famous for the democratic way it was organised – it was at best no more than 10 per cent who actively played a role in this "democracy" other than at times, and often reluctantly, turning up to vote.

That, of course, is not to say that the work of individuals or small groups of dedicated souls can not make a huge differences, quite the contrary, and social media can make, and in some areas is making, it easier to organise those scattered groups and indviduals and rally people behind a cause.

I also gave the keynote presentation at the event, and will return to that soon, but the day gave me so much to think about, also in terms of the shortcomings of, and possible fixes for, journalism, that, given a very busy schedule, it's taken me some time to start blogging about it all. 


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