Motto for the Week : «Destabilization can extend political communication through horizontal civic communication, as well as through vertical communication between citizens». – P. Dahlgren

This week, we’ll look at communities that gather online to help; that use digital organizing as one tool in doing good. Next week, we will look at communities that are involved in making social change happen; in using digital platforms to resist, to protest, to offer alternative structures, policies, practices, and  justice. (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive — but this divide may help us to observe some specific dynamics and practices of the The Helpers and The Change-Makers/Dissidents).

Skepticism vs. Optimism

There are a few approaches to the the idea of the helpers: Knowledge about global problems doesn’t necessarily translate into action; we know so much but don’t have the tools to act. Alternatively, we do not commit to real action but, rather, engage in slacktivism… At the same time, individually, we are very committed to technology that facilitates communication (- forming a community – let’s not forget how close those terms are.) But  we can support movements such as the Arab Spring or a lone Pakistani girl wanting to educate herself (“We Are All Malala”) — merely because now we and the world knows, that is already a form of action, a form of international knowledge community, that can force change locally, nationally, regionally. Some people even talk about the do-it-yourself-foreign policy.

Digital Helpers: Different Shapes and Forms

But then we have Digital Humanitarianism, well explained in these 3 short TedTalks (please view all — you won’t be disappointed!).

Case: Cognitive Surplus, or, Why We Help?

Case: The Red Cross & Digital Humanitarianism

Case: Ordinary People & Random Acts of Kindness

Digital platforms have not only made us aware but digital tools also help in new, creative ways:

  • The crisis mapping tool Ushahidi (great short intros here and here) is perhaps the most often cited example — and extensively analyzed by Shirky. During Sandy,  a similar local initiative, the MIT Hurricanehackers, offered help. Some even call these kinds of mapping efforts new journalism.
  • Projects like Kiva has made micro-lending easy and effective (see and example here). (And mobile banking — while often not a community — provides boost to emerging economies.)
  • Digital tools are giving people voices: One of pioneers is the non-profit Witness is teaching video activism against  human rights violations — and creating new communities (see the timeline of the organization here — it illustrates the development of digital platforms for human rights reporting in a great way.)
  • Free online education opens doors to those formerly very much excluded (as long as you have a computer).
  • Free access to tech tools (open access and open source movements) are certainly also part of the helper category. The WordPress platform of this blog is one example.
  • Mhealth is one of the emerging fields of humanitarian action. Here’s a  very thorough NYT article on how cellphones do good world-wide.

The examples of global implications are endless.

But as the above image shows, people are now part of different publics; they form different kinds of communities. note local effects can be equally important: One of my favourite projects, small but effective, is VozMob, “a platform for immigrant and non-immigrant low wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones, thus gaining greater participation in the digital public sphere, especially for those with limited access to computers.”

And then we have issue-driven communities. Apart from all political-social causes, there are the fan helpers like those of the indie rock star Amanda Palmer: Her goal was to get $100,000 but she raised over 1 million on Kickstarter in less than a month (an act so unusual that it even caused a scandal). Harry Potter fans become “cultural acupuncturists” and use their community to evoke human rights activism. And there are friends of pitbulls (like me) who share rescue information, fundraise, and organize adoptions via Facebook. And so on…

Finally, we have national governments increasingly utilizing open data and digital technology. For instance, Icelanders recently approved their crowdsourced constitution. Finland has  launched a government-civic society partnership project for legislative proposals form the citizens… And here’s a short video depicting examples of e-government from the U.K.

Assignments for this week:

  • Readings from Dropbox: Shirky (Week 6 – total of 4 engaging chapters!)
  • Think of digital communities as ‘helpers’, both in terms of creating awareness and support, but also in terms of enabling via technology, such as the Open Source Movement. Find an example outside of the U.S., describe it briefly (add a link for further information if you can), and share your thoughts (enthusiasm as well as doubts). Can you find examples that are specific to a country/region — and/or what would be translatable also to the US context? Use your readings to give you some theoretical ideas and concepts. POST THIS AS A COMMENT ON FACEBOOK.
  • Comment on someone else’s example, as well.
  • An option: If you do have a chance to go and see the HONY event on campus on Thu 11/5, you can skip this assignment (or any future assignment) and write a short report for the rest of us on FB about the event, with pictures if possible!
  • DUE 11/6 at midnight!

PS: Just FYI Case: HONY (just in case you don’t have a chance to see Brandon Stanton on Thursday, 11/5 on campus…)

{ICM820} Digital Helpers!

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