Wednesday, June 8, 2011

UK: They've Got Internet

I've been to London last December. It was my first time there, well I had a transit there last year but it doesn't count. Anyway, you might be wondering what is the thing that I liked the most there. Is it Big Ben, London Bridge, Madame Tussauds' Museum, The Fireworks in the New Year's Eve, or Wembley Stadium? In fact, what I liked the most is that they have got ... they've got Internet there.

Tower Bridge - London

Well, the internet is all over the world for sure, but compared to here and to all the other countries I visited before, it's only there where you have almost everything online. When I wanted to get a visitor visa, all I had to do is to fill the form online, reserve an appointment, also online, and then I submitted my papers and got my visa in two or three days. What about the Schengen for example? You call a stupid IVR system, a guy answers you and gives you an appointment one month later, or may be two! And they need 15 more days to process your papers and issue your visa later on! I really don't get it. How many person goes to UK compared to those who go to Greece or Czech Republic for example!? Why do you need all this time to get your Shengen while the Brits give you the visa just like that!? To be honest, the Chilean visa was quick too. They sure do not have that advanced system like the British one, but they are internet literate compared to the Schengen states. I sent them all my papers via email, they processed them, called me after a week to set an appointment, and I got my visa on the spot.

Once you arrive to London, you realize that you can use the internet in stuff you never thought it is needed there. You want to know how to go from the airport to your hotel, well there is a website called Transport for London, it has got all the means of transportation from the Tube to ferry boats, it has got their schedules, the functioning and non-functioning lines, everything. You give it your starting point and target destination, and it lists you all the transportations options you have, and how long each trip option will take you. You can even opt-out some methods of transportations or limit it to tube only for example. Google maps are travellers best friend nowadays, but it's not always that useful all the time. And TFL is more customized to London and to the means of transportation there.

I'm someone who never knows his clothes sizes. Mainly, because here in Egypt we are used to the culture of fitting rooms and the helpful salesmen who keeps on getting you different models and sizes till you find the most suitable one for you. There it's not the same, on one hand people are used to purchasing their stuff online, and clothes are no different. On the other hand, it's okey to return something you've purchased back to the shop if it is not okey, which is something next to impossible here. And may be that's why the fitting rooms are not that popular there like they are here, and the salesmen are not that helpful like here. People on the other hand seem to know their sizes by heart, on the boxing day, people were like crazy grabbing stuff off the shelves without thinking!

Wembley Stadium

Being a tourist, you usually want to know what are the best places to go, and there are many websites that lists the important sights all over the world. But I just got the feeling that searching for English places there is much easier than doing the same thing for places in Jordan or Chile for example. It's like the English people are very active on the internet and they populate the databases of those website more than any other people. Also, who ever thinks of going to a Stadium for a tour when visiting a new city. But guess what, Wembley Stadium has got a website for its own, where I scheduled a visit, bought a ticket, while still sitting on my couch. It's this internetish thing that made me go there, where other cities might have even better stadiums but they failed to market them online, and make it easier to schedule a visit for them.

The weather in London changes a lot. I learnt there how to wear in layers, it's not the thickest jumper (pullover) that will make you feel warmer, it's one more thin layer that will do. But also the Londoners are used to check the internet before going out to know what to put on. See, they've even got a website that tells you whether to have an umbrella with you today or not.

We all are connected to the internet, but some countries and some people have it integrated more into their daily lives. And the United Kingdom is one of the best internetish countries to me, at least out of those countries I've been to so far.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Zeynep Tufekci: Collective Action Under Autocracies

Last Monday the prominent sociologist Dr. Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc) gave a lecture in Cairo University about "Social Media and Collective Action under Autocracies". The topic is one of the most over discussed topics nowadays, yet finding a lecture by someone like Zeynep who is specialized in "Social Impacts of Technology" and "Theorizing the Web" is more like finding a needle in a haystack.

Zeynep started her lecture by assuring that even though the credit for the ongoing uprising in the Middle East goes to the people, yet we cannot deny the impact of the methods and tools available nowadays; the Internet and Social Media in our case. However, her stress on this fact didn't stop the debate that took place after her lecture. Being allergic to media-generated terms such as "Internet Revolution" makes some people here insist that it's either the internet or the Egyptian people, as if they both are comparable to each other. Anyway, let's skip such debate as I don't want it to distract you as it did to me somehow then.

A revolution is a collective action. So Zeynep started by listing the challenges to collective actions:
  • Information Diffusion: How information and news are spread plays an important role here. In the second half of the past century it was TV that has the ability to whether spread or censor the news about a demonstration in real time. And that's why it was a classical scenario in coups to occupy the national TV building in the country and announce the new power in charge from there. But nowadays social media also can spread such information and in real-time, and that's why occupying the TV building was never a main goal for the revolts in Egypt nor Tunisia. It's no more that autocracies hold monopoly on broadcast via TV, radio, and newspapers.
  • Shaping the Public Sphere: The nature of flow of information affects how the public think. In the one-to-many broadcast days, people used to get their information from that single source (or few sources). But a neighbour never know how does his neighbour think. He never know whether his neighbour knows how he himself sinks as well. Once more it was autocracies who hold monopoly on shaping the public sphere.
  • Hidden Preferences: As you can see from the above point, people might be living next door and they both might be opposing to the regime, but they never know they are unless they talk to each other about it. And regimes knew this, and the role of their security forces was to use people's fear to make it hard for people to talk to each other about it.
  • Synchronization: One more obstacle is that people synchronize their beliefs and actions. It's hard to be achieved in a one-to-one manner where communication is slow and dangerous, while the in a networked world this becomes easier now.
  • Mass Action: Finally, for the mass-action to take place it needs all of the above, as well as courage, and there was no shortage of that.
From the above you might think that it's either a world with social networks connecting people or an Orwellian society. And you might think that without social networks we'd have never had a revolution. And that's why Dr. Zeynep Tufekci asked: "Does social media give us same results, or may be just faster? Or, it does qualitatively change the dynamics?". Again, I believe the main goal for the lecture was to study the effect of the Social Media while putting aside all other factors in order not to be distracted by them, and because they are out of our scope now. Zeynep then started to discuss what social media changed in more details.
  • Network-Level Effect: As you can see, it isn't a one-to-many information flow any more. It's a many-to-many flow now. She even referred to Epidemiology to find out the factors that affect whether a quarantine (censorship in our case) will work or not. The two main factors here are the speed of transmission and the shape of the network. It was common in old Arabic films to see revolts distributing notes written on pieces of paper, manshourat. Those pieces of paper share many common characteristics with tweets, but if you give it a second look you will find out that a tweet is transmitted from one peer to another much more quicker than those notes. Also geography and other human factors affected the shape of network where such notes were distributed as opposed to the network present now on twitter. So even in a many-to-many network there might exist separate cluster connected by connectors or bridge who once cut might isolate significant parts of that network. Please refer to slides 31, 32 and 33 here for more information how highly connected networks are more immune to censorship. Zeynep then compared two identical demonstrations Gafsa 2008 and Sidi Bouzid 2010, where both of them were distant cities however the demonstration in Gafsa was crushed and isolated while that in Sidi Bouzid resulted in overthrowing Ben Ali. It worth noticing here that Facebook users in Tunisia in 2008 were about 28,000 users while in 2010 they reached 2,000,000 users. And for sure a network of 2M users is most probably more highly connected and information there diffuses qucker and more easily.
  • Field Effect: How your presence within a certain network reshapes your opinion. I had a discussion with Dr Zeynep on how geeks who speak different languages and the early adopters of blogs and social networks tend to be more liberal and less conservative. May be this is due to the field effect too, where they get exposed more to different cultures and societies. But the question here, those who work in Mobile Operators and ISP's are supposed to belong to this category, yet they submitted to the governments orders to cut off the mobile and internet connection during the early days of the revolution. May be we have to differentiate between hackers who are into technology as a hobby and those who are working in the field of ICT and deal with technology as a part of their job? I don't really know!
Social Media also open doors to oral culture. And now even if you don't have good command of language, you still have voice via videos, photos, and oral-language tweets.

Social Media effect is not one way. The slogan for those protesters in Wisonsin was "Demonstrate like Egyptians". What the media used to call Arab Spring is now being spread to Madrid and Athens.

Social Media can help in spreading rumours, but it can also help in correcting itself. Claims of Muslim Brotherhood about empty Tahrir Square on #May27 were quickly taken off their site due to overwhelming contrary evidence via photos, videos, etc.

Social Media increased participation and made the diffusion of information quicker. But this is not necessary a good thing all the time. It's both uniting as well as segmenting people more. The increased participation can risk increased polarization.
Finally, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci said that the collective mood of Egypt now is Optimistic and Proud, with a little Cautious.
You can see the lecture's slides here. An interesting panel was held after the lecture with the participation of Mahmoud Salem (@SandMonkey) and Sarah Abdel Rahman (@Sarrahsworld). They both discussed the current situation in Egypt and shared their comments on the lecture. Al-Masry Al-Youm published an article about the lecture and the panel here. This is a video recoding for another speech given by Dr. Tufekci later on in Personal Democracy Form #PdF11, and it touches base with some of the main points discussed above. This article by Esther Dyson about the illusions of democracy and the internet is not really related but worth reading as well if you have time. And finally, I highly advise you to follow Zeynep's blog, TechnoSociology.