Learning a lot about what you already know. Vol. “Arab Spring and Social Media”

Considering myself as a reasonably informed member of society, I have picked up on the notion that social media are considered a component of what is called the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Listening a bit more, I have heard that there are conflicting viewpoints on how important social media really were. As Ethan Zuckerman man points our here, well marketable pictures like the one below certainly do not tell the whole story of the role of the “Arab Spring”.

Go to full-size image 

So, from digging a bit deeper into this question, I think the one bold claim that I am willing to make is that social media was not a primary cause to the Arab Spring. When looking at Basem Fathy’s piece from August 2011, I find a pretty compelling argument for that social media was merely a newer and highly powerful way of expressing a movement that was already underway. At least for the case of Egypt, Fathy makes a compelling argument.

OK, so if that is the basic assumption we are working with, we should look for some more data to make this case? Isn’t the story of Mona El Tahawy powerful proof of how social media change the world? Yes, it is and I feel that this is one of those stories that is very well outlines the impact social media can have in individual cases as it disseminates information quicker among the networked and powerful. Of course, I am leaning here on the lessons that Zeynep Tufekci draws from the #freemona project. Also, we must not forget that there were probably a lot more Monas who were never freed and we will perhaps never find out what happened to them. Reading Tufekci’s piece closely makes it obvious that she very well differentiates between cause and effect – the opportunities and exaggerations about the role of social media.

The same is true when reading David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger whose New York Times article mentions those episodes where social media served as a catalyst for what was going on – and that distinction is critical. As Zuckerman mentions in his critique of Gladwell’s argument, for people to take to the streets, they need a compelling reason, something that really moves them. An issue they care about.

It is easy these days to not listen closely and never properly scrutinise the role of the internet in the world. I find that a position that suggests that the almighty internet is changing everything is pretty easy to take, but that does not justice to the complexity of the world. In fact, I hear Zuckerman’s point about “Slacktivism” – real engagement with difficult issues can be avoided when we feel that we stand up for a cause because we just “liked” it on facebook.

So, in keeping with the theme of my prior post, technology is certainly not THE answer for the world to go round and change to happen. As aforementioned cases suggest, it can help facilitate activist communication and actions in a revolution or help an elected official maximize his or her chances to get elected. This does not imply that a revolutionary without a society that yearns for change or a politician with the wrong platform will ever achieve the desired results just because they smartly use digital technology. 

At least I hope so. There is a (growing) place for technology in the world, but as the Arab Spring showed, what we need even more desperately is some leadership.

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Everybody talks about “social media” and the Obama campaign, but what’s it about?

What we in Germany call a “Stammtischgespräch” is the informal, half-informed, half-opined in an establishment that typically serves beer among other things. In a setting like this, I would have felt perfectly confident in talking about about “how important social media was for the Obama campaign”.

Luckily, my course on “Media, Politics and Power” is trying hard enough to enlighten me and understand at least aspect of HOW the campaign used social media to their advantage. Reading the HBS case “Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0” as well as two pieces in the Huffington Post (“The New Organizers, What’s really behind Obama’s ground game” and “Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block”) gave me some insights into what concretely was done and how meaningful the impact of this is.

There are many different themes that these readings touch upon: the questions whether politicians should constantly engage with their constituents over policy (one could ask, why elect them then?) or how the implied constant campaigning that is aided by Organizing for America (OFA) will affect politics in the future.

Bringing the pieces together though, I see at the core of the argument (which all use the Obama campaign as an example) how “organising” can be revolutionised using digital technology. Both Huffington Post journalists focus, in particular, on the “neighbor-to-neighbor” utility that the campaign used to organize all over the country. The case even implies that this tool is what fundamentally gave the Obama campaign the decisive edge over the Clinton campaign in the 2008 primaries (the counterfactual being that he may not have prevailed without it).

Looking more closely at the HuffPo articles, I wonder, however, how convincing that argument is. It takes Zack Exley only 3 paragraphs to get to a point in his description of the program where a field organizer gets together with a recruitable from his community to get her to help recruit other volunteers. He has her contact from a campaign email list and tries to get her on board in a cafe, in person. I wonder, how exactly that supports the central argument of the article? I mean, it’s not like latest technology was much involved in this example or that technology (bar email) has enabled “organising” in a revolutionary way. Of course, this is not to say that the “neighbor-to-neighbor” programme was not an incredibly useful tool for the campaign. In fact, Seth Walls make a clearer point in his piece of how the organizers now have access to highly relevant and targeted data in their campaigning. Especially the reach of the “neighbor-to-neighbor” programme as well as VoteforChange.com speak for themselves. One can see that these developments have been greatly aided by the use of digital technology.

Nonetheless, I am not totally convinced that technology per say has revolutionised organising at its core. In fact, I think – and Exley’s piece picks up on that – that a) very effective management practices met b) a cause that came at the right time (if you read the case, the “Brand Obama” is nicely worked out) and c) technology (however, as I see it in the form of very well crafted databases) came together and help to resurrect the long forgotten art of organising.

Whether technology alone would have provided such results, however, remains an open question to me.

From cement to journalism to yogurt, ha!

Last time I closed with “It matters”. So what has mattered for me a lot during the last…wow, 3 years, is a small business me and my business partner and best friend Paul have set up: bee me yogurt (beeme.co.uk).

Our small corner shop on the famous Portobello Road in London, UK is known to serve the best frozen yogurt that side of the Atlantic (I don’t want to enter this discussion with my American friends, but the stuff here really is too icy for me).

From our little nucleus in Notting Hill we would now like to grow our business. After spending 21 months (yep – we non-tech-entrepreneurs really don’t benefit from the tech craze) and some hard thinking, we are now beginning to provide all cafes, gyms and office spaces we can find with our natural frozen yogurt solution. We provide you with equipment, product, toppings and ancillaries.

So far, so good. I realize I’m a bit whiny complaining about the internet stealing our investors, so I better look at what opportunities does the web offer for our small business? There are probably a lot which we have not explored.

Now, as an entrepreneur in retail always something happens: your employees bring in a life-size Christmas tree into your 90 sq ft store or the yogurt machine breaks just as the hottest day of the year approaches and lines form out the door. In short, you’re busy. We tried to create a bit of an online presence with yogurt-dripping from our elbows, but the result is not really satisfactory:

–          A website that requires urgent improvement: beeme.co.uk

–          A twitter account that only recently came alive: @beemetime

–          A facebook page that also still needs to find the right interaction with our friends: facebook.com/beemetime

Up until today we have many a social media agency and web designer pitch to us and convince us that they would bring us returns in them that far outstrip our investment in them. While I really feel that we should urgently do something, I think it is more key to first understand ourselves what we ought to do. My awesome course on media, politics and power in the digital age at the Kennedy School gives me now the opportunity to do exactly that: write an online strategy for bee me.

As I begin to think about how to do this, I want to address the following points:

1. Define Goals & Objectives

What do we want to achieve with online? After all, you cannot download and install yogurt. Also it will be hard to ship it to you – even with expedited shipping. Broadly I think we want our website to be an information hub for the end customer (i.e. hopefully soon you) but also give our clients (i.e. the outlets that serve our product) a central information hub and – at a later stage – a marketplace to order our products online. All this will have to flow from our business strategy, of course. Hard enough.

2. Identify your Target Audience

As I think about what I learned about the “long tail” and how companies successfully use the internet, it’s become clear to me that we’ll have to be very specific about whom we will talk to. This will also not be quite as easy because how do I differentiate the end consumer from our clients and make sure to reach out to both? In a way, the latter is easier, as café owners and other retail managers are a relatively focused community which we have belonged to for the last 2+ years. How to narrow down the former will be more critical.

3. Analyse the Competition

We know these guys and I won’t list them here – none of the frozen yogurt companies ultimately pursues the same business model as we do, but it’s always wise to look out and see what they are doing.

4. Define our specific steps

This is a bit early to predict what we’ll do here, but I think it is safe to say that a website overhaul needs to happen. Flowing from that, we need to be very clear about how we communicate with whom on both facebook and twitter. I expect much insight from defining our target audience.

5. Conclusion

Paul always jokes that for me every slide or document needs to have either 3 or 5 points. Yes I am weird like that, but also I think it’ll be important to conclude this and make sure the train of thought makes sense.

Cement won’t go down for now. Journalism may – what can we do?

I guess what I learned when dealing with too much cement was how to make a buck from selling grey powder that doesn’t travel far and costs only like $50 per tonne. Commercially, that is pretty interesting.

Now, what is more interesting (I guess) than a very static business model (in 2,000 years nobody had a better idea how to build houses properly!) is how some business models are radically challenged by the digital revolution. Prior to grad school, I came across this question as well as I was able to witness how a large German publisher was wrestling with the implications of developments which seemingly overnight put their existence into question. It’s like running a barber shop until Gillette comes along. Not fun.

So, I try to smarten up about what “knowledgeable people” have to say about this problem. Through my class – yep, I’m trying to systematically learn about this – I stumble upon Clay Shirky’s take: http://bit.ly/TvCR1K.

A lot of me thinks about this article in terms of Dean Starkman’s article (http://bit.ly/Wqv5g4): “FON thinkers [the Clay Shirkys of this world], who emerged only in the last few years, represent a new kind of public intellectual: journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship. Yet, the fact is they are filling a void left by an intellectually exhausted journalism establishment, and filling it with crisp, readable—and voluminous—prose that offers to connect journalism to the technocratic vanguard”.

Shirky’s article is quickly summarized: He does not think that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. But, as they saw it coming, they came up with a bunch of excuses of why that will not be their Gillette moment – various assumptions why a facelift and a mild adaptation to the internet will do the job. They ignored what Shirky calls the “unthinkable”: that their business model in face has become irrelevant. As he raises the obvious question what will replace it, Shirky refers to an interesting analogy: in 1,400 – before Gutenberg invented the Printing Press – the world was vastly different than it was in 1,500 after the Printing Press brought disruptive change. During that process, however, so he argues, chaos was omnipresent. It was a revolution!

We are now in a revolution, says Shirky! And that’s not bad. Through experimentation we will find a solution. The revolution is happening right now and it is chaotic and that is great. And Shirky does not have the answer, but he proposes a different question than “how to save newspapers”: “What can we do to save journalism?”

Lots of words for a few simple points of which the biggest is “I don’t know either”. But, he is right we all ought to be thinking about a very real dilemma. Now, I can’t say I have never cursed about an article or thought a piece in a newspaper incredibly useless, but undeniably journalism fulfils an important function in society that we would miss if it vanished. I’m also too much of a private sector guy not to acknowledge the lacking business model which

In a way I appreciate the article’s honesty: he acknowledges not having the answer himself and suggests experimentation. That resonates with the entrepreneur in me – only when we changed entirely our business model did we position ourselves for (possible) success. But that’s another story.

It’s late now and I don’t have a solution either. But neither does Shirky. I guess we all need to think harder about how we want to do this. It matters.

2000 years old: cement!

To prove that I am somewhat behind the times, I have to make a confession: Whenever I tell somebody that I have worked „in cement“ I get a startled look as a reply. Remarkable given that almost every building in the world is held together by the stuff. Cement seems to be one of the most ignored and most relevant substances in human societies. The “cement” entry in Wikipedia confirms this claim of mine once again:

Beginning with the comprehensiveness of the article I spot a number of omissions that would really help people’s understanding of the industry: First, there is not one mention of how the manufacturing process works – shedding light on the mix of elements that is required and the evolution of cement kilns (from long wet kilns to pre-heater towers today) would help people’s understanding of that factory they may have in their area. Secondly, understanding the economics of the cement business can help understand the bigger picture of a country’s economy. It is, for example, possible to reliably predict construction bubbles or assess a country’s infrastructure via its cement consumption per capita or the total tonnage of cement consumed. Lastly, it is noteworthy that this industry has basically existed since the Roman Empire without meaningful innovation that may now be instilled by start-ups that want to produce cement using sea water.

Looking at the sources which are used, I am not surprised to find scientific articles referred that mostly refer to the engineering side of this industry. However, given the lack of academic attention in the space (you can count scientists in this space on one hand), more up-to-date information as well as research from the big players in the industry should be taken into account (e.g. via the annually published sustainability reports which record alternative fuel usage rates or CO2 emission rates). The vague statements under the rubric “green cements” lack citation entirely which makes their bold and very broad claims questionable.

High standards of neutrality are adhered to in the article which is great to see – especially regarding contentious issues such as CO2 emissions. A minor issue is the reference to a specific cement company in the caption of a photo.

The readability of the article, however, has clear room for improvement. Beginning with the structure of the article, economic and technical points oddly rank on the same level of the hierarchy (e.g. “Curing”, a processing issue when making concrete, and “Cement industry in the world”). While I think that the formatting style manual is adhered to in the article, these issues pertaining the outline of the article are at times really confusing (e.g. the last point about “green cements” which really should be a sub-point of item 2 “types of cement”).

Lastly, illustrations are used very sparingly, but could really highlight some key points very clearly. I am thinking especially of the chemical elements required for cement production, the share of cement in ordinary concrete or even illustrations of the production process.

Overall, I would conclude that the article contains all key information about cement as a substance, if you really look for it.  Having said that, it is structured and illustrated quite poorly which leads to some key information getting lost (for example, the fact that 50% of all CO2 emissions are inherent in the chemical reaction that takes place in the kiln which means that even a perfectly efficient plant could never omit these). Additionally, no reference is made to the economic relevance or economics of cement itself, which I would regard as a major omission.